Posts Tagged ‘Pastries’

Belle Sucre (7500 North Mesa Street, #307)

Having recently moved to El Paso from Montréal, a city teeming with quality pastry shops (especially French pâtisseries), I was on the lookout for a competent pastry shop here in town as soon as I landed. Belle Sucre was my first discovery, one that has, in terms of creativity, execution, and consistency, only been matched so far by Orange Peel. (To boot, Jonathan Bowden, the chef behind the shop, boasts a delightfully sardonic sense of humour!) I have to admit I was initially ambivalent about giving Belle Sucre a try, the grammatical mistake in its name (“sucre,” a masculine noun, being “beau,” not “belle”) casting doubt on the quality of its confections. In the end, my (I admit, exaggerated) worries were unfounded. While I have found Belle Sucre to struggle ever so slightly with actual French pastries (the filling of their éclair au chocolat is unintentionally reminiscent of chocolate pudding), they excel at putting a French twist on classic American desserts (e.g, pumpkin pie). Indeed, these “classics with a twist” are always inspired and expertly executed, substituting American desserts’ usually homemade quality (by no means an undesirably thing) with French finesse and precision. À se lécher les babines!

Belle SucreIn addition to being a pastry shop, Belle Sucre also doubles as a bakery, offering baked goods like croissants and baguettes (as well as hybrid abominations like cronuts and cruffins, which, in Belle Sucre’s defence, are always an instance of the whole being lesser than the sum of its parts, regardless of the baker behind them). Rather impressively, Belle Sucre has managed to create the only baguette I know of in all of El Paso that technically qualifies as an actual baguette. (All other so-called “baguettes” I have had in town so far are simply elongated dinner buns.) While its aroma, crust, and taste are right on target, the crumb’s texture is, unfortunately, not as baguette-like as it could be: dry-ish and speckled with small pockets of air, instead of soft and “stretchy” with medium to large pockets of air. While this problem (possibly due to altitude) prevents Belle Sucre’s baguette from feeling completely authentic, it remains a baguette in all other respects, and, despite its limitations, an enjoyable one at that. Now if only El Paso would produce a decent fromagerie and charcuterie to enjoy Belle Sucre’s baguettes with!

Re-reading my review, I feel like I am being rather hard on Belle Sucre, considering the sheer quality of its diverse and ambitious products. I choose to leave my review intact, however, but qualify it with this: I am being hard on Belle Sucre because it is so close to pastry and bakery perfection—indeed, it reminds me of the better pâtisseries and bakeries in my home town—that the small issues that prevent it from reaching those culinary heights become even more noticeable. However noticeable these issues may be, however, do not let them stop you from visiting Belle Sucre. I certainly haven’t!

Orange Peel (4700 North Mesa Street)

Orange Peel could stand toe-to-toe with Montreal’s more eclectic (and less traditional) pastry shops (e.g., Pâtisserie Rhubarbe), were it to spontaneously relocate there.

Orange PeelInside this diminutive (but oh so quaint) pastry shop stands a refrigerated glass display filled with triple-threat confections that a) are simultaneously playful and homey in appearance, b) demonstrate exquisite texture (a feat made all the more surprising by the fact that many of the confections are gluten-free), and c) feature creatively combined and expertly balanced flavours that bring into play natural aromas and just enough sweetness. (Indeed, in a rare show of restraint for an American dessert establishment, sweetness is here kept on a leash, letting instead aromas come to the forefront of the flavour experience.)

Although pastries on offer change regularly, new arrivals always come across as completely thought-through and carefully put-together, as if their recipes had been worked on and perfected over years. (Fortunately, old favourites make regular comebacks!) Indeed, there is an effortless quality to how the one single chef behind Orange Peel, Julie Adauto, comes up with and executes new recipes, one that testifies to the extent of her pastry passion, knowledge, and skills. To top it all off, Chef Adauto is extremely friendly and always a joy to talk to and discuss her work with. Fortement recommandé!

I wrote the following review of Valentine’s Bakery & Kitchen about one year ago, but never got around to publishing it here on A Heck of a Kerfuffle. To properly remedy this omission on my part, I have below reproduced my initial, year-old review of Valentine’s, and followed it up with a brand-new update:

My husband and I had dinner at Valentine’s Bakery & Kitchen yesterday evening. Don’t let the modest (but very clean) interior fool you: dishes here are prepared and plated thoughtfully, with an attention to taste, texture, and presentation. The shrimp ceviche, the tortilla chips, as well as the fish and shrimp tacos, were particularly impressive. The ceviche combined plump pieces of shrimp with just enough citral acidity, which itself was rather cleverly tempered with the creaminess of avocado purée. The freshly fried tortilla chips were crisp and airy, like thick and savoury triangles of phyllo pastry. (To be honest, Valentine’s tortilla chips are truly like none we’ve ever had before.) As for the tacos: the fish fillets and shrimp were plump and only lightly dusted in breadcrumbs—giving you some “crunch,” while still letting you appreciate the fish and shrimp meat—and rested on mini-tortillas that were sweet and tender. We look forward to visiting Valentine’s again soon, and wish them the best in a town that is tragically short on the kind of thoughtful and subtle cooking we had the pleasure of experiencing at their establishment.

UPDATE: Since our first visit there, Valentine’s has revealed itself to be one of the most accomplished local purveyors of pan blanco, a Mexican bread that, under their bakers’ care, boasts an incredibly soft crumb with unusually pleasant hints of tartness. (Pan blanco is the go-to bread for torta, a Mexican type of sandwich often named after its main ingredient. My own personal, homemade favourite: torta de gravlax! Truly, a match made in heaven that gives bagels and lox a run for their money.)

The happy discovery that Valentine’s bakery puts out one heck of a pan blanco has, I’m afraid, been accompanied by some not-so-happy developments on the kitchen and service fronts. To begin with, we have come to notice that Valentine’s struggles with one of the cardinal features of competent cuisine: consistency. Indeed, over the course of several meals, the kitchen mishandled key ingredients (by, for instance, overcooking fish or over-salting meat) and/or completely omitted key ingredients from their usually pitch-perfect recipes (namely, the avocado purée from the ceviche). Most tragically, however, Valentine’s has inexplicably opted to remove their fish and shrimp tacos—two of their strongest dishes, when prepared appropriately—from their menu. Also, we noted a decline in the quality of service. Indeed, our server (during our last three visits) had trouble reconciling her sulky demeanour with her customer-service responsibilities. This failure on her part had the unfortunate consequence of imposing a drab atmosphere onto our dining experience, an atmosphere which evoked a loss of passion on Valentine’s part. In fact, we have gotten the sense (one we hope is mistaken) that the restaurant is no longer committed to its craft, preferring instead to mechanically output food without attention to detail.

We sincerely hope that Valentine’s finds it within itself to rekindle its former glory by a) encouraging the different chefs that helm the kitchen throughout the day to attentively follow the strong recipes outlined by the original menu creator, b) reinstating strong dishes into its menu, and c) infusing a certain brightness and lightness of spirit back into its service. Promisingly, Valentine’s glory days aren’t buried too deep in the past. Surely, the time is still ripe for them to reach back and become relevant again.

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