Don’t you just love croissants? The multiple buttery and flaky layers give the illusion that the pastry was meticulously assembled by a baker with tweezers, though the reality of the construction is fascinating, too. Even though it seems quintessentially French, the crescent-shaped roll was invented in Austria in 1686 and was originally made from bread dough.
The origin story is crazy: When Austria was at war with the Ottoman Empire, some bakers heard somebody tunneling under their bakery and informed the authorities — and it turned out to be Turks! They commemorated the incident by making a pastry in the shape of the crescent that graces the Turkish flag.
The French didn’t get ahold of the pastry until the early 20th century, at which point they transformed it completely, leaving only the distinctive shape. The Gallic croissant is made by rolling out alternate layers of butter and pastry, and repeatedly folding them over and re-rolling. The result is a puff pastry that is twisted into a crescent shape at the last moment, before being popped in the oven.
No neighborhood offers more varieties of croissants (pronounced "kwa-saahnt," with no "s" at the end) than the West Village, which, since beatnik days, has been associated with all things French. In fact, the classic West Village hideaway restaurant was French, and a smattering of old-fashioned croissant bakeries still exist there, in addition to some newcomers. One morning, Eater editor Hillary Dixler and I set off on a croissant binge, seeking to taste every one we could find, and even tried one that is slated to hit the neighborhood soon. Here are the ones we sampled along with our tasting notes. We reveal our favorites at the end, if you want to skip ahead.
Bonsignour — Located just off 8th Avenue near the northern verge of the neighborhood among stately townhouses, Bonsignour is a small quaint bakeshop that’s a great place for celebrity sightings, and it prides itself in its croissants. Priced at $2.75, those pastries are a smidgen over 5 ½ inches and puffy as hell, so puffy in fact that the shape becomes more square than crescent. They are perhaps a little too soft, but produce a nice buttery aftertaste. 35 Jane St, (212) 229-9700
Tartine — Not to be confused with San Francisco’s famous institution of the same name, this small bakery was founded by expats from the French maritime region of Brittany. As a result, the cramped interior is filled with pictures and sculptures of lighthouses. The croissants ($2.50) are compact (4 ½ inches) and as rugged as a rocky coastline, with a crisp, deep-brown pellicle on the outside and moist rich interior. "This begs for butter and jam," Hillary intoned. 253 W 11th St, (212) 229-2611
Le Pain Quotidien — The homegrown Belgian pastry chain that started out on the Upper East Side has grown to function almost as an upscale Starbucks, providing a much more comfortable well-designed setting. The croissant ($3) was a pleasant surprise, not at all what we’d feared given that it was baked in a remote commissary. The thing was dark brown and flaky, 6 ¼ inches in length, with only the faint suggestion of a crescent shape, but ultimately not quite flavorful enough to get first place. 550 Hudson St, (212) 255-2275
Starbucks — There are at least two Starbucks in the designated region, so we figured it was incumbent on us to try the place’s croissant ($2.45), made by its baking wing, La Boulange. The clerk offered to heat it up, but it was an offer we refused, figuring it would be unfair to the other competitors to eat the pastry warm. It turned out to be stone cold, so that Hillary noted, "The butter has begun to solidify." The interior of the 7-inch croissant — shaped like a straight line — was dense and almost chalky. 518 Hudson St, (646) 486-0524
Patisserie Claude — Founded in 1983 by a baker also from Brittany named simply Claude, this tucked-away pastry shop was taken over in 2008 upon Claude’s retirement by his long-time assistant Pablo Valdez. The 5 ¼-inch croissants ($2.35) are a bit more Parisian-style than Breton, a little softer and more buttery, with a prominent "nose" that sticks up above the pastry. Rumor has it that the taste is ramped up by a final brushing of butter before the dough is slid into the oven. 187 West 4th St, (212) 255-5911
Dominique Ansel Kitchen — It’s a wonder that this West Village newcomer even makes a plain croissant, given Ansel’s penchant for unbridled creativity, but it does. Oddly, it’s not crescent shaped, but has a magnificent loft to it, rising high above the plate. At 7 inches, it was also one of the bigger examples we tasted, and was soft as a pillow in a luxury hotel. The interior was fine-textured, but the croissant ($3) was a little bland in the long run. 137 7th Ave S, (212) 242-5111
Amy’s Bread — Located nearer 6th Avenue than 7th Avenue, this branch of a well-regarded bakery that originated in Hell’s Kitchen and creates its croissants in Long Island City is slightly out of the boundaries of our target area. We wanted to include it anyway. The 5 ⅜-inch pastry had a striking appearance and a nice flaky texture, but it was a little dull and dry tasting. The price was $2.95. 250 Bleecker St, (212) 675-7802
Maison Kayser — The West Village branch of this French pastry juggernaut hasn’t quite opened at the corner of Christopher and Bleecker in an old Army-Navy store, but we hopped over to the Flatiron branch to see what its croissant ($3.50) was like. It was exactly 6 inches long, light as a feather, perfectly symmetrical, and baked to a very dark brownness like something from Bien Cuit. The interior was mainly hollow, the crust brittle. Altogether an arresting pastry, but not necessarily a satisfying one. 326 Bleecker St
It was a neck-and-neck horserace until hours later, when I re-opened the leftovers bag and tried each pastry after a certain staleness had set it. With benefit of hindsight, I’d have to say Patisserie Claude was the winner, with Tartine a very close second. Runner-up was Le Pain Quotidien. If I was to need a pastry to make a croissant sandwich, I’d go with Dominque Ansel’s or Bonsignour’s.