“We’re too late,” my husband says to me as we walk up the street, nearly running. The line is almost peeking out the door and I’m devastated. “If we had woken 15 minutes earlier, we wouldn’t be in this predicament,” I say with a surly expression. Dismissing my comment, my husband looks the other way sharply and continues to walk towards the door.
Our predictions are correct — there is not one croissant left, only a row of finely made French pastries — éclairs, ganaches and tarts tempting us through the display case window. Peering into the old-fashioned cupboard “The Little Chef” uses to keep his brioche and croissants warm, my husband checks the back of the shelf just to be sure there’s no croissant hiding in the corner. “Nope,” he said turning towards me. “Oh well,” I say with a pout.
And as if we hadn’t been disappointed enough, my husband calls out to the pastry chef: “So what’d you have today?”
Wearing his typical baseball cap, jeans and tee-shirt, the Haitian chef approaches, smiles and softly says,”Ras-ber-e, al-mond, sho-co-late and ap-ple jin-jer brioche,” in a thick French accent. “Well, at least we didn’t miss out on the ham and cheese,” my husband says smiling at me. I give a crooked smile back and nod. We thank the chef and head out the door to our favorite coffee shop.
I’ve lived in the Princeton area for almost five years, and up until six months ago, I had never heard of The Little Chef Pastry Shop. It wasn’t until my husband did some research on where to find the best croissant in the world, did we discovered this little gem. With New York City being our second home, we figured we could at least find a pastry shop that sells croissants somewhat comparable to the finest in Paris.
And we did — just not in NYC.
Now, I’m not going to go and boast about the fine places I’ve eaten all across the globe because, to be honest, some of the best food I’ve devoured was made at small family-owned eateries, or on the streets, made by a vendor whose been perfecting a few dishes for most of her life. But, I do know a gorgeously flaky, snobby croissant when I taste one. The kind I am referring to is most eloquently explained by Serious Eats writer, Carey Jones, who led us to The Little Chef Pastry Shop in Princeton:
“The smell was incredible, buttery and rich. The pastry was a beautiful deep brown, caramelized all over; it was firm but not hard to the touch, with gentle layers that held together without flaking or falling away.
Until I bit into it. A perfect croissant does not yield; it shatters. The outer, mahogany layer forms a paper-thin shell that’s easily cracked but fights you for a moment””guarding the rewards underneath. There’s a kind of infinity in a perfect croissant: one pastry infinitely divisible, first into the sections formed by the roll of the dough, but further, into the dozens of soft, supple layers that peel off when torn, each melting into the next, yet each holding its own tissue-thin integrity.
This croissant was buttery but not greasy, just sweet enough, texturally perfect. The outside, once bitten and breached, left flakes that I dotted with my pinky and just had to eat. The inside was improbably tender, pastry that nearly melted on my tongue.”
The man behind these perfect croissants, Mr. Fils-Aimé, is very humble about his rare talent. Soft-spoken and shy, the pastry chef says he chooses to work 16-hour days, seven days a week to have his “own” shop, and to be afforded the “freedom” to do exactly what he wants. Part of what customers taste in Mr. Fils-Aimé’s sweets is the love, artistry and delicate craftsmanship that is put into each delicious pastry.
So, that’s why almost every Saturday and Sunday morning my husband and I rush to The Little Chef Pastry Shop — we hurry (and bicker) in hopes that we’ll beat the other patrons who know about this tiny cafe inconspicuously situated on a side street by the university. Because they know, and we know, that if you arrive past 9:15 a.m. you don’t have a chance in hell of finding a croissant in Mr. Fils-Aimé’s pretty cupboard. And that just might end up being the most devastating part of your day.