Dominique Ansel Bakery
189 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012 (b/n Thompson and MacDougal; map); 212-219-2773; dominiqueansel.com
Service: Attentive counter service
Setting: Café setting with an enclosed garden in back
Compare It To: Epicerie Boulud
Cost: Pastries and individual tarts $5 or under; sandwiches and salads $9-12
Grade: A for pastries, B+ for lunch
With the opening of the staggeringly good Dominique Ansel Bakery in Soho, one thing is perfectly clear: the best training a pastry chef can have in New York City is to work for Daniel Boulud.
Though Boulud may be from Lyon, France's ancestral home of pork and sausage in its many forms, he has a knack for finding talented young pastry chefs, putting them through their paces, and then letting them spread their wings creatively so that when they do leave him they're confident in their ability to do just about anything.
Francois Payard was the first, followed by Johnny Iuzzini; Epicerie Boulud also shows the Boulud's ability to give a home to serious pastry. And now there's Dominique Ansel, who has opened up the little French pastry shop we've always wanted in our neighborhood. Kathy tempted us with a first look on the first day they opened, but in the week since, we've sampled pretty much everything on the menu.
Check out everything we loved, after the jump.
There are three items you must have if you happen to be there in the morning (always a good time to hit a patisserie). We couldn't get enough of the Perfect Little Egg Sandwich (yes, that's what it's called; $5). A tiny brioche bun holds a disk of lovely creamy steamed scrambled eggs topped by a dab of melted gruyere cheese. They make these to order, so it doesn't come as fast as your local deli's egg sandwiches, but these puppies are worth the wait. It really is the perfect little egg sandwich, though it could use a tiny slice of ham or fried prosciutto or bacon (then again, I always think that).
Then move on to a slice of Gâteau Battu ($4.75), six inches wide, insanely moist and light and buttery. Lightly toasted it becomes one of our favorite pieces of toast anywhere, even without the salted butter and housemade jam that can accompany it (add either for $1.50).
Finally, you can't leave without the DKA (Dominique's Kouign Amann; $5.25). We've long hoped to find a first-class kouign amman in this town, and we finally have one. This king among pastries is so indulgent, it's almost not fair to everything else in the pastry case. It's a crispy, insanely buttery flaky caramelized disk of deliciousness, the butter and sugar actually apparent in the softer center. It's pricey to consider, but hard to regret once you've had a bite.
Ansel's croissants both plain ($3.00) and almond ($3.50) and his pain au chocolat ($3.50), are all exceptionally good, as is his brioche. And a Cannelé de Bordeaux ($3), one of the best pastries when perfect and one of the hardest to execute well, was superb: soft and custardlike in the center, with a crunchy caramelized shell just this side of burnt, exactly where we like it. Cinnamon Rolls ($3.50) were perfectly tasty but not as memorable as many of the other pastries, nor quite as moist as we would've liked.
We'll get to the dessert goodies in a minute, but let's take a healthier break for lunch, when he serves soups, sandwiches, and salads.
Ansel's sandwiches are minimalist, less-is-more affairs that are all about the proper ratio between bread and filling and balancing flavors and textures. I really like the sandwiches because he doesn't try to do too much; you might think the sandwiches from someone who worked on Daniel would be much more elaborate, but it's smartly constructed, with nice little touches.
Like the pickled egg in the Roasted Pork Club ($12), for instance: slow cooked pork shoulder, pickled eggs, tomatoes, Bibb lettuce and spicy mayonnaise on two pieces of thinly sliced sourdough bread. The pork is quite flavorful (if not super-moist) but the sandwich is bright and balanced with the unexpected addition of the pickled egg and spicy mayo. Each element works together nicely, even the toasty char lines on the bread.
A Croque Monsieur ($10.50) has rich, buttery bread, with a hefty serving of ham that gets nicely caramelized on the edge. Grilled ham and cheese grown up! A pressed mortadella and olive tapenade sandwich (Mortadella Panini, $11), is ingeniously simple, the creaminess of the mortadella and the melted mozzarella playing off the saline nuttiness of the olive tapenade.
A Chunky Salmon Salad ($11.50) had chunks of flavorful (but not fishy) barely-cooked salmon and loads of rich homemade mustard-mayo. The ciabatta is giving but has a good chew--cutting this little guy is a challenge, but every element is tasty. (I have noticed that French pastry chefs love to put housemade mayo, and lots of it, on sandwiches. Epicerie Boulud was only the most recent example.)
Another terrific option is the Rustic Chicken Soup ($6.50), made with dark meat, a dark chicken stock, and elbow macaroni. If you really want to taste intense chicken flavor in your soup, order this one. The other soup regularly featured on the menu, a butternut squash soup, was more sweet than savory, with lots of toasted spices; it tastes like roasted-squash with a little cream but isn't too over-the-top rich.
A seasonal beet and goat cheese salad ($9.50) was properly made—big chunks of creamy goat cheese, the vinaigrette with a great fresh tartness—but we have to wonder, is anyone ever really wowed by a beet salad? The obligatory chicken caesar salad was elevated by blanched kale (Chicken Kale Caesar, $11.50) and moist thick slices of poached chicken breast.
Ansel's a pastry chef by training, so he does save the best for last. Two chocolate cakes astound, the Mini-Me Cake ($5.75; rich chocolate cake topped with miniature meringues) and the Double Shot($5; espresso dark chocolate cake.) His Cotton-Soft Cheesecake ($5) is ridiculously light and not at all sweet; it comes on a three-inch piece of sponge cake. And who can say no to a Caramel Éclair ($5.50)?
His Paris-New York ($5.50) is a take on the Paris-Brest, pâte à choux dough filled with caramel mousse and chocolate, with hazelnuts and peanuts on top. Imagine the French pastry version of the finest peanut butter cup you've ever tasted. The Paris Brest isn't exactly light, so offset its heft with Ansel's ridiculously good marshmallows. His marshmallows are unlike any others I've had; they are intensely flavored and have a slightly moist mousse-like texture.
The milky chocolate marshmallow is dipped in a seriously dark cocoa. The fluffy coconut version is like eating a feather down pillow--it almost dissolves in your mouth, like a mousse, without the elasticity and rubberiness that marshmallows often have. We aren't usually huge marshmallow-eaters, but these really impressed. The spicy caramel popcorn isn't bad, either; crisp but not totally coated in caramel, with just the faintest hint of heat.
One note, though; you may have noticed the prices. While on the one hand, the kouign amman is so delicious we'd happily pay $5.25 for it—that's still a five-dollar pastry. No matter how rich and delicious, the Perfect Little Egg Sandwich isn't exactly a full meal, and it's five dollars, too. Ditto the Gâteau Battu, almost $8 when you add both butter and jam.
In fairness, there are ways to bring down the prices; the "Complete Lunch" gets you any salad or sandwich, any cake or tart, and any small drink for $16 (which could chop $5+ off your meal). Still, as Dominique Ansel Bakery starts finding its groove, we wonder if those prices won't come down a bit.
Then again, maybe it's a blessing in disguise—because otherwise, we'd be way too tempted to start our mornings with a pastry and a few of those egg sandwiches.
—Ed Levine and the Serious Eats team