Is it ever a bad day to wake up in the Marina?* Those views, that bay, those clean streets, all those shiny happy people running and Frisbee-ing along the green…and now, a charming French bakery, too! Quel bonheur!
Just opened last week on Chestnut near Fillmore, Le Marais Bakery, named after a particularly lively and well-loved district of Paris, is already becoming a locals’ hangout. Fueled by Stumptown coffee, the bakery features a small but well-selected spread of Paris-worthy pastries, tarts, croissants, and breads. It’s the lifetime dream of owner Patrick Ascaso, a native Frenchman who grew up just outside Paris and has lived in San Francisco since 1995.
Working in finance in New York City in the early 1980s, he was appalled at the lack of quality baked goods. “Frozen croissants!” he said, remembering how the few bakeries that served croissants back then simply baked off a pre-made, frozen product. Chatting with a friend, Ascaso suggested that maybe they should give up Wall Street and open an authentic French bakery instead. Not surprisingly, the friend declined, and Ascaso put his dream on hold for a few decades.
Now, however, that dream–and its proper, made-from-scratch croissants, which are already as good, if not better, than my previous favorites at Sandbox in Bernal Heights–has come to fruition. Ascaso is the money-and-vision man; the baking he leaves to the professionals, including well-tattooed baker Justin Brown, freshly transplanted from Bien Cuit and Roberta’s, both in Brooklyn, and pastry chef Phil Ogiela, recently the pastry chef at the Mission’s Dandelion Chocolate, after stints at Aziza, Fifth Floor, and Elisabeth Daniel.
Asked about his favorites, Ascaso mentions that while the plain croissants are great and selling “like hotcakes,” his particular pride is the bakery’s chocolate-banana croissant, something you won’t find anywhere else.
“I am partial, because the banana croissant is my childhood dream… As a child, that croissant didn’t exist, but bread, banana, and chocolate was what we got at three o’clock. So this has been my dream for the last 30 years: That if I open a bakery, I will do a chocolate banana croissant.”
Brown, who makes both the breads and “viennoisserie,” or yeasted pastries, rose to the challenge and created a banana-added version of his already-lush pain au chocolate.
Talking to Brown on a recent morning, I put in a vote for my favorite French pastry, the chausson de pomme, a half-moon turnover filled with melting apple. It’s in the works for September, he assured me, when apples are in season again. Until then, I’ll start the morning with his rich pain aux raisins, a swirl of enriched croissant dough rolled around lots of soft, sweet raisins and a lick of eggy vanilla custard.
Starting around 10AM, the first round loaves of bread–country levain, whole wheat, rye–start to emerge from Brown’s oven. They’re made from a natural sourdough starter, rising slowly over 24 to 72 hours to develop the flavor of the grain.
Later in the day, for the casse-croute crowd, the case fills up again with pastries, the purview of pastry chef Phil Ogiela. In his individual fruit tarts, figs, blueberries, and raspberries are buttressed by overlapping half-moons of peach, translucent and glowing. Rounded, stumpy bouchons, like smaller, more elegant muffins, come in breakfasty flavors–blueberry, banana–in the morning, moving on to carrot cake and a brownie-like chocolate in the afternoon. Gateau Basque (rich shortcrust pastry baked around a filling of pastry cream and apricots, and a longtime favorite of Ascaso’s) and pain de genes (a buttery almond cake that’s flourless and thus gluten-free) are his signature pastries right now; there’s also a delectably light and citrusy lemon pound cake, developed by consulting baker Rosemary Winter.
During his time working in the kitchen at the Moroccan restaurant Aziza, pastry chef Ogiela discovered the surprising affinity between dark chocolate and the North African spice blend ras el hanoot; he’s currently perfecting a chocolate financier (a small, brick- or oval-shaped cake) spiced with ras el hanoot. He dreams of tender, shell-shaped madeleines coming hot out of the oven every hour, brushed with a tart lemon syrup. (While at Dandelion, he perfected a cornflour and lavender madeleine, which “tasted like the world’s best cornbread, to me,” he said, as well as one flavored with almond and cardamom.) “I’m thinking of doing some free-form tarts, not necessarily tarts in a tart shell,” but more rustic and galette-like.
Perhaps there’ll be a souffle program, where locals will know to drop in at a certain time each day for sweet or savory souffles. Since the pastry case isn’t refrigerated, the recent heat wave has precluded much in the way of buttercreams and layered cakes, which Ogiela hopes to experiment with in the future. “I’d like to do dacquoise. I love meringue cakes, layer cakes…I have so many cakes!” He pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through an album of cakes: a shiny, deep-chocolate mocha cake; financiers in salted caramel and chocolate-orange marmalade; a gluten-free pistachio roulade (a light, rolled spongecake made from nuts, egg whites, and sugar) filled with pistachio mousse and glazed with chocolate-mint ganache.
It’s all evolving, in a narrow but pleasant little storefront, designed by Sean Quigley and his team from Paxton Gate, using bundt pans as lighting fixtures, and floors of French limestone, of the kind originally used for millstones. And while the Bay Area’s seen no shortage of new bakeries opening this year, so far Le Marais looks like a keeper.
*Besides, of course, Oct 17, 1989.