I’m not an early riser. I have a rule against stepping outside my Paris apartment without first indulging in my café au lait. But after close to a decade of living here, I also know that if you’re craving a croissant, you have to go to a bakery well before noon to taste the city’s iconic breakfast staple at its most exquisite: still slightly warm from the oven, the irresistible aroma of freshly baked dough wafting upward while you’re pulling the whole thing apart, layer by buttery layer. So on a recent morning, I rose early and set out to find the city’s top pastry.
Others have gone on a quest for the perfect croissant, but always landed on swanky Left Bank addresses. I thought it was time to give the Right Bank its due, now that a new generation of young bakers have set up their ovens.
To start, I didn’t have to go far from my apartment in the lively Bastille quarter. In fact, I went right next door to Au Levain du Marais. I’ve long appreciated this bakery’s croissant for its extra-crisp ends—the best part—while the delicately layered center was soft and tender. It was a promising first stop, but there was more tasting to be done.
Heading up the hill toward Montmartre, where shaggy-haired Gontran Cherrier is known for spicing up baguettes with curry and rye bread with miso, I was surprised to find his croissant resolutely unadorned. The distinct layers, more shards than little flakes, had more of a crunch than the dainty bite I had hoped for.
An equally obsessed friend sent me to a busy corner of Rue Paul Bert for La Pâtisserie by Cyril Lignac, whose owner is a spirited presence on French television. Here, the horseshoe-shaped croissants were lined up right next to the register. I ripped off one crisp end and let the wisps of warm, yeasted puff pastry melt in my mouth. This one stopped me in my tracks. Was this the end of my quest?
Never one to shy away from being thorough, I made a beeline for Du Pain et des Idées, in the scenic Canal St.-Martin neighborhood. Christophe Vasseur’s rustic breads are among the best in Paris, and I was curious to see how his artisanal croissant stacked up. This specimen was more substantial than the others, with a sturdy crust and hearty interior—too dense for my Proustian ideal. But I couldn’t resist a crusty loaf of my favorite pain aux céréales for later.
When I arrived in the charming Square Trousseau, I was worried I wouldn’t have room for the hefty croissant at Pâtisserie Boulangerie Blé Sucré. One look at its crackly glazed crust, one bite into the tender interior, and I was enchanted. What set it apart? A masterful hint of French sea salt in the dough. Satisfied that I had found the ne plus ultra of croissants, I strolled out of the bakery, vowing to return the next morning, leaving a trail of crumbs in my wake.
David Lebovitz is a former pastry chef and the author of The Sweet Life in Paris (Broadway). Follow him on Twitter @davidlebovitz.