Le Pain Quotidien Lets Them Eat Cake
If it seems Le Pain Quotidien isn't priced for the 99 percenters, perhaps it would make sense to first mention it's in Fashion Island. Dine outside, and you're liable to be seated next to a pampered Newport Beach pooch with a budget for doggie treats bigger than your bank account. On the menu, the word "organic" is repeated often, as if to justify charging up to $13.25 for an omelet.
The bakery is the first OC outlet of a Belgian brand that has penetrated every corner of the world, including just about every neighborhood in LA that can afford it. It figures the suits chose deep-pocketed Newport Beach, even if the tony outdoor mall already has a bakery with Pain in the name. Le Pain Quotidien also thumbs its nose at La Brea Bakery, which does business directly across the courtyard. It doesn't seem to worry about the competition, nor does it care its prices could be considered expensive for what amounts to the Eurozone version of a Corner Bakery.
You can tell it knows exactly what it's doing. Before you get sticker-shocked by the check, you are lulled into the rustic idea of an Old World bread maker, as Le Pain Quotidien fashions itself to be. It's strategic in the way it does it. The store looks as if it's been there for ages. Large-diameter loaves still dusty with flour are stacked on racks directly behind the register and next to the windows facing out. Since I've rarely seen anyone purchasing one, they function more as props than product. Visible behind paned glass is the baking floor, a tiled room equipped with industrial mixers whose bowls could fit a pony. Though unused for most of the business day, its existence conveys the promise of freshness. On the sidewalk, blackboard easels lend a sense of immediacy to the specials—never mind that most items on it are on the permanent menu.
Almost all dishes served include bread in some form. The soup du jour gets two pieces of loaf to dunk into the bowl. Small appetizer plates such as the salmon and avocado tartare come with crostini slices to use as crispy crackers. Order an omelet, and you receive a slice of wheat and a beveled cut of baguette, hearty things with hard, craggly crusts and thick, chewy interiors that seem already stale by the time they get to your table. As for the omelet I tried, folded over to the bloated girth of a chalupa, it was missing any of the divine slobber and fluffiness that characterizes a great one. But I wasn't surprised: It's easy to make a mediocre omelet, yet exceedingly hard to make one good enough to be worth $10.
Closer to lunchtime, most people order the tartines, open-faced sandwiches built on a single slice of wheat bread. One of the best has grilled chicken planed as thin as a cold cut and hidden under a murmuring sheet of melted, smoked mozzarella with splotches of pesto on top for flavor. The open-minded will delight that it's cut into thirds, decorated daintily with slices of cucumber and radish wedged upright between the pieces; the penny-pinching cynic will see Le Pain Quotidien's tartines as overpriced sandwiches missing the top slice of bread.
No matter which one you are, it might be better to order any dessert pastries at the register, lest you want to pay the tip on them. The almond meringue—oval-shaped to resemble a Nerf football, with the same foamy lightness—crumbles to dust just by looking at it. It's delicious, probably one of the best things Le Pain Quotidien bakes, embedded throughout with almond slivers and featuring a cavern in the center that offers a chewy treasure trove of nougat. A Belgian brownie, as rich as a regular ol' American one but not as cloyingly sweet, gets baked into the shape of a tart and melts with the consistency of fudge in the mouth. A chocolate chip cookie shares the width of a Frisbee and is uniformly thin—as crispy and buttery on the edges as it is at the center. And yes, the pain au chocolat is decadently filled, and the croissant crackles as it should between the teeth. It would be best, however, to forget, if for a moment, to which income bracket you belong when you come.
This review appeared in print as "Let Them Eat Cake: Le Pain Quotidien is pricey—but what else would you expect at Fashion Island?"
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