Brioche just may be the final frontier for American bakeries.
For the most part, they've done an admirable job with two other French classics--the baguette and the croissant.
But what about brioche, that light, fluffy, slightly sweet, egg-and-butter-filled bread? You know, the one that looks like an overgrown bun sporting a topknot? Martha Stewart swears by brioche for French toast, and plenty of restaurants have discovered that this bread can really boost a sandwich's appeal. So where can you get it?
We turned to bakeries that specialize in French/European-style pastries. Of the more than 30 we contacted, eight had brioche available on a daily basis.
We called ahead and asked that a few be set aside at each bakery, knowing that a pastry traditionally eaten for breakfast has a tendency to disappear by mid-day. At one, the brioche we were promised was not available. That left us samples to savor from seven Washington-area bakeries. Here's how they rated.
PATISSERIE POUPON We found only one brioche to rank among the greats, and that was the large loaf from this Georgetown bakery (for some reason, the pint-size individual brioche wasn't as good). Ruth Poupon's loaf was fine looking: tall and puffy and glistening from its egg wash. It was also light as a feather and full of buttery taste. (Patisserie Poupon, 1645 Wisconsin Ave. NW; call 202-342-3248; miniature brioche, $.75; traditional, $1.20; loaf, $5.90.)
DESSERTS BY GERARD You want to love whatever comes out of this charming little bakery. And we really did like the taste of Gerard Huet's brioche. Instead of the usual topknotted pouf, these were six-inch-long rolls that would be a challenge for French toast. But they would be great as a sandwich roll, especially surrounding something like ham and Gruyere. (Desserts by Gerard, 6341 Livingston Rd., Oxon Hill; call 301-839-2185; brioche rolls, $.65 each; traditional loaves available by special order.)
THE FRENCH CONFECTION We were also charmed by Xavier Mauprivez's very pretty individual brioche and the look-alike minis. Their flavor was a little on the caky side, but nothing you'd notice under a mound of strawberry preserves. (The French Confection, 3418 Olney Laytonsville Rd., Olney; call 301-774-5082; mini brioche, $.45; individual, $.75; loaves available by special order.)
LA MADELEINE Looks can be deceiving. We had little hope for the brioche we got from this chain's Bethesda location. It was big and cocoa brown and had a surface that was anything but glistening. And it weighed as much as a small cantaloupe. But inside it was pretty good--perhaps a bit too much like challah than a traditional brioche, but prime fodder for French toast. Or bread pudding, another good use for leftovers. (Available at all La Madeleine bakery/cafes; small brioche, about $1; large brioche, about $3.25.)
PASTRIES BY RANDOLPH Though this brioche looked classic, the dough had too much salt and was both greasy and un-buttery. Marc Randolph's brioche is better used for toast. (Pastries by Randolph, 4500 Lee Hwy., Arlington; call 703-243-0070; individual, $.75; loaves available by special order.)
SEN5ES We still haven't quite recovered from the shock. We were handed a long loaf of frozen brioche--solid as a rock. Then we were told we could warm it up in a microwave--something we would never do. The freezing didn't seem to affect the texture, though we wanted more of the slightly sweet brioche taste from seasoned chefs Xavier Deshayes and Bruno Feldeisen. Sen5es serves sandwiches on brioche slices. That explains the loaf shape and why it's not as sweet as breakfast brioche. (Sen5es, 3206 Grace St. NW; call 202-342-9083; loaf, $8.)
VIE DE FRANCE Picture a giant yellow popover and you've got a good idea of what the brioche from this chain restaurant/bakery's K Street location looks like. As for taste, think flavorless fluff, without a hint of buttery richness. (Locations throughout the Washington area; individual, about $1.30 each.)