The father of modern French pastry is often considered Marie-Antoine Carême, a chef in the early 19th century who baked Napoleon's wedding cake, pioneered vibrant window displays in the patisseries of Paris, and is widely credited with inventing nougat and meringue. Carême, in turn, was only advancing the innovations of French and Italian bakers during the Renaissance, who were working from ideas brought back to medieval Europe by Crusaders who'd seen layered filo sweets like baklava in the Middle East.
Point being, French pastries have been evolving for hundreds of years. And while the food world these days is always hungry for the new, there are some culinary genres that need no improvement.
It's a fact Belinda Leong banked on when she opened her much-anticipated traditional French bakery, B. Patisserie, in lower Pacific Heights. Though other hyper-stylized patisseries have opened in the past year — the candy-hued Tout Sweet in Macy's Union Square, and the hip, spare Craftsman & Wolves in the Mission come to mind — Leong is sticking to the basics, and serving excellent pastries and vienneoise like you'd find on the streets of Paris.
The front of the shop's overflowing, specially designed marble pastry case is dominated by an artful pile of kouign amman, Leong's signature and one of the best things you'll eat this year. Kouign amman (pronounced "queen amann") is a croissant-like treat from Brittany — the difference being that instead of just folding butter into the dough before baking, as they do with croissants, chefs also fold in a healthy (or unhealthy) amount of sugar. The resulting dessert has a light sweetness and a soft, sugary center; it's a shining example of Leong's deft hand with dough.
But it's not the only one that shows off Leong's talent. The shop features an incredible roster of vienneoise, a French term for baked goods like croissants and brioche made from yeasted dough that also includes sugar, fat, or eggs (not to be confused with treats like cream puffs and éclairs, which belong to a whole other category; that's the French for you). The passion fruit-almond bostock might not be the sexiest pastry in the case — just a round of brioche dusted with sliced almonds and powdered sugar — but its rustic appearance hides an intense passion fruit flavor thanks to a soak in infused syrup. The 10-hour apple tart tastes like fall in the French countryside, with a nutty pastry crust topped with almond strudel and filled with slow-cooked apple confit inside.
Then there are the glorious croissants. The plain butter croissant is a textbook example of the form, and so enjoyable it makes you reflect on the tragedy of all the doughy, tasteless croissants you've eaten in your life. Leong's tastes of the best butter, with flaky, soft layers that peel away and melt on your tongue. It's so simple and good on its own that it almost makes the hazelnut-chocolate variation look obscene by contrast, but the interplay between bittersweet chocolate and hazelnut paste makes it one of the better filled croissants I've ever had.
Leong's talent with pastry comes as much from training as natural instinct. She spent time at Gary Danko and Manresa and staged with the legendary Pierre Hermes in Paris before co-opening this spot with San Francisco Baking Institute co-founder Michael Saus, who bakes the crusty baguettes and bread used for open-faced sandwiches. Their reputation preceded them; for the first few days of B. Patisserie's existence in February, they'd sold out of their inventory by noon, but they've risen to meet demand.
Which is a good thing, because it's a pleasant place to sit and eat. The room is decorated like a European cafe, with large windows, marble tables, and big gilded mirrors on the walls. Half of the airy room is taken up by the production kitchen, and watching the pasty chefs forming sweet delicacies back there is reason enough to eat in. The kitchen is set apart from the dining room by a specially created, temperature-controlled marble countertop/display case, so the cakes and mousses stay cool as they wait to be eaten.
And the pastries are where the real fun begins: It's hard to know how to choose, they all look so good gleaming there under the glass. The chocolate-vanilla choux is a cream puff on steroids: a good two inches of sweet pastry cream, visibly flecked with vanilla beans, sits between the two halves of choux pastry (the kind used for profiteroles). The cream is just sweet enough, and studded with crunchy, chocolate-covered rice balls to add some texture variation. The whole thing is a study in subtlety and satisfaction.
In the mood for chocolate? There's a pastry for that, the chocolate caramel toffee mousse, which has a shiny coat of ganache concealing a dome of bittersweet chocolate mousse, interspersed with toffee chips and caramel and set on a flourless chocolate biscuit. Each bite is different — sometimes you get more chocolate than caramel, or crunch down on a toffee chip — and eating it is a joyful experience.
But the truth is, I never had a bad or even mediocre dessert there. Vanilla cake is rich with vanilla mascarpone and a thin layer of jam-like cassis. The lemon tart is perfection: creamy, almost puckeringly sour, with little bits of lemon peel confit to add texture. And the grand macaron is the prettiest dessert I've seen in a while — two macaron halves conceal a rose crème mousseline inside, ringed with raspberries, and topped with a rose petal.
Lest you're concerned with staving off the inevitable sugar crash, there's Four Barrel coffee and savory, open-faced tartine sandwiches that come with a side salad. Try the woodsy mushroom/goat cheese version, or, if you're really set on letting go, the flammenkuche, which is blanketed with bacon lardons. At $6.50 a pastry and $11 a sandwich, none of it comes especially cheap — but it beats a plane ticket to Paris any day.