Friday, May 09, 2008

Fast-food croissants

Sometimes the best bites come from the most unexpected sources. This week I have developed a new love for what might be the best croissant I have had in the city. And yes, that flaky, tender croissant comes from... Pret a Manger. Apologies to Patisserie Claude and Marquet and all my usual French pastry places.

I have a soft spot for Pret, mostly because I love the little packaged triangle sandwiches sold at every Boots and Marks & Spencer in England; so much better than the overstuffed, too-big-to-eat style of sandwich that Americans prefer. I love the thin bread, weirdly un-American fillings (curried chicken salad, prawn salad, egg and cress, salmon and cucumber) and the diagonal cut fit for a kid.

I've always been a sucker for a coronation chicken salad, which is always the first one I grab off the shelf at any Pret in the world. This is a total digression to the topic, but when I was about ten years old I went over to my best friend Sasha's house, and her mother had a bowl of curried chicken salad in the fridge. It had grapes and nuts in it, which I thought was completely weird, but I loved the dish and it became a marker of sophistication for me. Sasha's mom is a wonderful cook, and I always held her Gourmet-inspired cooking in high regard, and I saw that chicken salad as the epitome of high-class eating. Not that my mom was making crap, mind you, but she sure didn't put grapes and curry powder in the chicken salad; she was more of a diced celery kind of lady. When I started putting lime and dill in my tuna salad, a trick taught to me by a high-school friend, my mom thought that was pretty radical.

Anyways, it should be said that the sandwiches at Pret a Manger in its homeland of England are far superior to the ones available here—years ago there was a great New Yorker article about Pret's American expansion, and they detailed the marketing meetings where executives discussed the strange American penchant for huge, multi-filling sandwiches that fall apart after a few bites. Apparently Americans are scared of mayo, which was probably scary to a culture that calls egg salad "egg mayonnaise." (People are weirdly fearful of mayonnaise I find; it's one of the most-cited items on many people's do-not-eat lists.)

At the Pret a Manger that's downstairs from the office building where I am working this week, they have a small case for breakfast pastries (in the morning it's muffins and scones, in the afternoon they put in cookies and sweets), and every day I manage to grab a pastry that's still warm. I also love that they give you free jam and butter (organic butter even, in those cute individually-wrapped pats). And their coffee isn't so bad either.