Wednesday, March 25, 2009

La Boulangerie

Tarte Normande
La Boulangerie, $4.50

The need for carbohydrate comfort first steered me into La Boulangerie several years ago, when a movie I was desperate to see at the theater across the street sold out just as I got to the ticket window. Fast forward to now and I can't remember the name of the movie, but I can recall every bite of my consolation treat, a meltingly tender and spicy baked apple encased in a buttery croissant--a chausson au pomme.

Today, the knowledge that a chausson was waiting just down the street got me through a routine physical with a smile on my face. Sadly, by the time I got to La Boulangerie, my chausson had gone home with somebody else--probably while I was still reading a tattered Popular Mechanic in the doctor's waiting room. Although it was once a much larger business, La Boulangerie is currently a one-man show, and patchy selection is perhaps inevitable. Owner/baker/barista Xon N. Luong fires up the ovens at 5am daily (except Monday when the shop is closed and Luong allows himself to sleep as late as he likes), but things can and do sell out. (Some online reviewers have also reported inconsistent service and cleanliness, but I've never experienced these issues myself).

Scanning the cases for a chausson substitute I couldn't for the life of me remember: is it tarte tatin that I like....or tarte Normande?

Turns out it's not tarte Normande ($4.50). A beautiful thing with a crenellated crust and a filleted apple fanned out on top like a hand of cards, it was as golden as an ingot--but nearly as dense, weighed down by almond paste and a gummy glaze. It was just too heavy for my tastes, in terms of both texture and flavor.

A buoyant and balanced almond croissant ($2.70) was just the opposite, teetering between flavors and textures like a master tightrope walker. The crisp exterior cracked into shards (not that dust that just blows away when you try to eat it), tethered together by the chewier inner layers. The sweetness of the perfectly-proportioned almond paste seam was enhanced by the salted butter in the pastry.

As ephemeral as they are, Luong's pastries are also reminders of the enduring, widespread, and oddly quotidian ripples that emanate from political conflict. Chaussons, tartes, and croissants all belong to a culinary tradition introduced to Luong's native Vietnam in the 19th century under French colonial rule. Luong himself picked up the skills at age 13, when his father died suddenly, leaving Luong in charge of the family bakery. Although he has had many other occupations, baking helped Luong to cope with the upheavals of the Vietnam war and his later relocation to Seattle, where he has been baking (and telling fascinating true stories) at La Boulangerie since 1995.

La Boulangerie
2200 N 45th Street
Seattle, WA 98103-6904

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