I'll be the first to admit it: That's a pretty audacious claim. Our fair nation has no shortage of first-class bakers, whether French, French-schooled, or otherwise, who can turn out one fine pastry.
That said, the best croissants that I have had in this country—better than any I have had in New York, or in Boston or in San Francisco, and rivaling those I enjoyed in Paris itself—are from The Little Chef Bakery in Princeton, New Jersey. From this tiny storefront just a few yards from the university campus, the Haitian-born Edwige Fils-Aimé (or "Pouchon," to friends and regulars) turns out croissants, éclairs, cakes, and desserts that rival anything served in the city.
But here, I speak primarily of his pastries. A good croissant, like a well-fried egg or memorable vanilla ice cream, is an excellent reflection of a chef's ability: Nailing the basics generally indicates true skill. And hand-shaped, classically formed, and nearly always oven-hot, Pouchon's are beyond compare.
Have I tried every croissant in this country? Of course not. But comparing Pouchon's to the reputed Manhattan greats, I continue to give him the edge. Yes, New Yorkers—I have tried Balthazar, Bouchon Bakery, City Bakery, Ceci-Cela, Almondine, Patisserie Madeleine, La Bergamote, Financier, Le Pain Quotidien, Panya Bakery, Tisserie, and Patisserie Claude (my own Saturday morning tradition). Many are respectable; some are superb. But none quite rival the bronzed, flaky perfection of Pouchon's croissants. Honestly, as a New Yorker, I wish they did—but for now, I will concede the Best Pastry title to New Jersey. Unlikely though it may seem.
The Little Chef
Princeton is the kind of town small enough that every resident knows every dining option. Ice cream? Halo Pub, Bent Spoon, or T. Sweets—and that's all. Downtown pizza? Iano's or Massimo's—and that's all. Coffee-drinkers go to one of two places: organically friendly Small World or student-packed Starbucks.
Or so I thought, until a blind date with a guy who appeared to have other ideas. We'd agreed to meet for coffee, and as we walked up to Nassau Street I asked his preference—preparing, in truth, to judge him on his answer. "Small World or Starbucks? Small World, I assume?"
"What about the Little Chef?"
The who? That name didn't register in my Princeton lexicon, and I wasn't about to follow a stranger out of town in the middle of winter. But just behind Nassau, tucked down a tiny alleylike street, was a beautiful closet-sized bakery that I'd passed a number of times but never stepped inside.
While I'd glanced at the cake display and refrigerated case, I'd never noticed the coffee menu—nor the four comfy seats up front, nor the pastries in a warming cabinet on the side. And I'd never noticed, either, that only one person waited behind the counter—a small Haitian man, often meticulously filling eclairs or bent over a fruit tart, with the confidence of a guy who clearly ran the show.
My first time inside the store, I shyly ordered a cappuccino and watched him expertly pound his espresso machine into action. Lavazza coffee, whole milk, foamed just right and poured into a cup sized with European restraint. One sip had me sold. This was better than Small World already.
But the real revelation came when I returned for breakfast that Sunday. I had always thought of the Little Chef as a dessert place, for intricate lemon tarts or chocolate mousses. In a wooden cabinet just next to the register, however, nestled rows of deeply bronzed pastries still warm from the oven. At ten in the morning, at least half had already disappeared.
I pulled out the tray, and the Little Chef handed me a plate. I carefully chose a croissant and sat down. The smell was incredible, buttery and rich. The pastry was a beautiful deep brown, caramelized all over; it was firm but not hard to the touch, with gentle layers that held together without flaking or falling away.
Until I bit into it. A perfect croissant does not yield; it shatters. The outer, mahogany layer forms a paper-thin shell that's easily cracked but fights you for a moment—guarding the rewards underneath. There's a kind of infinity in a perfect croissant: one pastry infinitely divisible, first into the sections formed by the roll of the dough, but further, into the dozens of soft, supple layers that peel off when torn, each melting into the next, yet each holding its own tissue-thin integrity.
This croissant was buttery but not greasy, just sweet enough, texturally perfect. The outside, once bitten and breached, left flakes that I dotted with my pinky and just had to eat. The inside was improbably tender, pastry that nearly melted on my tongue.
I finished my croissant. From behind the counter, the Chef was watching me with a slight smile. I turned to him, my mouth hanging open. "I think I need another."
And from that moment, there was no other breakfast for me.
Edwige 'Pouchon' Fils-Aimé
As I returned each morning—as close to the stroke of eight, when the oven-hot pastries appeared, as I could—I was greeted each day with a smile from the man behind the counter. There was only one chef at The Little Chef.
And the story of Pouchon is that of the archetypal American dream. He left his native Haiti in 1986 for Manhattan and soon took a job at La Boulange, then a Midtown bakery, which schooled him ruthlessly in the art of classic French technique. There he learned to shape perfect pastry and whip up a delicate mousse, stack beautiful Napoleons and coax butter and chocolate into anything he pleased.
After years refining his art, Pouchon headed down to Princeton for a brief stint at another bakery before striking out on his own. The Little Chef quietly opened its doors in 2004, with a modest but stunning display of pastries, cakes, and more—and nearly every morning since, Pouchon has waken up before dawn to craft the day's wares.
The raspberry croissants would generally go first, I learned.
Along with the ham-and-Gruyère that the chef turned out only on weekends.
Next the pain au chocolat would fly out of the cabinet, generally while still so warm that a single nibble would unleash a stream of molten Cacao Noel.
Then the almond and apricot-walnut and plain croissants, and the crumbly, buttery scones, and the intricate peach stars, and Edwige's creation du jour—perhaps a cranberry-ginger brioche, or a coconut toast, or a crisp pain au raisin. Rarely did a single pastry survive until the afternoon.
While there's little room to linger, many customers do—stopping to chat with Pouchon, occasionally in French, often with kids in tow. Parents drink their coffee while their children toddle around with pain au chocolat and huge chocolate-stained grins. And on many mornings, Fils-Aimé's wife will wander in with tiny Teighan: the Little Chef's own little one, whose picture stares down from every wall.
Room for Dessert?
A true pastry devotee, I rarely began my day without a visit to the Chef, but equally rarely moved out of my croissant-cappuccino repertoire. As beautiful as his tarts, cakes, and treats appeared, these sweets rarely appealed before ten in the morning. But my frequent breakfast companion, with a notorious appetite, would often indulge—a lemon tart, a Napoleon, a tiny chocolate mousse.
On Valentine's Day, we caught the early train down to Princeton for the only breakfast I know that's worth traveling 50 miles. The Little Chef clapped his hands as we walked in. "Good morning! Good morning!"
Two cappuccini. Two raspberry croissants. Then a chocolate, then a ham and cheese. A little girl ran up to us and waved with a chocolate-covered fist. Her mother ushered her back—and stole a bite of her pain au chocolat. And then ordered one herself. As I sipped my second cappuccino, the Chef appeared from behind the counter with a surprise in each hand. "Happy Valentine's Day!"
Two heart-shaped cakes. One chocolate-hazelnut, and one raspberry—whose bright pink mousse was as light and sweet as the chocolate was impossibly rich.
Not every breakfast ends with dessert. But at the Little Chef, breakfast itself is reason enough to celebrate.
The Little Chef
8 South Tulane Street, Princeton New Jersey 08544 (map) 609-924-5335