In a recent Chef Chat, Philippe Schmit said the best baguette he'd found in Houston was at French Riviera Bakery and Café. It wasn't a surprising choice; French Riviera, run by the Madagascar-born and Paris-trained Wu brothers, has been turning out fantastic bread and other delights for more than 30 years. And it has the hardware to show for it, including Best Bakery at last year's Houston Culinary Awards, and, from this publication, Best Croissant (in 2010) and Best Bread (in 2008).
But recently I've been hearing a lot about the bread - and baguettes - from Farmer's Market stalwart and Heights newcomer Angela's Oven. Angela's Oven may not style itself a French bakery, but they make baguettes, and for that alone are up in French Riviera's grill, culinarily speaking. And now it's on like Donkey Kong™.
Because the French are, well, French, there is a Platonic (Descartian?) ideal of a baguette, and, as codified in the rules of the Grand Prix de la Baguette de la Ville de Paris, Paris's annual baguette competition, this ideal has been reduced to a 20-point scale based on five qualities: aroma, taste, appearance, cuisson (baking skill), and alvéolage (the internal structure of holes). For further information about baguettes and the Parisian contest, I highly recommend Jeffrey Steingarten's marvelously entertaining "The Loaf that Nearly Died,") truly the gold standard in baguette studies.
Am I qualified to assess baguettes according to the Parisian system? Probably not. I'm not French, but then again I have been to Paris and eaten mind-blowing baguettes from the likes of Eric Kayser. And even if I was French, that wouldn't make me an expert on French food any more than being an American makes someone an expert on American food. Plenty of Americans prefer to eat at Applebee's and Olive Garden.
On to the judging!
[all category scores out of 4 points]
French Riviera Bakery and Café
Aroma: Pleasant but fairly light. I prefer something stronger, to remind me that I'm eating something that came from an oven. 2.5
Taste: Hits all the right notes; simple, almost creamy, with just a hint of yeastiness. 3 Appearance: A wide, rounded loaf, bearing a slight waffle print on the bottom indicating the use of a bread pan, which is antithetical to the traditional hearth-baked method. My loaf also had some black carbonized flecks of uncertain provenance on the bottom and sides. The crumb is almost ivory-white, when it should be more beige. It would also be disqualified from Paris's baguette competition on two technical grounds: it is too light at 8.5 oz./240g (the accepted range is 250-300g), and too short at 23"/58cm (the accepted range is 60-70cm). 2
Cuisson: A wonderfully flaky golden crust, with a fluffy crumb that has the texture of cotton candy, yet is also elastic and moist. Well crafted, indeed. 3.5
Alvéolage: Not many bubbles or holes, and altogether too uniform. 1.5
Total score: 12.5
Aroma: Toasty, but not overwhelming. Rather nice. 3
Taste: The toastiness of the crust filters into every bite, which I personally like but may be too much for some. This bread is closer to an amazing country white loaf in baguette form. Definitely not traditional, but I dig it. 3
Appearance: The crust is brown, not golden in the slightest, and comes dangerously close to appearing overbaked. But the interior is more creamy than white, and the loaf shape is pleasantly irregular, with the underside showing both the flatness and the darker color that come from being baked on a hearth. This loaf would also have been disqualified from the Parisian competition for weighing 303g, although at 66 cm, it fits squarely within the length guidelines. 2.5
Cuisson: A tough call: the crumb is outstanding, and I can't say it isn't exactly the way the baker intended. But it is extremely dense, almost spongy, and by far the heaviest baguette I've ever eaten. Again, it's more like a country loaf. The crust is chewy and not flaky in the slightest. It's great, but not what a baguette should be. 1.5
Alvéolage: Impressively irregular holes and bubbles of varying sizes throughout the loaf. The only knock is that some of the holes extend along a large part of the loaf and more closely resemble tunnels. 3.5
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Total score: 13.5
Angela's Oven, but just barely. And don't be put off by the scores, which are only low because I've tried to judge these loaves according to the exacting Parisian standards. Let me be clear: Both of these loaves are excellent, and rank among the elite loaves in Houston. I would happily eat either one again. In fact, I would go out of my way to eat either one again. If you want a lighter, flakier baguette, go with French Riviera; if you want something chewier and heavier, go with Angela's Oven.