As I walked in the other day, the smell overwhelmed me. I know this smell. From history. This was the smell of 1987. Pushing open the door to a tiny wedge of a shop on West 4th Street near Sheridan Square, Greenwich Village, New York.
The shop was Patisserie Claude. I stopped there for a coffee and a croissant on the way to a new job. I entered a world. The smell of burnt sugar and butter of flour turned into flaky crust of roast coffee compressed with scalding water. The smell activated all the senses. My first taste of a pain au chocolat from Claude sends me to Nice, France. The taste of walking down a street and for a couple of francs grabbing a pastry from a cart. Eat and walk and talk, skipping school at 11am, wandering to Le Grain de Café for a forbidden espresso. 16 never seemed so free.
It’s been decades since I’ve been to Nice. A while since I’ve been to Claude’s. He has retired now and Pablo, so long the slaving sous-chef, has taken over. But here at La Belle Epoque, I am transported. I am immediately at home. Its wood floors say New York to me as do its carefully mis-matched tables and chairs. No one will yell at you for ordering a decaf here. They will just charge you more for it. (Claude was notorious for his outbursts, but we still kept coming for the edible masterpieces he created). The croissants and pain au chocolates and aux almondes are different from Claude’s but lovely and have their own magic. This is a good place. The kind of place to start the day. Late. Vers onze heure du matin. Je n’aime pas bien des matins.