Pandor Artisan Boulangerie & Café Is the Bread Winner
Have you ever heard of a Tropézienne? It's the missing link between sandwich and dessert. On first glance, it looks like a flat, unfrosted birthday cake served in wedges, but it also resembles a big, sweet-toothed version of a muffaletta, as if someone took a big brioche bun, sliced it down the middle and filled it with a layer of cool custard instead of meat. Legend has it that a Polish baker in Saint-Tropez invented it in the 1950s and that the pastry was a favorite of the voluptuous Brigitte Bardot. Since then, the people there regard the Tropézienne the same way those in Naples regard pizza: You simply can't leave without having one.
Pandor Artisan Boulangerie & Café also bakes a kouign-amann, made by fusing together broiche and croissant dough to form a dense pastry disc studded with dried cherries. The name is derived from the Breton word for butter and cake, but it eats as if it were a cross between an oatmeal cookie and a muffin top, its croissant DNA causing it to flake off in layers.
At this new bakery, the Tropézienne and kouign-amann are just some of many eclectic regional French specialties that will inspire the kind of where-have-you-been-all-my-life epiphanies as the first time you tore into the Taiwanese squid-ink bread at Irvine's 85°C or sunk your teeth into the Japanese strawberry croissant at Tustin's Cream Pan. Pandor is effectively the open-to-the-public showroom for RTR bakery, the wholesale side of the operation whose facility is located in an anonymous office park somewhere in Irvine. Tiffany and Raffi Sepetjian own both; their team of hired-gun Frenchmen do the baking, craft the dessert pastries, and execute a café menu full of sandwiches and egg dishes.
Of course, there are the tried-and-true French breads long-assimilated into the American pantry, such as croissants—big, crusty, flaky ones substantial enough for sandwiches and gleaming with an egg-wash shine. Every once in a while, someone comes out from the kitchen to top off a mountain piled up in one corner of the glass display case. The best croissant is an almond-and-chocolate variant that doesn't have a crescent shape, instead resembling a jagged piece of shale, each amorphous hunk craggy, shedding almonds, and containing untold numbers of chocolate and pastry strata. Brioche is coaxed and baked into loaves that can be sliced for French toast or into tear-away dinner rolls as dense and as sweet as King's Hawaiian's except with a crust able to deflect buckshot. If you're lucky, Pandor will also have it bagged as mini-hamburger buns ready to hug ground-beef patties. One morning, I picked up the last half-dozen; the rest were delivered to the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, one of the bakery's clients.
Though Pandor is a fully functioning restaurant until it winds down service around 3 p.m., it's unlike its closest competitor, Fashion Island's Le Pain Quotidien. It's somehow immune to the shopping center's couture-wearing socialites who might nibble on Quotidiens' open-faced tartine sandwiches as a lifestyle choice. By contrast, Pandor is a neighborhood bakery that attracts neighborhood people. And it's less expensive to boot. This isn't to say Pandor isn't nicely appointed—it is. It has nearly everything Quotidien has. It even employs attractive waifs to tend the counter and populates its walls with hard-crusted loaves of different shapes and sizes that mostly function as décor until that rare customer decides he or she wants one. Pandor's patrons are more likely to take home the crusty epis, the pretzel-bread sticks so impossibly long they could double as pole vaults, and the baguettes, which have a tendency to go stale the minute you step out the door.
Perhaps the best reason to go to Pandor is for egg dishes such as the croque madame or the eggs and beans—both have a sunny-side-up fried to lacy edges, with a yolk halted at the right amount of runny. Say what you will about the French, but they always seem to know their way around an egg. Even the scrambled-egg sandwich is creamy and exhibits an ethereal fluff. And if you've ever seen a quiche as light and Jell-O-wiggly as Pandor's, you might have been dreaming.
For dessert, opt for the Tropézienne rather than the difficult-to-eat rum-flavored Napoleon. Or just succumb to the gold-flecked, waxed polish of the seductive chocolate tarts. The centimeter-thick layer of silken ganache invades every recess of your mouth, while the dense sugar crust crumbles as though it were shortbread. Unlike the Tropézienne, it doesn't have a cool name, but when has a chocolate tart like this needed one?
This review appeared in print as "The Bread Winner: Pandor Artisan Boulangerie & Café brings obscure French pastries to Newport Beach."
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