It stands to reason that the best arbiters of pastry in New York would be transplanted Frenchmen and -women, forever pursuing the flakiest croissants, the creamiest éclairs, and the airiest macaroons. The alleged deficits of American flour notwithstanding, exceptional croissants can be found with some frequency on this side of the big pond. But cakes are the supreme challenge. “Payard Pâtisserie 1032 Lexington Avenue, near 73rd Street; 717-5252 is the only place that knows how to make a Saint-Honoré,” says Annie, a French-language teacher reluctant to reveal her full name for fear of exposing an unseemly obsession with the puff pastry. Jacques Letalon, a musician and video and music coordinator, concurs. “It has some elegance, some refinement,” he says, which can be attributed to pastry chef François Payard’s unique combination of precision and artistry, evident in signature creations like the Louvre (hazelnut dacquoise, chocolate and hazelnut mousses), New York, New York (madeleine biscuit, berry syrup, berries, and cream-cheese mousse), and the Vendôme (licorice meringue, chocolate mousse, and vanilla crème brûlée). Payard is a true neighborhood asset, filling every edible need from baguettes and croissants to canapés and quiche. Plus there’s a spectacular array of ice creams and sorbets, and sandwiches like croques monsieur and pan bagnat.
Still, Payard’s attempt to please everyone reflects an un-Gallic attitude. And sure enough, Guillaume Foss, an administrative assistant at the French Institute/Alliance Française, insists that Pâtisserie Claude (187 West 4th Street; 255-5911) is New York’s most authentic French bakery. “The guy’s really rude,” he says, “but it’s worth it.”