Vive le fast-food croissant

Croissant futures may soon be the hottest new food stock to invest in. The French-bred croissant is on the rise as the new American fast-food trend. "McCroissant" claims haven't appeared yet, but the flaky golden crescent rolls that make French breakfasts a delight have suddenly taken hold in the United States as popular sandwich stuffers and desserts. They are the new gourmet fast food.

Here in Washington, where trends move at a stately, measured diplomatic cadence, croissant chic surfaced a few months after its debut in New York. Croissants are now interfacing, as the bureaucrats like to say, with rye, pumpernickel, pita bread, kaiser rolls, and bagels as the tasty base of a quick lunch.

The most visible evidence of that is the brisk business being done by Monsieur Croissant, a new croissant cafeteria here done up in tricoleur colors. Washingtonians who used to settle for garbbing a prune yogurt at their desks or a hot dog on the street are now queueing up to eat at the croissanterie three blocks from the White House.

The menu is on the wall, and the specialty is "Savory Croissants," a section that includes hot croissants with a choice of filling: cordon bleu (hot cheese, ham, and mushroom); garden vegetable; chicken, broccoli, and Swiss cheese (a sort of chicken divan croissant); Italian; ham and cheese; and spinach with feta cheese. They range in price from $1.35 to $1.85, a good buy in a city of pricey sandwiches. Each comes in its own white styrofoam box. There is also a selection of breakfast and dessert croissants.

A few blocks away, a little sandwich shop called "Au Croissant Chaud" plies customers with cheese, almond, blueberry raisin, or chocolate croissants baked locally by the French Bread Factory (65 cents each) as well as offering a variety of sandwiches from BLT to pate -35 cents extra if you want them on a croissant. In fact, the croissant luch has puffed up into such popularity that you can now buy it from street vendors in midtown. One fast-food stand hawks the notoriously rich and big chocolate chip cookies from a secret YWCA recipe which Washingtonians have long prized, but it also sells quick croissants, from ham and cheese to cherry.

At the American Cafe -a quick gourmet restaurant with branches in Georgetown and Capitol Hill -the word is that the rest of the country is finally catching up with what it started nearly five years ago. Both branches have featured kingsize croissants as sandwiches stuffed with roast beef or tarragon chicken or other delights for under $5 since they opened. Mark Caraluzzi, one of the owners and executive chef of the American Cafe company, says croissants have caught on naturally:

"There's a big awareness that it's a quality food that's a new product ... and yet it's a hand food, you can wrap it up and take it with you." He suggests it's an instant "classic," because it fits in with the characteristics of the American as well as French life style. The lunch or dessert croissant, he points out, began as a fast-food diversion in the mid1970s in the old Les Halles market inn Paris and caught on immediately in France.

Here, Caraluzzi says, "the croissnat is becoming a blue-collar piece of bread , although it was originally only white collar. That's really contributed to its popularity. We're going to see construction workers sitting on steel girders with a croissant and a soda."

"There'll be croissant flakes falling down, signs saying watch out for falling flakes!" he says, becoming slightly carried away with his vision of croissants taking over America.

Of course, it first happened in this country in New York, where several months ago "The Croissant Show" opened the original in what it expects will be 20 more outlets within the next year. And "Bonjour Croissant" started up the first of its six planned croissant bistros in the city. It also has plans for franchises in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Florida. Other individually owned croissant boutiques have followed suit.

At "The Croissant Show," on East 57th Street in Manhattan, on one of the city's trendier main drags, you can smell the croissants baking as you walk in. You line up fastfood style, give you order (some of the staff speak French), and carry it aon a tray to a charming, skylighted back room with greenery and tiny tables arranged in bistro style.

Menus on the wall, which include croissants filled with turkey, sausage, or ham and cheese, etc., are printed with prices in dollars as well as francs. The shop's title is a bilingual joke -"croissant chaud" means hot croissant in French, so "The Croissant Show" is real Franglais.

At "Monsieur Croissant" in Washington, the facade is painted with rousing red , white, and blue stripes like a giant French flag, and the interior is bright with color. Red leatherette banquettes are placed around blond wood tables, over which hang nostalgic French street scenes in the style of contemporary artist Michel Delacroix. A couple of the employees speak French and the rest appear to get a kick out of saying just "bonjour" or "merci" to the customers.

Monsieur Croissant's manager, Bea Van Keirsbilck, says the shop's aim is "to cash in on a good deal -there's a lot of fast-food eating going on in D.C. But we're not competing with McDonald's. We're something completely different ... Washington people have sophisticated palates. They're willing to try anything different." The best sellers so far, she says, are the cordon bleu and the chicken-with-broccoli croissants. The shop is still experimenting and may come up with some sort of fish croissant to add to the menu. There is also a small retail bakery section at the front of the store. Since baking is done on the premises, the rich, yeasty scent of croissants fills the air.

Bea Van Keirsbilck points out that croissants are a special problem to bake in Washington because of high humidity. The company uses a "retarder box" in making its croissants, which not only proofs them but controls the humidity. At the LAmerican Cafe, where they turn out 900 dozen croissants a week, special proofing boxes are also used to ensure that the crescents will rise properly. That's because the cafe's special recipe is extremely rich; one pound of butter is used to make every dozen croissants, and they have considerable heft. They weigh in at a quarter of a pound each.

"There is no classic croissant recipe," American Cafe's Caraluzzi says. He sampled croissants all over Paris to find the ideal one. For him, the contemporary Paris croissant is "breadier, very light, flaky," and different from the taste he was going for.

Of course, every croissant fan has a particular memory of the best croissant he ever ate. This reporter encountered the perfect croissant on a pearly blue-gray morning in the south of France just before a day of movie screenings at the Cannes Film Festival. It was in a small cafe with outdoor tables around a stone fountain. The fountain splashed as waiters poured cafe au lait and served up croissants. They were dense, so buttery that buttering them would have been gilding the lily, yet at the same time tender and so flaky light that a faint wind from the harbor blew the flakes off like feathers.

That sort of ambiance was missing during an impromptu croissant tasting in the office. We found they ranged from dry to tender to sodden, and that some fillings, like pineapple, are faintly out of sync. "Too tropical," one tester sniffed. Fillings, in general, tend to add a little sog to the expected puff of a croissant, so purists had better stick to the plain variety. In that category, the American Cafe croissant has no equal in terms of taste -rich, tender, and flakily layered. It conjures up the morning in Cannes.

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