The search for the GTA's best croissant presents endless options
Out of 22 bakeries, Duo Pâtisserie & Café in Thornhill, took the top spot
A decade ago, if you wanted a really good croissant in this city you had the choice of only a handful of places.
Today, the options are endless.
Recently, during a social gathering a foodie friend was raving about her recent trip to Paris, and all the the foodstuffs she loves about the city of love and romance.
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"The desserts, the ice creams, the pastries!" she said, recounting a number of visits to favourite viennoiseries where she swooned over the croissants — a flaky, crescent-shaped treat.
My fellow friends, warm with jealousy, quickly interjected in unison: "Where in Toronto is your favourite croissant?"
A rhythmic tirade of praises followed. We all had our favourite GTA patisseries, from glossy boutique shops to small mom and pop places hidden away in quiet neighbourhoods.
There was a mix of old school favourites like Rahier, Bonjour Brioche, Petite Thuet and Thobors. And there were some new places I had never heard of.
After spending an hour fiercely debating why our favourites were better, we agreed that the only way to truly answer that question is by hosting a tasting.
Croissants a complex process for bakers
Even professional bakers will tell you that the croissant — which has roots going back to Austria in the 1600s — is one of the most difficult things to master.
It's a complex process of proofing, cooling and manually folding dough in repeated steps, all while sourcing the best ingredients — butter and salt are key — and doctoring the percentages to get the right consistency.
A great croissant is puffy, with a thin crust on the outside and a golden brown lacquer. The croissant should have a slight bounce when you gently press it, and it should crumble easily.
When you pull the croissant, or bite into it, there should be a stringy texture with a pleasing balance between the airiness, butteriness and fermented flavor — with just a hint of salt. It should have no residual dry or scratchy sensation in the roof of your mouth. Instead, the pastry should virtually dissolve on your tongue, leaving you with just a hint of the taste of butter.
The search for the perfect croissant begins
My food blogger friend, Jen Chan, stepped in to help organize what would become one of the most comprehensive, cross-city croissant comparisons we have hosted to date.
In the past, we've done similar taste tests with canelé pastries and mangoes, but this proved to be a logistical challenge due to nature of how long croissants can stay fresh.
Croissants have a short life span, drying out very quickly and tasting stale within hours. We've all had a bad croissant, with a rock hard dome and dry interior that will make you to scramble for a glass of water to wash out the drab.
In order to find the best one we decided that we needed to split up and pickup croissants from various parts of the city, and bring them to a central location for one grand tasting.
22 of Toronto’s best. <a href="https://t.co/Rc18kdCose">pic.twitter.com/Rc18kdCose</a>—@Suresh
Our group of nine originally decided on five locations, which then ballooned to 10 and eventually we decided on 22 of the GTA's best pastry shops, everywhere across the city from Richmond Hill to Riverdale to Bloor West Village.
Finally, one Saturday morning a few weeks ago, all the croissants were gathered for a tasting.
First we judged based on looks. Was the lacquer too dark or underbaked?
We then engaged the "pull test" to examine each croissant's flakiness, stringiness and overall structure.
Next came the blind tasting of all 22 croissants to judge the overall flavour and experience.
Fully aware of how geeky all this seems, the tasting was a blast. It was also a study in how quickly the quality of the pastry scene in the GTA has evolved over the past few years.
Learning from the 'old guard'
Each of the top three croissants we chose were from bakeries that have been operating for less than six years. And they all came from a new generation of bakers — a Japanese pastry chef, an Ukrainian hobby baker, and a Chinese dessert master.
A decade ago, if I wanted a great croissant, my top three choices were Rahier, Bonjour Brioche and Petite Thuet.
Rahier, the 22-year-old Leaside bakery, is the brainchild of Belgian-born Francois Rahier, who fell in love with baking at an early age because of his mother.
Many times I have waited in line at his bakery for tiny lemon curd tarts, apricot pastries and, of course, croissants. For years it was the gold standard, in my humble opinion.
Like other chefs of his generation who are often referred to as the "old guard," Rahier was also a highly respected mentor. He has coached and inspired an entire generation of pastry chefs in this city. Two of the winners in our top three staged under him, and they have created croissants that resemble Rahier in its classic style, but have managed to perfect it even further in taste and texture.
The runners up
401 Jane St, Toronto
Japanese pastry chef, Azumi Kimura, runs a small pastry shop on Jane street, just north of Bloor.
Kimura, along with Canadian-born Walter Sallese, run the neighbourhood favourite, which features an array of French desserts, from eclairs to fruit tarts to incredibly delicious mille feuille.
Kimura's croissants were a group favourite. They were light and airy, with a good honeycomb structure and a touch of saltiness.
540 Parliament St, Toronto
In true "blink and you'll miss it" fashion, Tasso is a cubicle-sized bakery in Cabbagetown that produces some of the best croissants I have had in this city.
Owned and operated by Mike and Olyana Tasso, the bakery almost exclusively features croissants.
Mike and Olyana commit to a three day process to make tiny batches of croissants, and as a result are only open Friday to Sunday.
Everything runs out in a few hours, and there is always a line. If you're going, get there early and be prepared to wait.
Their croissants have an ungodly amount of butter. They are fluffy with a thin, shiny crust. Biting into one is like having clouds in your mouth.
The winner for us for best overall croissant is from Duo Pâtisserie & Café, a dessert shop on the border of Markham and Richmond Hill.
Duo is the brainchild of Eric Chan, a pastry chef that worked his way through Toronto pastry shops, including a long stint at Rahier Bakery.
"Francois was my mentor. He was the mentor to many bakers. I learned a lot from the years I spent at Rahier," he said.
Chan's pastry shop is heaven for anyone that has a love for fine pastry or desserts.
Since it opened nearly three years ago, it has quickly become one of my favourite sweet shops, displaying a level of consistency and deftness with pastry that is hardly matched in this city.
This is the kind of bakery where you'll find it impossible to decide what to try, and find it impossible to leave without ordering a takeout box for later.
My personal favourites here include the chestnut-rich montblanc cake with almond cream, the stuffed pate a choux with fruit filling, and the decadent hazel — a chocolate mousse with a hazelnut praline shell.
There are over 50 items to try at Duo, from miniature cakes and chocolates, to croissants and other types of fine pastry
When it comes to the croissant, Chan has mastered the process of layered pastry. His croissants have a distinct honeycomb interior — a perfect balance between air pockets and buttery strands of pastry.
Despite all the geekery and science, Chan has captured the childlike magic of enjoying a croissant. The outside has an attractive glossy sheen, and it crumbles into thin flakes when you bite down. The inside melts in your mouth — it's smooth, it's buttery and it dissolves almost instantly.
I asked Chan where he got the inspiration to open a French pastry shop and he responded: "We may not be French, but we grew up obsessing over French pastry."
"I wanted to learn it, and I wanted to showcase it." he explained.
The new wave of bakers
Like Olyana and Kimura, Chan is part of a new wave of bakers that are taking pastry to new heights in this city.
They're not French, but their obsession with the craft has raised the bar for croissants.
Today, a great croissant is not far away, it's in nearly every neighbourhood of this city.
During a recent conversation recapping the croissant hunt, my friend Michael said it perfectly.
"All it takes is one talent to foster many. The students have become the masters in this case. And it's reflective of the city's diverse and evolving food culture."
Duo Pâtisserie & Café is at 230 Commerce Valley Dr. E., unit #4, in Thornhill.
Suresh Doss's weekly food segment airs every Thursday on Metro Morning. Watch for video of his jaunts across the city on CBC Toronto's Facebook page.
Do you know a GTA restaurant that Doss should visit? Tweet us @metromorning or send us a message on Facebook. And if you try any of the places he features, we want to see photos!