Someone once said that an éclair is "a cake long in shape, but short in duration," and with him I have to agree. I have always loved this treat, with its pillowy pastry and smooth custard filling, all glazed with a simple smear of chocolate frosting. It is the rich man's jelly doughnut, more Martha Stewart than Homer Simpson. And it's a deliciously self-contained snack.
In Paris you'll find a rainbow-colored treasure chest of éclairs -- chocolate, almond, strawberry, the unbelievably divine coffee, and more. But here in the U.S., we generally stick to the standard: vanilla crème and chocolate frosting. Perhaps the most fun part about éclairs is the feeling you get when you eat a good one... Within moments you'd swear that no, that's not Buffalo Bayou out your window, but rather the flowing Seine. You develop a craving for fencing, poodles, and a modest ham and cheese baguette. And you're suddenly required to speak like Pepe Le Pew. For the rest of the day.
But Houston is a far cry from Paris. You'll surely find more pan dulce than puff pastry around here -- but where can you find a good éclair? This week's Food Fight pits a long revered French café against a rising Asian-ish bakery.
Thierry André Tellier Café (2515 River Oaks Boulevard)
At one time Andre's was the go-to place for delicious French pastries around town. The venerable shop has graced the corner of Westheimer and River Oaks Boulevard for decades, filling up daily with a fashionable crowd that dines on salads and quiche. The pastries have lost a step over the years as the café has placed more emphasis on meals and less on desserts, but that doesn't seem to quell the crowd. While the showcase windows were once filled with brightly colored fruit tarts, rich custards and lavish French pastries, the shelves this week were lined with average-looking cookies, some cakes and a few lackluster pastries.
The éclair at Andre's was off-putting from the start. The pastry itself had no sheen and sat lifeless on my plate. Even the smear of dark chocolate didn't help; the chocolate looked dull and lumpy -- more like a road in South Houston than the Champs-Elysees. The outer shell, which should be light and fluffy, was biscuit-like in texture. And the custard offered little in the way of flavor, texture or redemption. My $2.99 afternoon splurge sat unfinished on my plate. This? Was a poor excuse for a French pastry.
French Riviera Bakery (3032 Chimney Rock)
Don't let the name fool you. The owner of the French Riviera Bakery is actually from Madagascar, and she stocks her shop with Chinese and Mexican employees. It is a cultural Cuisinart of a bakery that somehow classifies itself as French. Yet it was an auspicious sign that there was still a line nearly out the door when I showed up in the mid afternoon -- people waiting for sandwiches, smoothies and the occasional dessert.
The éclair didn't look like anything more than an average French knock-off: on oblong pastry topped with milk chocolate that looked an awful lot like your standard Hershey's. But the lady behind the counter mentioned that I was lucky to get one of the larger ones in the afternoon -- they generally sell out in the morning or during the lunch rush. One bite confirmed her story. This thing was, quite simply, a lightly sugared dream. The classic crème filling, thankfully, was not too sweet, and the toupee of milk chocolate provided the perfect complement to the light, tender pastry shell. This $3.24 éclair was an exceptional afternoon treat. I tried to savor it, but this long éclair was definitely short in duration.
Is there any doubt? The French Riviera Bakery wins in an easy one. Neither of these éclairs will garner a beauty prize, but Andre's fails in flavor, while the French Rivera Bakery excels. This éclair was a surprising fresh breath on a stifling hot day. And now that I know of the its prowess, I can't wait to see what else the unassuming shop does well.