Classically trained and hailing from a line of pastry chefs and restaurateurs there is no doubt that Francois Payard is a talented man – he has spent time in Michelin three-starred kitchens, helped to open Daniel, and won Beard awards himself. Having had a great breakfast featuring luxurious chocolate waffles and the best almond croissant of my life (along with somewhat bland service) at Payard’s Las Vegas branch back in September, when I was looking for something “to-go” en route from Midtown up to the M-60 bus stop in Harlem I just so happened to note Payard’s New York bistro fit the bill perfectly - Plenty of fresh pastries and portables that would keep well on the bus and while I waited for my plane at LaGuardia.
Walking up to the small shop the first thing that struck me was how quaint it appeared – doors open with people sitting inside drinking tea or cocktails while eating small cookies, a back dining area with all the bustle of a French bistro, all casual yet refined. The second thing – the pastries, what else? Stretching both sides of the room were cases full of wonderful looking breads, macarons, cakes, cookies, croissants, and tarts – none of which looked bad and many of which looked superb. Browsing the selections and taking some pictures I noted a large man who looked somewhat like Djimon Hounsou pointing at me from the back – odd, I thought.
Wanting a savory to go with my sweets I noted a nice looking Croque Monsieur in the case and asked for it to be prepared – “this is a full service cafe, sir, you’ll have to take a table so a waiter can bring it to you” was the response I got. “Well, I wanted it to go so I could catch the bus – I’m on my way to the airport.” Exasperated, “Oh, well I guess we can prepare it for you then” as he placed it in the toaster – yes, in the toaster. Further browsing the selections while I waited I asked a couple more questions which were met with somewhat put-upon answers, but despite the poor service I persisted – under no time constraints I’d have likely just walked out.
Approximately 10 minutes later my Croque was finally done baking and as I took another picture of the interior Mr. Hounsou came up and said “sir, I’m going to have to ask you to stop taking pictures or leave – we don’t know who you are, you could be an ‘agent’ for all we know.” Having no idea what to make of this I put my camera away and having already paid my bill I made my way to the street. Honestly, there is no excuse for the “service” I received at Payard – but thankfully the food almost made up for it.
Consuming the Croque first as it was still piping hot I must say that for a pre-prepped version it was quite excellent with two buttery slices of brioche slow toasted housing an ample portion of salty ham. Covering the dish a hefty pile of fresh Béchamel that added a smooth creaminess. While it is difficult to compare a Monsieur to a Madame, I’d say this is easily the best portable Croque I’ve tasted, though not quite as wowing as that at Bouchon or the absolutely transcendent version at the Butler and Chef in San Francisco.
Following the Croque I opted for something sweet – a Raspberry Jelly Donut. Deciding on this one over the more decadent and filling cream custard version, the crispy and surprisingly unoily beignet was perfectly formed and quite light with mild hints of vanilla pulled to the forefront by a dusting of sugar. Inside the doughy shell, the most incredible raspberry compote I’ve ever tasted – and a whole lot of it. Absolutely stuffed from front to back and top to bottom, the pure essence of raspberries gushed forth as I bit in and each bite seemed to yield more than I’d expected to be in the entire pastry. While many may want to brag Donut plant, I’m gathering Payard doesn’t use any “unnatural” ingredients either and the results are far more impressive.
Finishing off the pastries for the time being I decided to have some chocolate – this time in the form of a Flourless Chocolate Walnut Cookie. Like a dense and chewy brownie mixed with decadent walnut fudge, this rich little item was another winner and is actually featured in Food and Wine Magazine’s recipe section. Clearly using a high quality cocoa and a plethora of fresh nuts I will definitely be incorporating this into my arsenal of “quick dishes that impress friends and neighbors” in the near future – like Keller’s Bouchons this is a dish that is vastly more impressive than one would expect from the simple recipe.
Hopping on the train and making my way up to Harlem I thought back on Payard and was still sort of annoyed by the service issues – not “aloof” like the one in Vegas, but actually rude and arrogant. So it goes, I thought. Off the train and onto the M-60 I went – almost as hilariously “out-of-this-world-compared-to-Ohio” as the 4 train to the Bronx during a Yankees game, I have to admit I liked it more than my supershuttle experience and would definitely do it again. Making great time I arrived at LaGuardia almost 3 hours before my plane was to take off.
Wandering the small airport both inside and out I was unfortunately stuck in a boring terminal without much to shop, browse, or see. After calling a few friends and family (and having my flight delayed 30 minutes due to a “luggage latch”) I was seated near the window waiting and decided to try some more of my delicacies – this time the powdered sugar citrus brioche. Pulling apart with ease and similar to the pistachio citrus version I’d had at Yountville Bouchon Bakery in February, I actually found Payard’s to be superior (though not as good as the maple bacon brioche at Bouchon NY.) Buttery and clean, dissolving on the tongue with hints of both lemon and orange – a great piece of bread that would pair well with tea, but likely not coffee.
Taking home three macarons for my mom (noted to be quite inferior to the others from my trip, per mom, but still “better than anything we have in Toledo”) I figured I’d end my New York food extravaganza while still in New York and I opened up the box containing my final Payard selection - Saint Honore with egg bavarois and whipped cream filling. A buttery pate a choux biscuit topped with three small balls of pate a choux and loaded with fresh whipping cream plus bits of crunchy chocolate and caramel I first wondered where the Bavarian cream was – until I took a bite. Ostensibly using the choux balls as decoration, the three buttery bits were actually used to house the eggy bavarois which was buried beneath the whipped cream – a taste that when sampled as a whole actually resembled the texture and flavor of a creamy vanilla ice-cream, but warm – in many ways a warm and portable profiterole with more nuance and texture. Brilliantly done and quite sweet I finished the pastry approximately 10 minutes before boarding my flight (aka, about 15 minutes before I fell asleep) and awoke just under 2 hours later back home – a great way to finish a great trip, thought I do regret that eating the pastries in the airport is more pleasant than being in the restaurant itself.