When Casual Becomes Gourmet

At The Intersection of Fast, Cheap and Good

When it comes to meals consumed outside a fine dining setting, most people have three criteria: fast, cheap and good. It’s rare to find all three in one place. American fast food joints usually fail on all counts, and even the most successful and popular ventures in the fast-casual category are lacking in one area.

Maison Kayser was founded by Eric Kayser in Paris in 1996. Kayser was a fourth-generation baker, an occupation taken more seriously in France than almost anywhere else. He began his apprenticeship at 14 and eventually trained bakers at the French national trade school. His first bakery in the capital’s Latin Quarter led to over 100 locations in 20 countries.

Here’s the catch: 15 of his U.S. locations are in New York City, with the other three in Washington, D.C. Maison Kayser is both fast and exceptionally good, but cheap is relative: the outlets are certainly inexpensive compared to the best Manhattan restaurants, but will average $20-25 per person at breakfast, lunch or dinner. They work particularly well in New York, where many people have either an aversion to cooking at home or a kitchen that prevents them from doing so.

It all begins with the bread: an authentic, freshly baked Parisian baguette, crunchy on the outside yet soft and pliable in the middle. It forms the basis for many of the regular and open-faced sandwiches that grace the menu and is available in many forms. There’s a large assortment of viennoiserie, butter-drenched croissants, brioche and buns filled with chocolate, raisins and almonds, paired with excellent coffee. On the savory side there are rillettes of duck or salmon, poached eggs with ratatouille, a dozen entrée salads, chicken stewed in the Basque style, rich and satisfying pasta dishes. No alcohol is served, but freshly pressed juices and designer teas take up the slack.

When it comes to pastries—the real reason you went there in the first place—the selection is dazzling, displayed in the window facing the street. There are eclairs, of course; a proliferation of fresh fruit tarts; the Adagio, a dark chocolate mousse cake with a center of spicy passion fruit; the St. Honoré cake, named for the patron saint of French bakers, and a variation on the classic Mont-Blanc in which black currant essence accents the flavors of the chestnut purée.

Any chance that an operation like this will be coming to South Florida soon? As they say in New York, don’t hold your breath. Until such time as there are enough people willing to pay the same price for an éclair as they would for an early bird dinner, we’ll have to settle for fast and cheap.

 

Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com.

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