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Steven Wells Hicks is an epicurean essayist and the author of three novels: "The Gleaner", "The Fall of Adam", and "Horizontal Adjustment," all available through amazon.com

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Orleans Dining: Croissant D'or

Cool decor at the Croissant D'Or

…the temptation always exists to forego such conventional fare

and instead create your own buffet comprised wholly of desserts.

It didn’t take many visits to New Orleans to discover my strong preference for the “lower” French Quarter between St. Ann and Esplanade, as opposed to the more commercial “upper” section between Canal Street and Jackson Square. With the exception of Decatur Street and the bustling French Market, the lower Quarter is quieter, more residential and generally easier on all the senses.

It’s far cleaner than the five main blocks of the Bourbon Street zoo. It certainly smells fresher, and chances are your foot won’t stick in something tossed onto the sidewalk. You can actually hear the clopping hooves of the mules pulling the open-air tourist carriages, and if you listen carefully, you can eavesdrop on the drivers as they mangle the true history of New Orleans in favor of yarns, gossip and outright whoppers.

For years, I’ve read and heard about New Orleans being “the most European city in America” (however you may wish to interpret such an open-ended clause), and having traveled a great part of the European continent, I’m inclined to agree. The Euro-vibe notion is particularly true in the lower Quarter, and it’s one of the main reasons The Sensible One and I decided to make our first “second home” on Esplanade before Katrina.

The area features an abundance of boutique hotels (among them Le Richelieu, Soniat House, the Provincial and others) and cozy restaurants (Irene’s Cuisine, Stella!, Italian Barrel and more), but the place I find myself repeatedly coming back to is Croissant D’or, a pocket patisserie on a quiet stretch of Ursulines Avenue between Chartres and Royal Streets.

At first glance, Croissant D’or is little more than a storefront coffee shop catering to the neighborhood’s early risers and shopkeepers. While it looks pleasant enough from the sidewalk, it’s the kind of place people have a tendency to pass by. It’s rarely full. In fact, I’ve been going there for over a quarter century and can’t recall ever having to wait for a table.

The inside is attractive in a Euro-retro kind of way. In a previous life, it was the original home of Angelo Brocato’s Italian ice cream parlor and bakery; at least until the city’s leading gelato maker joined the migration of the city’s Italian population from the lower Quarter into the Mid-City neighborhood. The tile remains Italianate in inspiration, the lights inside the main archway’s rim are evocative of an early 20th Century ice cream emporium, and the white tablecloths contrasting against the dark, utilitarian furniture gives Croissant D’or a classic French bistro casual feeling.

The main room, bisected by the arch, has the counter and bakery cases at one end and, at the other, a large stained-glass wall panel identifying itself as “The Coffee House,” which I gather was either the name of a previous incarnation or perhaps a piece salvaged from a different restaurant that went belly up years ago. It’s a small room, perhaps a dozen tables, but outside several more tables are available on a petite open-air patio with a burbling fountain. Despite intermittent visits by the occasional pigeon in search of a runaway crumb or two, the place oozes charm.

Tucked away out of sight behind the main counter is the very heart of Croissant D’or, its bakery, and its output borders on the divine. The namesake croissants are flaky, delicate and as golden as the patisserie’s name suggests. Rather than list an exhaustive inventory, suffice it to say that if it can be done with, on or to a croissant, you’ll find it there. Savory with sausage, sweet with almond or stuffed with chicken salad and served as a sandwich, the croissants are versatile, but merely the beginning. There is usually a selection of quiches, a kettle or two of soup and sandwiches prepared on small baguettes baked on premises in the traditional French manner.

As well prepared as all the mainstream lunch items may be, the temptation always exists to forego such conventional fare and instead create your own buffet comprised wholly of desserts. A number of years ago, it was said that a major part of Croissant D’or sales came from providing desserts to numerous restaurants around the city. Whether or not that remains true today, I am in no position to say; nonetheless, their inventory doesn’t seem to be as large or extensive as I remember from the pre-Katrina days. I can say without hesitation, however, that Croissant D’or serves some of New Orleans’ most beautifully constructed and presented French pastries.

One of the front baker’s cases is filled with nothing but desserts. Napoleons, casinos, fruit-laden tarts, éclairs, carrot cake and numerous other delectables fight for your attention in an array that can prove to be mesmerizing. When the line at the counter is long enough, I can normally decide on a single choice. This has taught me to wish for short lines, which allow me to select several desserts and justify it by declaring that customers behind me shouldn’t be forced to wait on account of my indecision.

Oddly enough, in the face of all the mainstream items and decadent patisserie offerings, my favorite thing at Croissant D’or is a simple peasant’s breakfast: a cup of black coffee, a modest baguette and enough soft butter to literally slather it. In direct contrast to what the pastries demonstrate in terms of culinary showmanship, there is a straightforward simplicity in the baguette that creates an elegance all its own. Holistically, it provides a most agreeable way to begin a day in a city that portends undiscovered gastronomic treasures running deep into the night.

Within the tight confines of Croissant D’or, there isn’t a lot of people watching. Most people seem content to keep their nose in the morning newspaper and their index finger curled around the handle of their white ceramic coffee cup. For a room with floor-to-ceiling tile walls, it is conspicuously quiet; the anticipated echo is smothered by soft conversation. The end result is unexpectedly disarming.

In the end, there is a fundamental rightness to Croissant D’or. Even though this French patisserie makes its home in a reclaimed Italian ice cream parlor, one gets the sense that the city grew around it, that the gentle European flavor of the lower Quarter is an outgrowth of the place instead of its host.

It was in this room and on the hidden patio where The Sensible One and I began to feel at one with the people in the quieter, gentler neighborhoods in this remarkable city of villages. Now, years later, we not only feel at one, we feel at home.

Croissant D’or

French Patisserie

617 Ursulines Avenue

(Approximately 3/4 miles on foot

from the corner of Canal Street and St. Charles Ave.)

Open Wednesday through Monday, 6:30 am – 3:00 pm

No reservations; Accepts all major credit cards

Telephone: (504) 524-4663

No website

Photo: Copyright SanFranAnnie@flicker.com

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