In Montreal there is a croissant. It is maybe the best croissant this side of Paris, as well as the other side of Paris too. And, then, even in Paris, who knows about their croissant? In fact, no matter in which way from whatever kind of grouping, on Mont Royal, just west of Saint-Denis, there is one of the loveliest little places for pastry. Pâtisserie Au Kouign Amann, neither unassuming nor assuming, simply is. Sitting there, lovely, quiet, red, it comes by itself naturally, honestly, when it’s open. That is, it doesn’t have posted hours—it barely has posted prices—but its love and understanding and appreciation of pastry comes through, in the very little it chooses to do.
As pâtissière Megan Staton was kind enough to explain, what matters most is to do what you already do but always slightly better. Only 12 or so items on offer—none of them seasonal, for what’s good is good is good—something is sooner to be taken off the menu than added to it. Always tinkering, improving, there is, at Kouign Amann, a rare sense of contented yet ceaseless striving. A homey, old world, wooden space, with three tiny tables at which to sit (for the workers there is only room to stand). The closeness lends itself to warmth and it’s rare to find anyone there who isn’t smiling. "You have no choice," as Staton says, "but to develop a good personality."
Owner and Normandy-trained pâtissier Nicholas Henri, who cares little for notoriety or publicity, is a kind and soft-spoken man. "He takes time to explain why he’s doing things differently when he is," Staton says, and the word which repeatedly comes up when he’s mentioned is loyalty. At Kouign Amann there are no titles and no hierarchy. When looking to be hired, you’re asked more about who you are as a person and what you love about viennoiseries.
In addition to their simply—and inexplicably—ethereal croissant, Kouign Amann also makes pains au chocolat and chaussons aux pommes, various tartelettes, three kinds of quiche, and a cream of carrot and squash soup. Yet they are most known for their kouign amann, a pastry or butter cake, eaten by Bretons (and others) for generations. Leaving out all that may be extraneous, out of just flour and water, salt, yeast, butter and sugar, emerges the profoundest of purity and simplicity. When eaten warm, and focused—slowly—there are few such experiences, in which to lose oneself, so wholly and completely.
There is very much that Kouign Amann does not do. Thank God.
David Heti is a stand-up comic, occasional bioethicist, and one-time counsel with the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. His first album of comedy, It was ok, an album of comedy by David Heti, will be released in 2015 by Stand Up! Records. Follow him at @davidheti.