Restaurant: Cafe Besalu
Last visited: July 21, 2013
Location: Seattle, WA (Ballard)
Address: 5909 24th Ave NW
Transit: 24th Ave NW & NW 61ST St
Phone: +1 206-789-1463
Price range: $10 or less
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
- Opened October 2000
- Owners/Baker James and Kaire Miller
- Made daily/small batch baking
- Award winning croissants
- Known for “best croissant”
- Traditional Parisian pastries
- Limited savoury options
- Long lines in the morning
- Local favourite
- Limited seating
- Eat in/Take out
- Wed. – Sun. 7 am – 3 pm
- Twitter: n/a
**Recommendations: Croissant, Quiche, Pain au Chocolat, Ginger Biscuit
Gone are the days when Cafe Besalu flew under the radar. Press and hype seemed to have peaked for it and now it has become a classic.
It opened in 2000 in an off-the-beaten path neighbourhood that isn’t so quiet anymore. The historic Ballard area in the Northwestern part of Seattle has become popular for its hip/hipster restaurants, where locals and tourists can spend the day restaurant hopping. You could actually spend 2 days doing that, but I spread myself out for Follow Me Foodie to 2 Days in Seattle.
I was highly recommended to come here for their croissants. The public as well as numerous publications claimed it was “the best croissant in America”, “the best croissant outside of Paris”, or “even better than croissants in Paris”. Their own website says it is “possibly the best croissant bakery on the entire American continent” and “[their pastries] would rank among the top in Paris”. Bold statements.
I’ve expressed my dislike for “best of” lists and “best” anything, but I rarely turn down an opportunity to try a bakery. I have a soft spot for pastries (don’t look to closely)… well, actually I have a soft spot for many foods, but pastries rank high.
The bakery is opened by James (pictured above) and Kaire Miller. James is a multiple James Beard award semi-finalist and nominee for “Best Pastry Chef” and “Outstanding Pastry Chef”, and he has raised the standards for croissants and pastries in Seattle.
There is something to be said about a baker who still gets his hands in the dough after 13 years. The passion was honest. The way he worked the dough was natural and experienced, and “small batched baking” was taken seriously. The baking station never stopped and trays came out one by one, and there was nothing machine-like about it. Everything seemed like it had a personal touch, yet it was a place that gave me confidence in consistency.
As a tourist from Vancouver I am away from much of the hype, but Cafe Besalu really doesn’t rely on it. It still has long early morning line ups and people still rave about their pastries, but it’s become a true local favourite.
They focus on doing their own thing, and it has a laissez-faire vibe that isn’t trendy. They never expected their small family owned bakery to become one of Seattle’s pride and joys, and they are nonchalant with the spotlight. It has humble beginnings and it’s part of its charm which doesn’t seem to have changed since day one.
This is the only display case and the pastries change on a daily basis. The croissants, danishes and cookies are mainstays, but the fruit is seasonal and flavours may vary. Most of the items are Parisian or traditional French, but there is a small selection of American baked goods like lemon cookies and Snickerdoodles. They have a couple eclectic options such as Apricot Cornmeal Sage Cookies and Cardamom Pretzels, but the pastries are the highlight.
For a bakery, the selection is limited and many of their pastries rely on the same dough as the base. The dough was excellent, so I didn’t mind, but for the most part once you try a handful of things you know what to expect from the rest. It was more or less the same few doughs being rolled, twisted and made into pastries with various house made custards, jams and seasonal fruit fillings. I am not discrediting their efforts, but they are simply specializing in few things and mastering the art of the dough.
Cafe Besalu is a quaint and well respected bakery, where the offerings are as unpretentious as the atmosphere. It was affordable and old fashioned in a way that was charming rather than stale. Even though I was only introduced to it “later in its fame”, I feel like they succeeded because they never changed. Seattle has many beloved bakeries, but Cafe Besalu has an innocence and “je ne sais quoi” that few would envy and many would admire and appreciate.
Every plate, table and chair ends up looking like this.
On the table:
**Croissant – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- I can’t say it is “the best” croissant I’ve ever had (how could I?), but I give it a “6/6” because it is the “must try” item.
- The “test” of a Parisian bakery is in their plain croissant.
- It was light and airy with a nice caramelized colour, but it wasn’t as dark as I expected.
- The outside was already a bit oily, so I was expecting them to taste incredibly buttery.
- It was very soft and tender and it didn’t shatter with a crunch at the cut, but it was certainly flaky and crisp.
- The membranes were very soft, thin, and stretchy with a slight chew, but they were also a bit sunken with less structure.
- It smelled great and it was very buttery in flavour, but if I recall correctly, it was not as buttery as the croissants from Beaucoup Bakery in Vancouver.
- However I liked that they weren’t overly buttery and greasy, and the croissant didn’t ooze oil.
- It was still very much a traditional croissant rather than a modern croissant which takes on characteristics of puff pastry these days.
- These croissants didn’t need additional butter and it was great alone or accompanied with tea.
- It was served with home made strawberry jam too.
Cafe Besalu Croissant VS Crumble & Flake Croissant
I did a back to back comparison with a freshly baked croissant from Crumble & Flake Patisserie. I bought it just before coming to Cafe Besalu. There was a significant difference in appearance, and minor differences in flavour although noticeable.
Cafe Besalu croissants are more traditional and classic French, while Crumble & Flake croissants are more modern in style. To compare them was almost apples and oranges.
The laminated dough and layers were much more distinct on the Crumble & Flake croissants and it resembled puff pastry. The lamination on the Cafe Besalu croissant was much tighter and almost blended.
The colours were similar, but the one from Crumble & Flake shattered in large shards as soon as it was handled, while the Cafe Besalu one held together and shattered in small flakes. The Crumble & Flake croissant had more of a crunchy exterior and the Cafe Besalu one had a crisp, yet soft exterior.
The membranes were more even, balanced and structured on the Crumble & Flake croissant, but the texture was not as light (although still light). The membranes were also very slightly thicker in the Crumble & Flake croissant, and flimsier, fragile, and more tender in the Cafe Besalu croissant. The Crumble & Flake croissant was just a bit breadier, but they were very similar even eating them back to back. Both croissants were moist.
The one at Crumble & Flake didn’t taste as buttery and it wasn’t as oily, but I did prefer the more buttery flavour and lighter layers of the croissant at Cafe Besalu. In the end I wouldn’t turn down either, even though I had my preference.
**Quiche Lorraine – 6/6 (FMF Must Try!)
- With bacon, swiss & scallions $4.50
- To be honest, I actually loved this more than the croissant and I was most impressed by this. I wanted to order another slice.
- They had 4 different quiches and it was their only hot savoury item.
- The egg filling was soft, smooth and silky like tofu and there was chewy thick bacon throughout.
- The bacon was actually much more like ham though.
- The quiche was so moist and juicy and it was well seasoned and savoury with bacon and caramelized onion juices infused into the egg custard.
- The pastry shell is the same flaky pastry used for their baked goods, so obviously it was going to be promising.
- The crust did get a bit soggy, but I didn’t care, and the edges were still buttery and flaky.
- People rave about their quiche, and I thought “how good could it be? It’s just quiche”, but this experience changed the way I feel about quiche.
- I’d come back for this even before the croissant, although I’d just order both.
Apricots in Puff Pastry – 3.5/6 (Good-Very good)
- With almond cream $4
- The puff pastry was similar to their croissant dough and it was buttery, flaky and light.
- It was well caramelized with a crispy exterior and sprinkled with a light dusting of icing sugar.
- I could have used more apricot filling, but the filling it had was quite sour and not just tart.
- I wouldn’t have minded the apricots a bit sweeter with some tartness to balance.
- I could have used more almond cream as well, and it wasn’t too sweet, so the sour apricots didn’t need to balance it.
- The almond cream was house made with ground almonds though, and I could taste it if I ate it alone.
- I like nutty things and nutty pastries so I had to try the hazelnut twist.
- This was pretty much their brioche dough made into a twist.
- It was a bit breadier and not as flaky, given that it was not the croissant dough, and I could taste some cinnamon and orange mixed with the hazelnut crumbs.
- I could have used more hazelnut in general and all over.
- It wasn’t sweet enough to be a dessert, and it was good, but not something I would need to order again.
Cardamom Pretzel – 3.5/6 (Good-Very good)
- I loved the idea and it was the first time I have come across a cardamom pretzel.
- It is not necessarily a “mind blowing” idea, but I could appreciate it for sure.
- The pretzel was basically their puff pastry or croissant dough… likely the scraps.
- It was not a traditional pretzel, but a flaky, buttery, crispy, and soft pretzel.
- It was a bit chewier and beadier and the dough seems more worked and baked for slightly longer.
- It was a bit drier and the cardamom was fragrant and obvious, but not overpowering.
- There was a light brush of sticky honey or simple syrup glaze and a sprinkle of sugar to finish.
- It would have been great with a bit of salt too.
Blueberry Danish – 4.5/6 (Very good-Excellent)
- I went back for the blueberry danish because they were pulling them fresh from the oven. I couldn’t resist.
- The danish was made with their brioche dough for the bottom, and the rim around the edge was I think their croissant dough.
- The croissant rim was crispy and the centre was filled with house made custard and fresh blueberries.
- The custard was a cream cheese custard with a bit of citrus, but I couldn’t tell there was citrus.
- The custard was smooth and jelly-ish in texture and it reminded me of an egg tart or Portuguese egg tart custard.
- The blueberries were natural and the whole danish was simple, delicious, and not too sweet.
- It was a good ratio of custard to pastry and it wasn’t wet or soggy.
- The centre brioche pastry based was soft, tender, moist, light, and airy.
- The two different doughs were a nice contrast in texture and I would definitely order this again.
- It was not a sugary danish or reminiscent of any danish from a grocery store.
- This was a high quality danish made with thought, care and fresh ingredients.