Bertrand Houlier is a typical Frenchman. The best flour? French. The best butter? French -- from Charentes, of course. Even the ovens are better over there, he says. That's why Houlier imports all the equipment and ingredients to bake bread and pastries of his native land.
It would be easy to dismiss such chauvinism if Houlier's pastries didn't prove him right. Take one bite and the Charentes croissant ($2.05) shatters into buttery shards. The crisp tart shell tastes like a delicate sugar cookie; it's filled with vanilla-laced pastry cream and crowned with naturally sweet fruit (individual, $3.95; eight-inch, $17.95). For my last meal, please order me an almond croissant ($2.65). Or two.
Houlier began selling his pastries at the Montgomery Farm Women's Cooperative Market in Bethesda last year and quickly gained a cult following. On Saturdays, he sells as many as 100 croissants (some made with Charentes butter, others with a less-expensive variety for $1.95). They are gone by 10:30 a.m. He also sells country loaves he calls Michaud ($4.15), with a chewy crust, and baguettes ($1.95) that he wraps in traditional paper sleeves (imported from France, of course). We tried baguettes on two occasions. The first was ethereal, but the second lacked salt and reminded one taster of Italian bread. Mon dieu!
Houlier's success encouraged him to open a retail store in mid-May at the front of his Rockville bakery. His aim to infuse French style into everything he does is challenged at this distinctly unstylish strip mall in Rockville. Outside, it's a long way from the Boulevard St.-Michel in Paris, for which the bakery is named. But inside, it's a cheerful place. The walls are a pretty yellow and are covered with French art deco posters. The more important display is the case of croissants and pastries. Saint Michel also makes sandwiches to order and sells fair-trade coffee and organic tea.
The sandwiches are a treat, not to mention a bargain. Each of eight traditional French varieties is served on half a baguette ($5.75). The pan bagnat is faithful to Nice, with whipped tuna, anchovies, olives and slices of a perfect hard-cooked egg. The paname is stacked with brie and slices of ham that, following French tradition, is made in Canada. It is dressed with a minimal amount of French butter and imported Dijon mustard. We also liked the Atlantique, which has smoked salmon, slices of cucumber, butter and a dill dressing.
For now, Houlier is importing the dough for his breads and croissants. But later this month, he hopes to start making his own bread dough using a special ultra-organic French flour. One thing will remain unchanged: the prices.
"I try to keep the prices fair. This food should not be a luxury for only rich people," Houlier says. "It should be for everyone. Just like in France."
-- Jane Black (Good to Go, June 3, 2009)