The blessed baguette – finding Paris in Seattle

Since our February trip to Paris, I have been in hot pursuit of the perfect baguette. I had not expected to fall in love with the baguette, but alas, when one is in “Grand Paree…,” these thing happen.

As rice is to Asians, black beans are to Guatemalans and potato chips are to Kentuckians, the baguette is to Parisians.(Lest you think I am joking about potato chips, I was invited to a potluck in Louisville where there were no less than 6 different options for potato chips.)

In Paris, bakeries are everywhere: in the subways, the Metro train stations, on the streets. And, they are affordable. In Seattle, a good artisan bread runs between $3.50 and $5.50. In the most expensive city in the world, the staff of life is but 1-2 euros or around $1.50-$2.00. In fact, baguettes are subsidized by the government so that even the poorest can afford them. How’s that for government regulation! Here in the U.S., if you suggested such a thing, you’d go on a fascist watch list.

I knew it was a tough job when I undertook it, but I was determined to find the baguette with the perfectly crunchy crust, the nearly melt-able light center and delicious taste that makes the baguette omnipresent in much of Paris. I had my favorite artisan breads of other genres – most of them more of an Italian como-type loaf:  a thick break-your-tooth chewy crust with a sour, slightly heavy interior. I do love those.  I had never really appreciated the baguette before my trip.

I began close to home with Belle Pastry, a classy, plainly decorated French pastry shop in Bellevue. They have the best orange/mint water you can fill up on and also specialize in home made chocolates. Sadly, I found the crust of the baguette lacking in crunchiness and the center was a bit airy. It was as if it had been whipped up with a bread machine. It tasted good, but it was in the suburbs, so what did I expect?

On the top of Queen Anne hill, just north of downtown, there is a newer French bakery called La Reve. I was very excited to try it because it is close to my work and I fantasize about retiring there. Completely surrounded in sticky baked goods. No, jk, as the kids say, the fantasy is about retiring in a sweet house on Queen Anne looking over Puget Sound, not so much in the bakery. La Reve  is situated in a turn of the century house on the Ave and I was hopeful. I bought a baguette – and as soon as I got it into my hands, I squeezed it to see how it felt. “OMG!” I thought. “Not only am I a coffee snob, I am a baguette snob too!” Eating expensive food has not improved my disposition. But, this did not deter me for long. One bite and I knew. It was just OK. The ambiance of the place was sweet, and they had some killer-looking twice-baked croissants (nothing I had seen in Paris, mind you) but it was a bit salty, and it made too much of a mess when I ate it. This is not to say that you won’t find me there from time to time – it’s a sweet place to “hang.”

Speaking of salty, the next baguette I tried was from La Boulangerie in the Wallingford neighborhood. (They have no site to link to.) It was much like the Belle Pastry baguette, only way too salty. They have been in business a long time, so there must be many Seattleites who love them, which is to say that you might really dig those salty baguettes. Give them a try if you want.

Next came Grand Central and Macrina, all award winning and fabulous places to eat. Their baguettes? Pretty good in a pinch, but a bit too dense to be authentic. It is killing me to stay focused on the blessed baguette when these places have so many other fabulous eats — so I will slip in a little tip or two. Macrina has THE BEST CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES ON THE PLANET. Grand Central on Eastlake has huge photos of wheat fields which makes me feel so very happy. And they have voluptuous cinnamon rolls. Oh my.

So where do you go? The #2 best Parisian bakery in Seattle according to the Parks-Becks is Bakery Nouveau. Situated on California Avenue just south of the junction in West Seattle, it is a small and mighty baguette nirvana. It has a sort of double crunch crust like one of our favorite bakeries on the Rue Clair in Paris, and has received awards in Paris itself. The best thing about this kind of baguette? There is no need for a big pat of butter – it stands alone. Definitely worth the trip.

Not to prolong the suspense any longer … the best authentic Parisian baguette in the Seattle area? The Tall Grass Bakery in Ballard. Not only is the baguette perfect in every way, it is organic. I knew I was in for something good when I walked in and asked for their baguette and there were none to be seen. I thought, “drat! they sold out!” No – they keep them away from the door so they stay warmer. Are you sold yet? Because they are an organic bakery and use many grains in their breads, I expected it to be a northwest-granola-loving version, but it was not. The crust is both slightly chewy and crunchy; the bread itself is soft and authentically rolled, and the taste is perfect. It is not inexpensive, but would make any Parisian proud.

One tip: go to Tall Grass Bakery , which is located on 24th Ave – not the main drag – Wednesday through Sunday between 7am and 3pm. Although they are open other days, Cafe Besalu is next door and you MUST grab an apple chausson and ham and cheese croissant from there as well. The chef studied in Zurich and their pastries rival anything we had in France.

There are other Paris-wannabe baguettes I have tried, but I am getting hungry writing about all of this, so it’s time to say “au revoir.” (kiss kiss)

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