1294 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10021 (map); 212-744-3100; maison-kayser-usa.com
Service: Friendly, accommodating, and pleasantly French
Setting: A large, bright dining room, spacious but bustling
Compare It To: Le Pain Quotidien
Must-Haves: Smoked Salmon Tartine, Nutella Tartine, Bread Basket, French Toast
Cost: Pastries: $3.50 to $4.25, Breakfast plates: $8 to $14
Grade: B+ (order with a game plan)
I first fell in love with Eric Kayser's breads and pastries in Paris more than twenty years ago, when I believe he had only a single jewel box of a shop. Kayser at the time was the boy wonder combination bread baker and pastry maker, an unusual double even to this day. My most vivid taste memories from my daily visits that week were the staggeringly good baguettes and the moist, light, and vividly flavored financiers.
Now, twenty years later, Kayser has built a bread and pastry empire, with twenty locations in Paris and 80 around the world (even one in Singapore, the unmistakable sign that a food purveyor or chef-restaurateur is engaged in empire-building; see Pizzeria Mozza). After a false start in Los Angeles a few years ago (the wrong partners Kayser says—it's always the wrong partners, isn't it?), he has come to America with a vengeance. His new large, bright, and cheery initial location on the Upper East Side is open morning, noon and night, and two more locations are set to open next year in the Flatiron District and midtown.
Can you get truly great French bread from an international chain? Our friend David Lebovitz sure thinks so:
I love his pain aux cereales, a lot. And his baguettes are reliably good, unlike other places where the quality changes all the time. I know how hard it is to replicate baked items and make them consistently good (all his breads are baked in each bakery in Paris, not at a central commissary, like some other places). His financiers are excellent and he makes some of the best chocolate chip cookies I've ever had, even better than many in America, which is rare in France.
We already got a taste in our first look, which was promising indeed, and Andrew Coe has given some of the bread his once-over. There are three menus: breakfast, a combined lunch and dinner, and pastries, and we've decided to systematically eat through the whole menu, starting with breakfast. We descended en masse, six hungry serious eaters in search of a perfect omelette, croissant, coffee, and a simple tartine with butter, among other things.
We startled our friendly server with our order: "Could we have the entire left-hand side of the menu (with two exceptions which we thought were duplicative)? She cheerily replied, "Oui, but of course," and we were off and running (or should I say eating).
Kayser and his cohorts wisely use his extraordinary bread (specifically his tourte de meule, a large loaf made mostly from sourdough) as the foundation for most of the breakfast menu. Sometimes this works brilliantly, like when they toast a piece of bread and layer it with Smoked Salmon ($14) over a schmear of crème fraîche, nestle a perfectly cooked, just runny enough sunny-side up egg on top, and dot the whole thing with fried capers and shaved onions. Magnifique!
Other tartines were not so magnificent. The Egg & Sausage ($12), the closest thing on the menu to an American breakfast sandwich, had way too many things going on: sweet sliced sausage, overcooked scrambled egg, caramelized onions, and basil pesto, all cloaked by fontina cheese that turned leathery from overcooking. Likewise overcooked scrambled eggs also top the Egg & Asparagus ($13) and Egg & Artichoke ($11), and the other toppings don't stand a chance against them.
But a sweet tartine topped with Nutella ($9), bright strawberry preserves, and sliced strawberries was the perfect child's breakfast in adult form. We felt a little guilty liking it so much, but not enough to keep us from cleaning our plates.
Bread pudding French Toast ($12) is deftly executed; the bread is crunchy and brown on the outside and tender inside, not mushy or soggy. It's only mildly sweet, too, not a sugar bomb at all. The fresh fruit and cream it was topped with was an unusual and lovely touch.
The baked egg dishes, called cocottes, were also hit and miss. The egg in our Smoked Salmon cocotte ($14) was tender, if not especially creamy, and it featured the same winning fish and fried capers as the tartine. But our Parisian Ham ($13) fared less well, with way overcooked eggs (including a chalky ball of yolk) and a bread topping that comes with over-melted Gruyere.
Since this is Eric Kayser we're talking about, we also ordered the Viennoiserie (pastry) basket and the Daily Bread baskets ($10 each). The bread basket is, as you would expect, extremely serious, a mix of baguette and slices of larger loaves, and would make a great breakfast on its own. It comes in a perfect little burlap bag with some butter and preserves.
Less successful was the Viennoiserie. With one brioche, one croissant, and one pain au chocolat, the burlap bag that held these three items should have been fuller. $10 is about the cost of those pastries put together; shouldn't we get some added value for the burlap? A "basket" suggests abundance, which we loved in the bread mix. We would have liked the same feeling in this one. As for the pastries themselves, the brioche is as tender and rich as can be while being bread, not cake; the croissant and pain au chocolat could stand to be more buttery, both for flaky texture and flavor.
About halfway through our meal, something clicked, and we got a much better sense of what Maison Kayser is trying to be. This isn't a space designed to be the perfect French cafe. It's really part of an international machine, that like Le Pain Quotidien or Chipotle, is meant to be replicated again and again. The aim isn't perfection in all things; it's tasty, crowd-pleasing food.
At times this works very, very well. The bread, which we've sampled half a dozen times, is consistently excellent. The brioche could really be a breakfast on its own. And the smoked salmon and Nutella tartines are wonderful. These things can and should be your morning meal.
The less successful dishes feel like what a French person thinks Americans want to eat for breakfast. So there's sausage and egg, lots of egg, and melted cheese where there doesn't need to be. The tartine portions are enormous, really best shared, and are so piled with ingredients that each require their own cooking that the dish as whole just can't come together. With more restraint, fewer components, and perhaps a more French attitude, they could be much improved.
Eric Kayser is a brilliant bread baker and a wonderful patissier to boot, so there's no doubt that if you order wisely you can have an incredibly satisfying breakfast that is half French, half American, and all Kayser. The misses on the menu feel like they are due to Kayser feeling his way on to the American breakfast foodscape. He's an ambitious fellow, and a mighty talented one to boot, so our guess is he will get on firmer, more consistent footing breakfast-wise in the months to come. Here's hoping his incredibly aggressive expansion plans him the time to more organically develop his cooked dishes.