France, as we all know, has a proud pastry tradition. Austria may have invented the croissant, but France perfected it and kept going, adding pain au chocolat and chausson aux pommes to the menu of flaky, buttery morning treats. One lesser-known, but perhaps even more delicious, member of the pastry pantheon is kouign amann, a specialty of northwest France that translates from Breton (the area's native, Celtic language) to "butter cake."
This sugary treat is relatively labor intensive, which might explain why it's so hard to come by. For many years, one specialty bakery in Salt Lake City appeared to be the only place in the western U.S. to find kouign amann. But last year two bakeries in Los Angeles began serving them, and as with all trends originating in L.A., it is now something of an obsession among the fooderati. But which version is best?
Kouign Amann #1 (and #1a): Santa Monica's Huckleberry Cafe might contain the most perfect bakery in town. The downside is, everyone knows it, and getting a table on the weekend -- heck, just getting through the line -- is an endurance exercise. Perhaps best to order to go.
But those pastries, if you've got a sweet tooth, make the brunch drama worth it. Huckleberry makes two versions of kouign amann: minis, and regular size, topped with fruit. The minis are fun little treats with the perfect sugary, pull-apart composition. A nice end to a protein-heavy breakfast. But it's the fruit-topped version that will force you to return to the line three times before leaving. Probably with a pastry box in hand. Perfectly caramelized on the bottom, as the kouing amann's extra sugar is wont to do, and turned almost into a custard on the top from the mixture of produce (we had figs), sugar and butter, these are worth the stress of the line.
Kouign Amann #2: Bouchon Bakery, at the Montage hotel in Beverly Hills, has a fabulous setting. Order a pastry from the counter, take it outside to the very French-feeling park, with a fountain and tables, and take in a bit of celeb-spotting (but this being Beverly Hills, one would never be so gauche as to actually approach them). The kouign amman here is technically perfect, as are all things in the Bouchon empire. Caramelized bottom, millions of layers, a lot of sugar. Oh, and it's huge. But the pastry itself isn't totally tender, and it seems a little devoid of soul. (Which may mean butter.)
The Final Verdict: Topping this decadent pastry invented in cold, waterlogged Brittany with Mediterranean figs might not be the most natural, or traditional, of choices. But when it's this delicious, who cares. If tradition is less important than taste, go for Huckleberry.
235 N. Canon Dr., Beverly Hills, 310-271-9910
1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, 310-451-2311
Photos by Shane Redsar
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