You expect croissants on the Left Bank in Paris. But when you see a hard-hat construction worker munching on a croissant sandwich sitting astride a skyscraper T-beam, you know that French cuisine has come to Middle America.
Both the French crepe, a thin pancake with filling, and the quiche, an open-face tart, have enjoyed
outrageous peaks of popularity in the United States. And no sooner had these two settled down as staples of the American menu than the croissant appeared.
Now croissant customers who can't even pronounce ''kwah-SAHN'' line up in bakeries. Factory workers and students take croissant sandwiches in their lunch boxes. Secretaries munch on a ''pain au chocolat'' while sipping fat little bottles of French spring or mineral water.
Buttery, flaky, and wonderfully delicious, especially when fresh from the oven, the croissant has taken over completely as the favorite breakfast bread - replacing the cheese Danish and rapidly moving in on scones, muffins, and doughnuts.
And they are good, incredibly good.
In some cities across the country it is perfectly possible to buy a croissant as good as any made in France. One reason: Most of the croissant bakers are French and have been imported along with special ovens and professional baking equipment.
It was inevitable that the croissant would get to America eventually. But, people ask, why couldn't we leave it alone?
No, we had to promote it, elaborate it, improve on it. American interest was piqued in l977 when French bakeries here started slicing the baked croissant, filling it with chicken salad, ham, and cheese, and putting it on lunch and takeout menus. The croissant took off.
Now it's filled with everything from chocolate chips, fruits, and vegetables to salami, sausage, smoked turkey, caviar, and kippers. The fancy fillings can get very pricey.
But most croissants today are probably still sold for breakfast or morning break, even though they may have first attracted customer attention as sandwiches.
In big cities the rush area between offices and packed commuter trains, buses , and subways is often the spot for the croissant shop. People scramble for a hot drink and a bun to go. One company, Au Bon Pain, even has attractive wooden bakery carts in several airports for early morning shuttlers.
Croissant outlets today range from trendy restaurants to chains of cafes like Croissants USA (in California), Au Croissant Chaud (Washington, D.C.), Le Panier (Portland, Ore.), Au Bon Pain (based in Boston with new outlets in Houston), and Vie de France (based in Vienna, Va.).
Of these, Vie de France is the leading croissant maker. A French bakery chain that is 65 percent owned by the Grands Moulins flour-milling company of Paris, it opened its first wholesale bakery outlets in Maryland in 1972.
Five years ago the company added retail bakery-cafes in major cities. Now there are 29 bakeries across the country, with 1500 croissant outlets in bakeries, gourmet shops, supermarkets, and restaurants.
The croissant will remain the most important of the French bakery products, says Glenn Meltzer, director of retail operations.
Around the country, the bakeries where croissants are sold are typically immaculate and attractive, with shiny glass cases and an open kitchen so customers can see bakers at work. Most important of all, however, is the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked bread to attract every passerby.
To these basics, croissant bakeries around the US add their own touches:
* In Portland, Ore., the six or more downtown bakeries that emphasize croissants have intriguing names - Chocolate Raspberry, Eat Your Heart Out, Elephant's Delicatessen.
* Le Panier, also in Portland, is a roomy, high-ceilinged place in a turn-of-the-century building with places to sit and sample the nine kinds of croissants, brioche, and French bread baked in five different shapes. There's also whole-wheat and rye bread, and chocolate, nut, or raisin buns.
* Boston-based Au Bon Pain uses a special formula of frozen dough which is shaped before freezing, then shipped to various bakery outlets where the bread is proofed and baked on the premises.
Not to be confused with frozen dough that is sold commercially for home baking, the Au Bon Pain product is remarkably fine and was developed by a young French baker, Gilbert Vidal, when Louis I. Kane, chairman of the company, realized that using French bakers in each outlet did not guarantee perfectly consistent croissants.
* The Harvard Square bakery in Cambridge has a cafe where running tournaments in chess and another board game called Pente occupy the patrons.
What will happen if the attraction for croissants takes a dive?
''The croissant will eventually become a staple, and people will become more serious about really good French bread,'' said Louis I. Kane head of Au Bon Pain. What makes a good croissant?
It should be crispy at the points. It must break in fluffy layers on the plate and melt in your mouth. Croissants should never be stretchy or gummy, sticky, dense, or doughy in the center.
A perfect croissant is buttery, flaky, and crisp all at the same time. It should have the fresh fragrance of sweet butter with the very delicate aroma of yeast.
The color should be a glaze of golden brown, and the dough inside should be white and slightly moist.
Above all, the croissant must be freshly baked - right from the oven. This has a lot to do with appeal, since shelf life is only about a day or half a day. Like most French bread, croissants have no preservatives, and although they freeze well, the crust gets hard in a day or two, left in the refrigerator or at room temperature.
Some people think about making croissants at home. But not just anyone can make a good croissant. Traditionally it has been a talent exclusive to the repertoire of the French bakery, but not even every baker can make them really well. It is more technique than a recipe, and it takes practice and a lot of time to make each batch. What it involves is folding dough in special patterns to form paper-thin layers with butter in between. The water content of the butter will expand in the oven to separate the dough into crisp layers.
Last summer, Chef-instructor Nicholas Malgieri, chairman of baking at the New York Restaurant School, had a special method he taught in classes called ''How to Make the Perfect Croissant.''
A veteran instructor of both professionals and home bakers, Malgieri says you aren't actually working with the dough for more than 30 to 45 minutes at a time, since the procedure is broken up with rest periods that prepare the dough for further handling. The trouble is that you have to let the dough rest for certain periods between folding and rolling, adding to the overall duration.
How long does it actually take?
Well, if you want them for brunch, start two evenings ahead, he says.
But if you want them for afternoon tea, Malgieri has a quick recipe which you start the evening before.
A few hours can be shaved from the process by doing the turning and folding in one continuous stage instead of two blocks of time separated by periods of refrigeration. This so-called double-turn method telescopes the two halves of the turning-folding process with only a slight loss of flavor and texture in the final result.
Although cooking schools around the country give lessons on how to make croissants, there are also several books devoted exclusively to the subject. Here are two, both $5.95: ''The Perfect Croissant,'' by Dee Coutelle (Contemporary Books Inc., Chicago) and ''The Quintessential Croissant,'' by Pamela Z. Asquith (Celestial Arts, Millbrae, Calif.).