I've spent much of my life on a quest for the perfect almond croissant. It originally was a case of lost love, specifically my love for the almond croissant made by a French baker who owned a stall at the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, Australia. At a certain point in my childhood, the baker, who had always been grumpy, also got lazy. He stopped making his almond croissants from the day-old regular croissants, an effort that had saved them from staleness by stuffing them with almond paste and covering them with almond slivers and re-baking just long enough to make the whole thing toasty and caramelized at the edges. Instead, he started selling an abomination of a product, all flaccid dough with custard filling and a few paltry pale almonds on top.
In the quarter-century since the loss of that original almond croissant, I've come across few worthy replacements. Certain patisseries in Paris, of course, deliver. New York's best almond croissants are a little more restrained than the one of my childhood, a little less laden with almond paste and slivered almonds and powdered sugar, but still, they suffice. The most surprising (but perfectly perfect) version came from a bakery in Key West, Florida, which has since burned down. Melbourne now has bakeries along Brunswick Street in uber-trendy Fitzroy with versions that match the original pretty much exactly.
The almond croissant at Pitchoun!, the new French bakery and cafe in downtown L.A., gave me some hope that I'd found a version here like the one I'd been seeking. There are very good almond croissants in Los Angeles, some that are arguably better than the one I long for. The one at Pitchoun is long, and just a little floppy, weighed down by almond paste and almonds and sugar. Just how I like them.
In the end it isn't exactly right — its edges aren't quite brittle enough, the taste of the croissant dough itself lacks stretch and finesse. But it's pretty close.
You could say this about a lot at Pitchoun!, which opened in April across the street from Pershing Square on Olive Street. So much here is almost just right. In the scope of its ambition, the project most closely resembles Gjusta, the bakery/sandwich/take-away place across town in Venice that has people wobbly-kneed with desire and admiration. Here is the long counter that drags your attention in a million directions, here are the sandwiches and the salads, the many varieties of breads baked in-house, the multitudes of desserts, the chicken liver pâté in a jar you can take home, along with a freshly baked baguette to spread it on. And yet, Gjusta has the image of the moment exactly right, from its rough-hewn looks to its rustic fare.
Pitchoun! has gone in almost the opposite direction. Although it's a one-off, it already looks as if it's trying to fit into the malls of America with its bright orange signage and accents, and the silly hats it requires its employees to wear. There's an exclamation point in the name, for Christ's sake (“pitchoun” translates roughly to “kiddo,” though I'm not sure that explains the !). It's a colorful, somewhat Disney-esque take on the iconography of the French boulangerie, and while the quality of Pitchoun!'s product is superior to the chain sandwich and salad shops around the corner, it fits right in with those places aesthetically.
Despite the glossy stylings of the place, owners Frédéric and Fabienne Souliès are earnest about what they're trying to bring to the streets of downtown L.A. Frédéric Souliès trained as a baker in his native France, and his wife, who grew up in Monaco, came from a family that had a flair for Mediterranean cooking.
Between them, along with the giant kitchen full of cooks that hums with activity in back, the couple are putting out an astonishing variety of food. There are homemade jams in jars, pâtes de fruits in cellophane packages, ratatouille and bistro-style leeks in to-go containers to serve as sides with dinner, and giant breakfast and lunch menus.
They make their crepes in the true French style, less bombastic than you may be accustomed to, folded into a triangle and served with your choice of sugar, jam or Mont Blanc. The crepes themselves have a lacy feel and almost a floral taste, as if there were a few drops of orange flower water added to the batter.
Every day, the glass case that greets you when you walk in is stuffed with close to 20 different pastries, including those almond croissants but also madeleines, macaron, tarte tropézienne, the little sugar-topped puffs known as chouquettes and a stellar kouign-amann.
Pitchoun! does not bake the finest baguette in town — it's not quite crackly enough, its interior isn't as stretchy as it could be. It also offers an organic baguette, which has a prettier shape and costs a bit more and is better on the crackle front. So much here is just one step shy of being truly remarkable.
Except for the sandwiches, salads and tartines, which are hard to fault. Perhaps they'll seem a little dated to those of us hankering for the hipster rusticism of somewhere like Gjusta, but I'm quite besotted by the duck prosciutto, sheep's milk cheese and avocado Southwest sandwich here, served on a poppyseed baguette. A tartine of country bread topped with roast beef, hard-boiled egg, arugula, leeks, capers and gribiche sauce really does taste like something you'd get in Paris, something you'd be hard-pressed to find in L.A.
I'm often annoyed with new-school variations on the salad niçoise, wherein chefs decide that seared tuna sashimi is a better choice than the traditional canned, but Pitchoun! splits the difference, topping the greens and hard-boiled eggs and olives and peppers with canned tuna but also a few slices of high-quality seared stuff, as well as a few pungent anchovies.
Service seems to still be working itself out, as is to be expected with such a large, complex operation. The menu plus the bakery counter plus the grab-and-go case (which holds sandwiches and salads to go, as well as jarred desserts and dinner sides and drinks and pâté) is so overwhelming that you end up standing agape trying to figure out what to do while the counter folk look at you expectantly and no one really knows where the line is or how the procedure goes.
Even once you've figured it out, things tend to go awry. I'd love to tell you, for instance, how the quiche is here, but I can't because the two slices I ordered to-go never made it into the bag I was given.
The staff here is trying hard. But it's a lot to figure out.
The coffee is not third wave. Pitchoun! doesn't really fit in with the image we have of Los Angeles (or even Paris) in 2015. But much of what the Souliès do they do very very well. And everything else comes pretty close.
PITCHOUN! | Two stars | 545 S. Olive St., downtown | (213) 689-3240 | pitchounbakery.com | Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Sat. & Sun., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. | Sandwiches, $8.50-$13.50 | No alcohol | Street parking and nearby garage parking