Days before Dominique Ansel’s plans to open Dominique Ansel Workshop, which debuts on July 16 as the chef’s flagship bakery and first NYC opening in six years, the crowds had already begun to gather. While it’s the storefront that commands attention, with an arched entryway that’s framed with an Instagram-ready cascade of flowers, and bold, egg-yolk-yellow signage that can be spotted down the street, it’s the sculpture in the window that captures the soul of the shop: Two coils of wheat-colored paper, a sculpture by the Vancouver-based paper artist Justina Yang, that reveal themselves to be cross-sections of a croissant.
For the Cronut inventor who launched to worldwide acclaim by combining croissant dough and doughnut fillings, the Workshop, located in the Flatiron District at 17 East 27th Street (between Fifth and Madison avenues), is a continued celebration of croissants in all their forms — traditional, experimental, and even sculptural — while also focusing on the laminated, leavened dough of viennoiserie at large.
“What was important to me was to make some little trick to make each of them more exciting in terms of flavors, texture, and presentation,” Ansel tells Eater. “It’s a part of the pastry world that hasn’t been explored in terms of creativity.”
The dedicated croissant section is the first and largest section on the menu, and lists the seven varieties that are arranged on the open countertop. A savory olive oil option ($4.75), with a touch of confit garlic and a sprinkling with rosemary, imagines the flavors of a focaccia with feathery lightness. A multigrain croissant ($4.75) with quinoa and malt barley has the surprise of an occasional seed. The pain au chocolat ($5.75) envelopes three batons of chocolate instead of the traditional two. “We wanted to bring a twist without being offensive,” the chef said.
Even the plain option feels anything but, with a velvety mouthfeel owing to French-imported ingredients: flour from Les Grands Moulins de Paris and Isigny Sainte Mere butter, whose old school hand-churned technique remains drives prices to about 50 percent more expensive than high-quality American butter.
“Those two ingredients are the most important for me,” Ansel says. “The flour is much richer in gluten. It’s a little firmer and absorbs more water.” Water absorbed by the dough rises as steam while the pastry bakes, creating airy pockets in a dough laced with butter that has a higher-than-average fat content. And at each of his four locations (the original location in Soho, plus two permanent locations and one pop-up in Hong Kong), chefs slice into the day’s freshly-baked croissants and send snapshots of what is referred to as the honeycomb, so that Ansel can analyze patterns in the baked dough to see what, if anything, needs to be adjusted for next day’s batch.
This being Ansel, desserts are aplenty. His personal favorite? The hazelnut praline coffee triangle ($6), topped with a glistening brown dome that covers a dollop of almond frangipane. His wife and business partner, Amy Ma, is partial to the geometric riz au lait ($5.75), a dough cube filled with arborio rice pudding and huckleberry jam. “Huckleberry is a unique fruit which I didn’t know about before coming to the States. It doesn’t exist in France,” Ansel says. “It’s almost like a raisin flavor.”
Apart from an American-only-in-concept breakfast sandwich (a croissant filled with spreadable Boursin cheese; $12.50), the savory menu leans extremely French: a tricolor cherry tomato in tarte tatin ($12.50), quiche lorraine ($11), and gougere puffs filled with comte and mozzarella ($5).
Rather than indoor seating, a storefront showroom with stark black marble countertops called the Test Kitchen will host talks, classes, and collaborations. But after hours (and sometimes before), the space becomes an experimental lab for the chef to test both new recipes and technologies, such as the 3D printer that he learned how to use by watching YouTube videos, and the thermoformer that he uses to create pastry molds in shapes that the industry has yet to produce, like the cup mold for the espresso cup-shaped tiramisu that he produced several years ago. “You can’t always wait for someone to make it for you because sometimes it’s complicated or impossible,” he says. “I like to make it myself.”
Then there’s the commissary kitchen. Encased in glass and on full view, it produces pastries for both of Ansel’s New York locations. “It’s a place where we create, where we produce — almost like Santa’s workshop,” says the chef, alluding to the bakery’s name. “You can see the magic happening.” Since the 4,000-square-foot space also houses the bakery’s corporate offices, the chef has designated this location as his flagship.
“It’s always scary to start something new,” he said. But with that comes the chance to start anew post-pandemic. After opening a Hong Kong location in January 2020, he shut down in London and LA, and white-knuckled his way into keeping the Soho bakery afloat throughout the entire pandemic. Working into the wee hours with only one or two chefs, “it was like starting a business again,” he says. “You have to pay thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands in rent that’s piling up, and there’s zero business.”
For the new opening, Ansel tapped into his half a million Instagram followers to drum up some buzz. A social media contest dubbed First Batch gave three dozen or so winners the chance to preview pastries like the brioche bressane, an oversized puff saturated with orange blossom water.
“I’ve never had a brioche like that,” said Jereme Pangandoyon, a winner from the contest who has had every flavor of Cronut since trying his first one about 8 years ago. “The items keep you guessing.”
For now, the number-one taste tester is Celian, Ansel’s 14-month old son, born six weeks early on Mother’s Day in the peak of the pandemic, who receives a weekly pain au chocolat. “I bring him a chocolate croissant to him once a week and let him have a little bite of it,” he says. “ If you don’t give it to him right away, he’ll let you know.”
For Ansel, the ultimate hope is to create pastries that customers will want to eat every day, but that will still inspire childlike wonder: ”Come and have a different understanding of what a croissant could be.”