It was still dark outside when I woke up. Murky blue light filtered in through the lightwell, dimly illuminating our New York City flat. Jay lay fast sleep beside me. I got up, got dressed, and slipped out of the building. I was a girl on a mission.
Briskly, I walked down Houston Street, crossing from the East Village into Soho and praying I wouldn’t be too late. From a few blocks away, I spotted the line. Already?, I thought to myself. Hurriedly I placed myself in the queue and breathed a sigh of relief.
I was at Dominique Ansel Bakery… and I was about to get me a Cronut.
If, for some reason, you haven’t heard of a Cronut, then why are you reading this blog? Just kidding. Really, though, this hybrid croissant-doughnut has “rocked” the “food world,” infiltrating “mainstream pop culture” and effectively “going viral.” According to the Cronut 101™ page (yes, really), chef Dominique Ansel spent two months developing his proprietary recipe for laminated, fried and filled dough. Since then, it’s enjoyed nearly hyperbolic popularity, with people going to very great lengths to obtain one. People lose their shit for this baking breakthrough; think five-hour waits, black market prices, and three-week advance reservations. It’s also launched legions of knock-offs — and subsequent copyright infringement lawsuits. What, did you think this was some kind of joke?
It was an absolute given, then, that I’d spend one of my mornings in NYC in pursuit of this popular pastry. On a Wednesday morning, at 7:30 am, I was lucky number 13 in line. Already, there were staff on hand to control the unruly mob [of sleepy tourists with nothing better to do on a weekday]. The employees would periodically make announcements: we would enter in small groups and could buy two Cronuts max; this month’s were flavored with morello cherry and toasted almond cream. About an hour before doors opened, a person donning a chef’s toque used shiny silver tongs to hand out tiny, freshly-baked madeleines: a deliciously light treat, with delightfully crisp edges. This amuse-bouche was followed by small plastic cups of juice, which made me feel like I was running a marathon (except I’d been standing around instead of engaging in physical activity and I was drinking fancy lemonade instead of Gatorade). This also made me feel like I was a mentally unstable person, waiting an inordinately long amount of time for a $5 treat and receiving charity/pity in the form of free samples.
At 8:00 am sharp, none other than the man himself opened the doors to the establishment. By that time, the line had grown and stretched around the tennis court by the shop. As part of the first batch of customers entering, I paused to gaze meaningfully upon Dominique Ansel’s noble visage. He smiled noncommittally back at me. I prayed that some of his brilliance and success had rubbed off on me through our shared moment in time. Satisfied with our exchange, I went inside — and after half an hour, I had the goods.
Though the front of the bakery is all business (minimal, white, and narrow), the seating area in the back is lovely and leisurely. I found a table in their outdoor garden space and lovingly opened up the sleek paper box containing my pair of Cronuts. I then proceeded to take no fewer than three dozen photos of the same damn thing. In my defense, however, a Cronut is a thing of beauty. The perfectly circular ring of glaze, the glossy almond topping, the fat crystals of sugar clinging onto the sides — even the rogue spot of pastry cream smudged atop one of the rounds — all of it was just so photogenic. I dissected one, easily lifting off some layers to reveal the fillings underneath. Would it taste as wonderful as it looked?
The answer is a resounding YES. From the airy, crisp outer layers, to the tender, subtly sweet center, to the wonderfully flavorful fillings, the Cronut was a triumph. I was skeptical that the real thing could merit such hype, but Monsieur Dominique Ansel proved me wrong. I sat there, in his enchanted garden during the twilight hours in New York City, and enjoyed every blissful bite. I may have even closed my eyes and let out a tiny moan of happiness, Dove chocolate commercial-style. After eating half of a Cronut, I packed up the rest for Jay and his family (because, it appears, I do have some self-restraint), who were equally impressed. Jay, who is the objective food critic I aspire to be, was visibly taken aback by how delicious it was. Rarely does he even tolerate a sweet, let alone approve of it — but the Cronut clearly won him over. It was that good.
Wait… did I say I had self-restraint? I take it back. I couldn’t help ordering a few more items from the bakery, having waited so long for some of Dominique Ansel’s pastry magic. It was there that I tried my first canelé, a classic but infamously difficult-to-make French dessert. This version is perfect for those who don’t want to overdose on sugar: a rum-scented, milky custard encased by a faintly smoky, nearly burnt caramelized crust. Its plain appearance betrays some serious complexity.
Canelé originate from Bordeaux, but it appears Dominique Ansel acknowledges no geographic boundaries. His other smash hit, the humbly-named DKA (Dominique’s kouign amann), is a classic specialty of a different Frech region: Brittany. I’d already tried kouign amanns in their place of origin, as well as Belinda Leong’s killer version, so I was excited to taste his take. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it until much later in the day, so the characteristically caramelized and flaky layers had lost some of their crunch. All the same, it was an excellent pastry, especially alongside a warm cup of coffee or tea.
Though I ended up loving the bakery’s bestsellers, I still left wanting. There was simply so much I wanted to try — stunning pastries on display, sparkling viennoiserie on sale, tempting savory items splayed across menus. I wanted to eat it all, knowing and trusting completely the mad genius of Dominique Ansel. The next time I’m in New York, without a doubt, I’ll be back in line, waiting for his shadow to darken the doorstep and let me in.
Dominique Ansel Bakery
189 Spring St, New York, NY 1001