It was raining — a true chats et chiens downpour — when we recently ate lunch at La Baguette French Bread & Pastry Shop inside Chickasaw Oaks Village. Is that what kept us inside, nibbling on dessert pastry after we were fully sated, or was it just so delicious we wanted more?
Excess is excess, no excuses. But when lemon tarts and chocolate tarts are smaller than silver dollars, éclairs are not as long as an iPhone and petit fours are so good that the sweet bites are as satisfying as something twice the size, well, it’s easy to get carried away. It’s all so tiny. So innocent.
We’ll discuss how the Danish and croissants are the dead opposite in a bit, because while La Baguette offers a decent enough light meal, let’s be real: It’s the bakery part that matters most.
There was a time when the tomato soup at La Baguette was a treat, when there were several locations around town, including one in the Stein Mart store that was on Summer Avenue. I’d shop there as a teenager and young adult, always starting or ending with a cup of tomato soup and a Napoleon (and heralding a lifelong love affair with the cuisine of Summer Avenue).
It was one of the first things I learned to cook, copying from my mother’s copycat recipe for the tomato soup, thick with onions and absent any cream. Even if I’ve come to like our recipe better, which can happen over time, it doesn’t mitigate the very bad cup of soup I was served at La Baguette. It was watery and worse, it was sour and tasted off. (It was better, though not exactly great, on another visit.)
But everything was off that day, maybe because it was a weekend. A counter worker couldn’t identify a white cake, and when asked a second time, yelled across the room for another worker to come to her aid. It remained a mystery until someone finally, and with hesitation, suggested that maybe they could ask the kitchen, if I really needed to know.
I really did. When the American cake and the European cake were identified as such, I asked to try a piece of each. She said that I would have to pay for both.
So I said I was prepared to do that, and only then, maybe 10 minutes after I walked through the door, was I able to place my order. It was so odd, such a perplexing experience that I talked to friends about it. Many were sympathetic and recounted similar stories. For my part, this was the only time I’ve had service like this at La Baguette, where the service is usually very pleasant, but it was such a head-scratcher that it requires a pitiless account.
The quiche that day — we had the ham and cheese and the spinach — were both good. The quiche is more cheesy than it is custardy, and you can debate the virtues of each. It was tasty, and I’m not one to complain about cheese. The American cake and European cake were both excellent, and a true bargain at $1.25 per slice.
They’re both white cake with white frosting, but the American cake is much sweeter. It’s birthday cake, without the big globs of colored roses and instead just a thin layer of icing on top, in the middle of the shallow double-layer cake and around the sides. The cake was slightly wet at the top of the layers, not in a bad way, but in one that suggests a glaze was applied before the icing.
The European cake had no glaze and the icing was more buttery, perhaps contained a bit of cream, and was much less sweet. I’d gladly buy either.
When it comes to the meal at La Baguette, the chicken salad is the way to go. It’s one of my favorite versions in town, one I try to copy when I make it at home. It’s full of tarragon, the anise-scented herb that simply says “France.” The pimento cheese is also good, though quite simple. Of course, at some point pimento cheese becomes something completely different, after we add hot peppers, bacon and so on. This is a fine example of plain pimento cheese.
The Italian panino (panini is the plural, though it’s used on this menu and many more) was very good too, sort of a refined muffuletta with Italian meats, cheese and a nice olive dressing.
The Cobb salad is full of chicken and seemed generous — certainly it was plenty — but it brings up the sad use of foam plates and even worse, flimsy plastic serving utensils. No one should have to try to eat a salad with a fork that bends. Salt and pepper come in tiny packets, and this whole setup delivers a cruel blow to the restaurant’s appeal.
However, keep in mind that you can dine on real plates in the dining room, but it’s all a bit confusing. There’s a pastry counter, a to-go counter, the dining room and tables in the mall corridor. Those that are numbered also rate table service; the others are for folks who opt to place their order at the counter.
In any event, it doesn’t change the fact that the pastries are excellent. The almond croissant, pastry filled with almond custard, iced and coated with slivered almonds, made our “100 More Things to Eat in Memphis Before You Die” list published last month. The cinnamon roll, a large bun of thin, loosely wrapped layers, was close to making it (and my favorite of the two, though the almond croissant is a better example of excellence than the cinnamon roll). They’re huge too, certainly something you can split. Decadent.
It’s the plain vanilla petit four that has my heart, though. It’s perfect, and nothing else would’ve made the list had we tried it when we went to La Baguette. (Others were available that day; the selection varies.) Two thin layers of moist and tender white cake are joined with a later of sweet frosting, the square is glazed and the top frosted with a sweet white icing and a decorative squiggle.
A friend who joined me for lunch would argue that the lemon tart — tangy! — should take top spot. Another makes a good case for a Napoleon, and there is nothing wrong with the chaussons, or turnovers, filled with fruit, cream cheese, or a mix.
I consider La Baguette a Memphis institution. It’s where we get hot cross buns at Easter, the first place many of us remember getting a baguette, we adore the palmiers — and we love the idea of a French bakery. With so much going for it, I just want it to be better; I want it to be how I remember it being instead of how it is.
And I hope to never hear a worker say “I have no idea,” when asked what an item is, but instead hear the answer or “Let me find out for you.”
la baguette French Bread & pastry Shop
Address: 3088 Poplar
Hours: Open 6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday; 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Sunday. Dining room (table service) is open 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. only.
Reviewer’s choice: Pastry is generally excellent: Favorites include vanilla petit four ($1.40); almond croissant ($2.50); cinnamon roll ($2.25); palmier ($1.95). Italian panini ($9.25); chicken salad ($6.25); quiche ($6.25 per slice, $8.55 with salad and $8.65 with soup).
<b>Poor:</b> Zero stars
<b>Good:</b> One star
<b>Very Good:</b> Two stars
<b>Excellent:</b> Three stars
<b>Extraordinary:</b> Four stars