Freshness, crunchiness, flakiness, butteriness, sweetness, saltiness – there are many facets to consider when it comes to the perfect croissant.
“A good croissant should be well layered, flaky, buttery without being greasy, and light, but not insubstantial. If it’s not made with butter, it’s not worth the calories,” says trained pastry chef and SCMP.com food editor Susan Jung.
With an ever growing number of French people now calling Hong Kong home (the country’s consulate estimates 18,000 to 20,000 of its citizens live in Hong Kong), it’s no wonder French restaurants, wine shops and patisseries have sprung up on the city’s food and beverage landscape. And that means more croissants.
While seen as quintessentially French, the pastry’s history can be traced to the Austrian capital Vienna, where the biscuity ancestor of the croissant, the kipferl, is said to date back to the 13th century. Some historians say it was introduced to France by the country’s last queen, Marie Antoinette, as a 14-year-old bride craving a taste of her native Vienna. The pastry became French when people started making it with puff pastry – a French innovation – the story goes.
But enough history for now. We’ve set out on a quest to find Hong Kong’s best croissant, and to help us we recruited two French-born, Hong Kong-based foodies. Ines Gafsi is co-founder of Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide and has worked in marketing for many French restaurants in Hong Kong. David Sung is chef-owner of groovy French bar and restaurant La Cantoche in Sheung Wan.
Hong Kong’s humidity is a croissant’s worst enemy. So with this in mind we tasted the pastries between 8.30am and 9am in the hope they had not been sitting on the shelf for too long. We ordered a plain butter croissant for consistency.
After many bites, and too many calories to count, the conclusion was surprising: high-end places with the best reputation failed to deliver on taste and quality.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Landmark Atrium, Queen’s Road Central; tel: 2166 9000
French chef Joel Robuchon has called Hong Kong home since 2006, but when it came to its croissant (HK$18) one of the city’s top-notch French tea houses did not live up to its reputation. The consensus was that it was oily rather than buttery, and stunted – so no crunchy ends for dipping. “I don’t like the shape. In France we have two schools: the dipper – the one who likes to dip, and the non-dippers … when I have coffee or hot chocolate, I take out the crisp crunchy ends and I dip. It’s nice that it’s warm, but it’s more oily than buttery,” says Gafsi.
Urban Bakery Works
Shop 322, 3/F, The Landmark Atrium, 15 Queen’s Road, Central; tel: 3565 4320
Big and deep golden, from the outside Urban Bakery Works’ croissant (HK$16) looked a little dry. Luckily for us, our assumptions were proven wrong: the croissant was crunchy, flaky, surprisingly moist and buttery. This was voted second-best in our taste test.
The Mandarin Cake Shop
5 Connaught Road Central, Central; tel: 2825 4048
A big five-star reputation, but a one-star croissant. At HK$22 it was the most expensive of all the ones we tasted, and definitely the least enjoyable. While serving it with a knife and fork was a grand gesture, the actual product was a letdown. Small and rubbery, it had an odd floury aftertaste that begged the question: was it baked fresh that morning ?
Pret a Manger
3/F, Landmark Atrium, 15 Queen’s Road Central; tel:2840 0129
Always reliable, this chain serves almond (HK$16), chocolate (HK$16) and French butter (HK$14) croissants, and it uses Charentes-Poitou butter from France. Baked daily, they are crunchy, buttery and delicious. Another plus is that with such a high turnover they are fresh at all times of the day.
Le Pain Quotidien
G40-41, Lee Tung Avenue, 200 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai; tel: 2520 1801
This place nailed it – its croissant (HK$20) was voted the best of all the ones we tasted. It had the exact right amount of butter and delicate, flaky pastry. But beyond the taste, both Gafsi and Sung agreed the venue’s decor – long wooden tables and wooden shelves packed with condiments and oils – best resembled the feel of a French bakery. “It’s not just about taste but about the sensory experience, about the smell of freshly baked bread when you walk into a bakery in France and the conversation you have with the lady who serves you and wishes you a good day. That is difficult to export,” Sung says.
Maison Eric Kayser
48 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai; tel: 3107 1380
“Everyone was so excited when Eric Kayser landed in Hong Kong,” says Sung, of the French bakery that has franchises around the globe. The croissants here (HK$16) looked perfectly fine – and very long – but lacked a wow factor once you bit into the crunchy exterior. Dare we say it, but they were a tad beige.
Passion by Gérard Dubois
Lee Tung Avenue, 200 Lee Tung Street, Wan Chai; tel: 2529 1311
Sitting on a table outside Passion, looking over the tree-lined but very kitsch Lee Tung Avenue with its faux Victorian street lamps, odd sculptures, and music playing from speakers, with the temperature just 15 degrees Celsius, we could almost imagine ourselves in Europe. And the croissant (HK$20) was great: crunchy and full of flavour, golden crumbs were the only thing left on the plate.
And there’s more …
Marks Spencer: Warm and flaky with just the right amount of butter coating the fingers. The sign above the outlet in Wan Chai says “The Bakery : prepared by experts”, and we believe it, as these plain croissants (HK$13) were melt-in-the mouth delicious. A British institution, yet its quintessentially French pastry one of the stars of the taste test? Sacre bleu!
Little Mermaid: Small in size but big on flavour, these very buttery croissants (HK$15) are a tiny treat for the taste buds. Two crumbs up.
Delifrance: Purists might turn up their noses, but some say croissants served here aren’t too shoddy, although maybe a tad oversweet for some palates.
Muji: While the croissants (HK$16) at the Wan Chai branch had a shiny and golden armour, they were way too dry, like all the life had been sucked out of them.
Swissbeck: The croissants at this branch of the bakery on Queen’s Road East in Wan Chai were big
and rubbery, and hugely unsatisfying.
Wellcome (Shau Kei Wan branch): Surprisingly nice and buttery (HK$7), but the random times at which they come out of the oven means you never know when they’re fresh. Sadly they are mummified in a plastic bag instead of being left to sit on the shelf, making them sweaty and soggy. Just wrong.