Carey Jones at Serious Eats makes a compelling case that the best croissant in America can be found at The Little Chef in Princeton, NJ. Normally, I would be skeptical of a review like this, but when she writes "A perfect croissant does not yield; it shatters," I know I'm dealing with someone who knows her pastry.
I fell in love with the croissant during my summer semester at the University of Dijon many years ago. A group of older women from the area came in each morning to make and serve breakfast in the restaurant beneath the dining hall. The options were limited: croissant, tea, coffee or hot cocoa, and whatever jam they happened to bring that day. With croissants fresh from the oven, red current or raspberry jam from local farms, and hot cocoa that left dregs of chocolate shavings in the bottom of the mug, no one was complaining. Not known for being a morning person (understatement!), I dragged myself up at 7:30am everyday and never missed a breakfast.
In later years, I've been lucky enough to spend more time in France and travel around the countryside. While I've had some excellent pastry, nothing has ever matched the homemade croissants fresh from the oven that I enjoyed that summer. They have spoiled me for life. Maison Kayser in Paris is my favorite bakery (and possibly my favorite place on the planet), and even their wonderful croissant falls short. Not that I let this stop me from going there twice a day when I'm in town. The Dijon croissant has become a sort of Platonic ideal, but I am happy to "make do" with MK's amazing offerings. My happiest moment in Tokyo, sad as it is, was finding their Shinjuku branch in the food halls of Takashimaya Times Square. Japanese food and I weren't getting along, and I was hungry, darnit!
American croissants have been a study in disappointment. Pale, flat, doughy at worst and somehow off at best, I'd accepted that croissants (like so many other foods) were a treat I'd only be able to enjoy in France. The photos from The Little Chef tempt me to reconsider. Dark caramelized exterior, tender golden interior, countless layers spiraling to the center - they look almost too good to be true. The best part: Princeton is much closer (and cheaper!) than Paris. Next time I'm anywhere near the Northeast, I'll have to check it out.