New York’s newest bakery Marvelous by Fred has a lot to live up to. As New York emerges from the upheaval of the pandemic, the hope is that this shop’s signature cakes will become a household name here. The flagship location of Marvelous by Fred, or Aux Merveilleux de Fred as it’s known in France, officially opens its doors on August 10 near Bryant Park, at 1001 Sixth Avenue, between West 37th Street and West 38th streets.
The shop’s signature dessert, the merveilleux, is a 200-year-old confection from the north of France and Belgium that had been long overlooked. Until a few decades ago, it wouldn’t be surprising if an average French citizen were asked whether these confections — a meringue-based shell encasing a dollop of whipped cream and sprinkled in chocolate shavings — were as marvelous as their moniker. The answer would’ve been a resounding non, even if the treat’s name was inspired by the post-French Revolution aristocrats who fashioned themselves as Merveilleuses (“marvelous ladies”) and Incroyables (“incredibles,” for the men).
This changed when pastry chef Frédéric Vaucamps made it his mission to reinvent what he considered to be an overlooked and underrated regional dessert. Reworking the recipe, technique, and even the ovens (with a French manufacturer, he created a proprietary ventilated convection model whose exact specs are kept secret even from the executive culinary team), Vaucamp unveiled the confection as he knew it could be: Lighter, airier, and with flavors beyond the traditional whipped-cream-and-chocolate-shavings. Throughout France, his invention has sold like hot cakes since 1985. The abundance of YouTube tutorials on how to make copycat pastries mention Vaucamp’s eponymous bakery, Aux Merveilleux de Fred, by name.
At the new American flagship, there will be no plans for outdoor seating. There are 13 banquet seats that overlook the first-floor production kitchen and 34 seats in the cozy, second-story space. In the leadup to the official opening, there’s a $4 pastry-and-coffee bundle.
Aside from a seasonal option, the merveilleux come in seven flavors that have remained mostly unchanged in the last decade (a smaller, original location in the West Village opened with a similar menu in 2015). The original, aptly named Le Merveilleux is rolled in feather-light shavings of dark Belgian chocolate. Among the other, more modern flavors are Le Magnifique, filled with praline whipped cream and topped with crunchy bits of toasted hazelnuts, and Le San Culottes — referencing the lower-class French revolutionaries of the 1790s, who didn’t wear silk breeches — with caramel cream and crystallized meringue fragments. The Ephemere (ephemeral) seasonal offering will be a surprise; past iterations have included raspberry-blackcurrant and yuzu-lemon.
The small cakes meld a trio of textures: the airy lightness of the meringue, velvety fresh-whipped cream with faint hints of flavoring, and bits of crunch from the candy coating. The lack of dough, oil, and butter — a rarity in all of French cuisine — makes these confections gluten-free and about 80 calories each.
“He’s definitely a product person,” says Antoine Jacques, the company’s North American president and baker, in describing the vision of its founder. “He’s a creative genius and does everything by intuition.”
The rest of the menu is equally small but disciplined, capturing Jacques’s intention to focus on the quality of a handful of desserts that are executed well over offering a menu with more options. The baked-from-scratch croissant has a satisfying crust, while the harder-to-find Flemish waffles ($18.50 for six) resemble a more pliable version of a Dutch stroopwafel, but filled with butter and sugar instead of caramel. There are brioches of all kinds, from traditional ones sprinkled with pearl sugar imported from Belgium, to more special-occasion varieties that have been baked with raisins or Valrhona chocolate, to sandwiches both savory (turkey, ham) and sweet (chocolate ganache, Nutella). In the back of the store, bakers in full view shape the dough before letting it rise, proof, and bake as part of a process that takes about eight hours from start to finish. The ovens work from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. to ensure that all pastries on display are less than two-hours old.
Not to be outdone by the pastries, Marvelous by Fred’s vision extends to the decor. The Italian marble countertops in both the baking and dining areas are prized for their ability to retain cooler temperatures. Gold leaf gleams from the stark-black display cases. On the wall, an oversized fresco depicts the original Incroyables and Merveilleuses in all their exuberant, high-fashion attire.
The spectacle of the chandelier with bohemian crystals in the bakery’s New York flagship is not a one-off design touch. Each of the 46 worldwide locations features this model, which is manufactured in the Czech Republic as a replica of a piece used in an Austrian coronation ceremony, but the 10-foot diameter ones in New York and in Bruges, Belgium, are the largest in the world, with an undisclosed price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars. Visible from across the street, it draws passersby both near and into the store like moths to a flame; tourists can often be found taking photographs from the outside.
For Jacques, the historic brand’s debut at Bryant Park represents something of a homecoming. For the last five years, he and his team have set up two ovens in a 100-square-foot kiosk to sell warm pastries in the blistering cold as part of the park’s annual outdoor holiday market. But creating comfort foods — whether in a park or in a pandemic — captures the cuisine of his native Northern France, where Jacques says: “People are always like, ‘Wow, what is this?’”