The sidewalks of Soho are seasoned by the pounding footsteps of thousands of tourists and locals alike, filtering into fashion boutiques like the tributaries of a constant river. Soho is, first and foremost, a shopping district, and the Broadway strip is a haven for lazy shoppers who needn’t so much as think as to forge forward in a Zombie March under the sheer influence of brands the likes of Zara, Aldo, H&M, and more. It’s too easy to ping-pong straight along the avenue, completely missing the quieter streets to the left and right – and overlooking Dominique Ansel Bakery at the end of Spring Street. Balthazar, Dean & Deluca, and other big-named (unfortunately over-hyped) dining establishments usually manage to suck in the strays that wander from the main shopping belt. Needless to say, famished and bleary-eyed shoppers don’t wander very much, and certainly not far enough.
That suits me just fine. While every other bistro, restaurant, and chichi café is packed, the five blocks of walking distance from Broadway means that Dominique Ansel usually ends up being relatively quiet no matter the time of the day. The best pastries would still be sitting in their displays.
It’s a little ludicrous that I’ve even been there thrice, at every opportunity that I had found myself in Soho – reliable food does that to me. Its consistency may have something (or everything) to do with how Pastry Chef Dominique Ansel used to work for Daniel Boulud at his 3-Michelin-starred restaurant, Daniel. You can be assured that the quality is strict, and the pastries no less stunning than his star-studded background.
The DKA, which sounds like a cross between an underground criminal syndicate and a weapon of mass destruction, was at the top of my list. Dominique’s Kouign Amann ($5.25) looks like an actual explosion of liquid gold happened in the tiny confines of a muffin cup, got flash-frozen in the nick of time, and was tipped over unto a plate and served.
All right, I’m romanticizing it a bit much.
In truth, it looks like a gnarly, misshapen, extraterrestrial lump of space rock. There, I said it. On second thought, that description may be more accurate, since it is out of this world. The DKA is the lightest, crispest version of the Breton classic, insanely buttery, moist, and burnished a gleaming brown in its caramelized shell. This may be the only Kouign Aman (coo-ing ah-mohn) that hasn’t blinded me by sugar overload, and that I would want more of.
Then there’s the Cannelé de Bordeaux ($3), made with Tahitian vanilla and deep, dark Caribbean rum. They get popped out of their individual copper moulds coloured a rich dark-brown – not burnt! – thoroughly caramelized with a thick crunchy crust and a soft, honey-combed interior. Such is the most magnificent and painstaking mastery of a Cannelé that I could only have dreamed of having outside of France. They’re best fresh, preferably before noon, before they turn dull.
On my second visit, I had the Pain au Chocolat ($3.50), just because it was almost the size of my face. It’s humungous. Rip it down the middle, and you’ll see that its airy layers bloom up and outward so extraordinarily it almost looks like an architectural feat, or some work of intelligent design, in which Dominique Ansel is the creator, of course. Clearly, any croissant-based pastry from the bakery is top-notch. It’s like they’ve somehow conquered Butter, convinced it to do their bidding in the form of perfect pastries.
I’m not done.
Their bite-sized Madeleines (10 for $4.25, 20 for $7.50) are impeccable – baked fresh with each order, arriving warm and aromatic with lemon zest, crisp and feather-light. The emphasis is on ‘baked fresh’, in three minutes to be precise, and another seven or so for the crust to set. I’m glad to say that Singapore’s DB Bistro at Marina Bay Sands has similar, if not exact, Madeleines of comparable ethereal lightness that are also made to order, which shouldn’t be surprising since it’s under the Daniel Boulud name anyway, supposing that all his pastry chefs use the same madeleine recipe and are expected to reproduce each batch with uncanny likeness. There’s no need to head over to NYC for this one.
There are patisseries of course, and they’re all reasonably good according to friends, who had the Religieuse (a two-tiered profiterole named after a nun’s hat) and a tender-soft cheesecake creation whose name I can’t recall.
I tend to hit the bread pastries in any bakery, the croissants, the pain au chocolats, and the pain d’amandes. They are what I think will set the standard for the establishment itself, and for all other pastry selections. Getting the simple, yet exceptionally intricate pastries right will, somehow almost accurately, speak for the rest.
Dominique Ansel’s Bakery was especially memorable for me in this respect, and was not just my preferred pit-stop after braving the massive crowds in Soho, but also – hands down – my favourite bakery in the Big Apple.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
189 Spring St
(between Thompson St & Sullivan St)
New York, NY 10012
Tel: (212) 219-2773