I am obsessed with b. Patisserie, a new bakery/cafe in my lower Pacific Heights neighborhood. I sit at the computer inventing excuses to walk over. When I’m out, and pass within two blocks of its pearly white facade and big front windows, I start talking to myself. If I dropped in every time I had the opportunity, I’d be eating three pastries a day. And then I’d have to go on a diet and not eat any at all.
My real problem is Brenda Leong’s kouign amann. (She’s the b. and this $4 pastry is pronounced “queen a mon”). It’s an ethereal roll made of buttery puff pastry laced inside and out with caramelized sugar. Other bakers make them and sell them at high-end food stores and coffeehouses, but none achieves Leong’s magical fusion of butter, flour, yeast, sugar, and air. The crisp layered pastry barely holds together and each flake dissolves on your tongue whispering of butter. They are my ideal pastry, verging on savory and all about texture. (I felt the same way about La Farine’s morning buns so many years ago–many knock-offs since, but none as sublime.)
If they happen to be available, a cellophane bag of pain d’amann ($6), the supremely crisp trimmings from the kouign, distills its best attributes into skinny fingers of pastry. I’ve only seen them once, but I would never pass on a bag of these.
Frankly, I’m not much of a French pastry eater, but Leong’s airy, petit, not-too-sweet iterations tempt me ($5.50). Each expresses the distinctive style of a pastry chef who understands the ultra importance of mouth feel and the excitement of an unexpected flavor.
The only way to optimally eat a precise rectangle of Vanilla CaramelMillefeuille–thin, crunchy layers of puff pastry with caramel crèmepâtissière piped in between–is tipped on its side so that the cream doesn’t squish out as you put fork to it. I know this because the server thoughtfully instructed me. The purposeful bitterness of burnt caramel adds the frisson. Likewise, a demure Chocolate Vanilla Choux (a cream puff) gets a crunchy wallop from chocolate rice pearls and croutons of Breton butter cookie. (By the way, the groundbreaking crunchy eclair at Craftsmen and Wolves is very interesting if you are a cream puff fan.) Vanilla scents mascarpone, ganache, sponge cake, macaron, and glaze in a small slice of Vanilla Cake set up by a thin layer of tart, boozy currant jam. Each pastry has a focal point.
The kouign amann (a pastry originating in Brittany with a Celtic name) is the star of the viennoiserie (yeasted pastry) selection, but the sexy aroma of passion fruit syrup gives a round of almond brioche, called a bostock, its kick. The sad fact about b. Patisserie is that you might miss something mind expanding if you don’t try absolutely everything.
So, my strategy is to go for lunch and have an open-face wild mushroom, goat cheese, and braised leek tartine ($10.50) on a very thin slice of freshly baked levain made by Leong’s partner, Michael Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute. Light, bright flavored, and juicy, this sandwich leaves just enough room for a pastry–or two. This way I figure I can work my way through the whole pastry case without resorting to between meal gorging.