Patrick's French Bakery
2928 66th St. W., Richfield
Who can believe that the best French bakery in the state has become the newest resident of a downtrodden-looking Richfield strip mall? No one. No one can believe it. I cannot believe it. You, you cannot believe it. The people of Richfield? They cannot believe it either. They are filled with le scepticisme.
Actually, the average Richfield citizen, upon crossing the threshold of Patrick's French Bakery, will not be distracted by the spun-sugar swans perched on shelf-tops, their slender necks curving like flower stems. Nor will they be set off course by dolphins of blue sugar, tumbling around one another above a case of slender éclairs and trays of plump brioches. Even French music piping in on speakers, even pictures of the Eiffel Tower--nothing affects them. Because the average citizen of Richfield is pretty well convinced that this can't be happening, that Patrick's must in fact be an Irish bakery.
"Sometimes at the end of the day all I can think is, Patrick, why oh why didn't your mother name you Claude?" says Azita Bernet, wife of Patrick, and one of the three owners of Patrick's French Bakery (along with her husband and their investment partner Bob Kinsella). "But I promise: We are truly a French bakery. We really are. I assure you. I promise, promise, promise. But usually we have to get Patrick out of the back, and he comes out here, and he's like: 'Oui...'"
Oui! Patrick Bernet isn't merely French, my friends, Patrick Bernet is so French that when he makes tiramisu, it comes out as a glazed taupe pyramid surmounted by a flat multicolored bracelet of chocolate, as though one of the rings of Saturn had come to rest on one of I.M. Pei's Louvre additions. No offense, but if the Irish were going to make tiramisu, they'd make it just like the Italians, and just like everybody else: plopped in a cup. Only a truly French pastry chef makes tiramisu into ecstatic architecture.
And only a former Cordon Bleu pastry instructor could figure out how to fuse a cylinder of fluffy, potent, achingly good chocolate mousse with a disk of crunchy praline, then enrobe it with a pliant yet tasty casing of icing in just such a way that the chocolate-mousse part of the time-space continuum is hopelessly ruptured. Darlings, watch out: The Feuillantine Pralinée Chocolate Cake is among us, and it is a thing that will fill sensible people with fear, desire, foreboding, lust--it is a devil with a gold-foil garnish. Available as a biggish single serving for $4.95, or as a full cake poised to render an entire room speechless, for $38, this thing, this thing... I brought one to a friend, who mused: Who says those who can't do, teach? We both then attempted to express the chocolate symphony of it all, how the creamy yet potent chocolate mousse clings sweetly to your tongue, yielding pleasure like a memory too good to pollute with the telling. How the darker, nuttier, crunchy praline offered so much in contrast of texture and also with variety of taste in the brighter sweetness and fruity qualities of the nuts. And how the glossy cloak of icing transformed the whole thing into a black tie affair. Well, we tried, anyway. All we actually kept saying was: "It's good." "No, it's good." "No, I mean, really good."
That towel thrown in, we moved on to the equally awe-inspiring lemon meringue tart ($3.90), a buttery, light, liltingly pure lemon custard topped with a toasted froth of buoyant meringue, the whole thing nestled in a tart crust so pure, flaky, and crisp that I fully expect to find tables full of weekend bakers weeping into their sleeves; a Gâteau Saint-Honoré--basically, a cream puff rendered incredibly fancy--was so light, breezy, and fresh that, well, frankly, I don't know that there's a higher form of achievement, cream-puff-wise. I think that at Patrick's, we basically have hit the upper level of human achievement in terms of cream puffs and individual chocolate mousse cakes. Maybe these things could get a percentage or two better, but it's hard to imagine. It's like those mile sprinters who compete with one another in tenth-of-a-second increments: They are in a league, and we are in a league, and these cream puffs are in a league...
I know, I know, I'm rambling like a drunk, but it's just not the sort of thing you expect to find in a run-down-looking strip mall in the obscure three-corners area where Edina, Richfield, and Minneapolis bleed into one another. Which is perhaps why visitors keep poking the employees at Patrick's, hoping to reveal a Celtic core. (Let's break for fun facts! Ireland's Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat, but when he became a bishop in the Latin-centric Catholic Church, he got the name Patricius. The nickname for Patricius, when people love you, is apparently Patrick. Other Irish bishops from around the same time, like Palladius and Auxilius, were mostly just called "Bunny" or "You Roman Jerk.")
In addition to a jewel case of breathtaking pastries, Patrick's also sells the best French onion soup I've had this year; six varieties of quiche with a buttery crust and irresistible custardy texture; thin sticks of picture-perfect baguettes that are identifiable by their glossy, chewy crusts and nicely salty, resilient interiors; and a whole range of savory breads. I particularly admire the olive version ($6.50), filled with green olives the size of robins' eggs. It's an incredibly dense and rich bread, but not dense like heavy, or dense like chockablock with debris, but dense like a great buttery white cake is, substantial with the weight of simple ingredients amplified by focused technique and presentation. Dense like an egg: There's a whole world in that bread.
Then again, there are vast problems with the entire bread and savory program here: I hate to be such a spoilsport, but inevitably the more of them you eat, the less room you will have for dessert. Right now I write to you in despair, because when I talked to Patrick Bernet on the phone for this article, he told me that the Trilogy, a three-part mini-chocolate-cake pastry, is even better than the Feuillantine. And on all my visits, I missed it. If only I had had one fewer baguette... Well, at least you've been warned, so you won't suffer so. Here's this fall's premier food activity: Go to Patrick's, get a Feuillantine and a Trilogy, get a café au lait--they'll make one for you, even though it isn't listed with the cappuccinos on the specialty coffee board--and sit there figuring out which is better. Hard work, I know, but I think you can do it.
While you're there, keep your eyes peeled for the soon to arrive Sarah Cake, recipe to be determined, which the Bernets plan to introduce as the first of their cakes-of-the-month, this one named for the couple's first daughter, due in October. After that, look for Patrick's coming line of holiday specialties. He says he'll have half a dozen pies in time for Thanksgiving, including my holiday pick for the pie most likely to intimidate your in-laws into submission: cranberry meringue. Meanwhile, be sure to look through the large glass window to the bakery production area, where, if you're very lucky, you might see Bernet blowing sugar into hearts or bows for some lucky couple's wedding cake.
Then, when the snow is flying, be still my impatient heart, various kinds of bûche de Noël for Christmas. Bûche de Noël. Rolled up French cake made with genoise and buttercream, decorated to look like beautiful little forest logs. "With the little meringue mushrooms?" I found myself demanding, suddenly bestowed with unfettered access to my inner child. "Oui, oui, of course," said Bernet, soothingly. "And also the little chocolate leaves."
Good. Very, very good.