Morning Coffee: La Croissanterie

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On a recent evening, I sat in La Croissanterie, a small café on Ste. Catherine Street in the west end of downtown Montreal. Before me was a café au lait and a warm apple turnover. Next to me sat a mousy English student whose notes were sprawled across the table. La Croissanterie is a strange little place, its wood-panelled, green-accented interior lost between an alpine lodge and a kitschy casse-croûte, but since I started working nearby earlier this month, it has quickly become my favourite downtown coffee shop.

Part of the reason for that is La Croissanterie’s unabashed, endearing hominess. Its mostly anglophone clientele, a mix of students and random downtowners, lounge in their seats as if they were in a basement rec room. The menu is decidedly quaint, with comfort-food staples like pâté chinois (a Quebec version of shepherd’s pie) cozying up to the café’s namesake: fresh, gloriously crispy croissants baked on-site throughout the day by the café’s friendly immigrant owners.

Another part of what attracts me to this unassuming café is, quite simply, its good value. In my years of drinking caffeinated beverages in Montreal, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a definite correlation between high-quality coffee shops and low prices. La Croissanterie is no exception. A mug of café au lait—the espresso rich and smooth, the milk thick and frothy—costs only $2.25, tax included. A croissant costs just one dollar. Best of all is the daily special: a ham, cheese and egg sandwich on a croissant, with a café au lait, for $4.25. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

The strange decor, the relaxed atmosphere, the good value—all of it give La Croissanterie the air of a throwback to the days before downtown Montreal was monopolized by bland chain cafés. Within six blocks of La Croissanterie’s homely green awning, there are four Starbucks, two Second Cups, two Presse Cafés, one Tim Horton’s and a McCafé, where your Big Mac comes with fries and a latte. These corporate cafés have their place in the world, certainly—they attract a diverse crowd that seeks them out for their anonymity and standardized comfort. But they invariably leave you feeling underwhelmed and uninspired, like a Pumpkin Spice Latte that doesn’t really taste like pumpkin and is far too sweet to begin with.

Perhaps this is fake nostalgia, since I’m really quite young, but when I visit La Croissanterie I can’t help but think of the old European cafés in postwar downtown Montreal. Recently, the Gazette’s food columnist, Lesley Chesterman, wrote an article on the Hungarian cafés that thrived in downtown Montreal during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, after tens of thousands of Hungarians fled here when their 1956 revolution was brutally crushed. They introduced Montreal to European-style coffee and cafés.

“In Hungary, people rarely invited friends into their home,” [said Johnny Vago, a Hungarian immigrant]. “People met in coffee houses. They spent their days there, eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, reading newspapers and playing chess. Writers wrote books and artists drew sketches. It was a congenial place to meet.

“The Hungarian cafés in Montreal also had a huge impact, artistically yes, but businesswise as well. Starbucks does not have the same ambience. They’re designed to make money. But the Hungarian cafés were also a pleasant place to be. I still miss them.”

Some of those cafés became legendary, such as the Coffee Mill on Mountain Street, which boasted a giant Italian espresso machine, fourteen kinds of cake and a clientele—only about half Hungarian—that included university professors and students, office workers, shoppers, artists and loafers.

There are still cafés like that in Montreal—many, in fact—but not downtown. La Croissanterie, it seems to me on those chilly fall evenings when I duck in to read the paper, sip a coffee, nibble at a croissant and watch the people around me, is the only place that comes close.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday November 23 2006at 03:11 am , filed under Canada, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

8 Responses to “Morning Coffee: La Croissanterie”

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    I remember liking the third-world Croissanterie for the very same reasons when I was an undergrad at Concordia.

    But then there’s also the first-world Croissanterie (http://www.lacroissanteriefigaro.com/) in Outremont. I also liked this place, but for very different reasons. The croissants, for one, were the tastiest west of Papineau. The prices were very Outremont.

    In any case, I remember both restaurants having the same logo and suspect they were part of the same chain until the Outremont twin got all uppity.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Ah yes, Le Figaro. It’s a place I hate to love, but you know it’s really hard to help myself when the decor is so cool, it has such a wonderful terrasse and, of course, the croissants are so good. But the snootiness! It’s amazing how much the snobbery quotient increases when you cross Hutchison Street.

    When I told my friend Rossana (who is in theory a contributor to this site, although she hasn’t posted anything yet because she left her camera in her parents’ house in Toronto) that I loved the Ste. Catherine Street Croissanterie, she was horrified. “But they keep their food in plastic wrap!” she exclaimed. “The Figaro one is so much better. The people there are just so sexy.”

  • Siqi says:

    That’s nice. In Toronto we have Maison du Croissants on Yonge St., next door to 3-bucks-apiece t-shirt palaces and Big Slice, home of crackwhores and other shady characters. For most other people in the city who don’t live close enough to one of the snootier downtown pastry shops, their croissant options are limited to Starbucks (meh) or strip-mall bakeries (yuck).

    Trust me, it’s an easier life out there.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Honestly, I would trade an excellent croissant for a good bowl of tong shui (Cantonese dessert soup) any day. Once my girlfriend and I asked a Chinatown restaurant owner if there was anywhere in Montreal were we could find good dessert soup. “Wrong city!” he exclaimed. “Go to Toronto!”

    Anyway…

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    Some of the powdered black sesame dessert soups in Chinatown groceries aren’t bad (the ones that come out black, not grey)–almost like the fresh grind. The powdered almond and red bean ones are crap, though–nothing like what you get in Kowloon.

    Speaking of which, do you know a place to get decent Hong Kong milk tea in Montreal? Bubble tea comes close, but the Hong Kong tea is stronger, sharper and better–something about letting it steep in a stocking for days.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Only two places come to mind. One is Dobe and Andy, a bakery/café right below Kam Fung on St. Urbain Street, which has pretty decent milk tea and an assortment of other Hong Kong-style drinks (like lemon tea). The other place is another bakery/café on the pedestrian mall, right across from the infamous buffet with the red awning. I forget the name (Pâtisserie something) and I’ve never actually tried the milk tea there myself.

    You can also have it at my place — Laine and I keep a stock of black tea “specially formulated for HK-style milk tea” from Vancouver. You steep it for five minutes or so and mix it with good condensed milk (the Chinese and Vietnamese brands work best) and presto, milk tea. Inexplicably, the tea is not sold in Montreal — every grocery store owner here I’ve asked hasn’t even heard of it, and they invariably refer me to the powdered 3-in-1 stuff that tastes kind of weird.

    As for the stocking, apparently the most traditional restaurants in Hong Kong steep their milk tea through a fine filter (some say pantyhose) but I don’t think most  do it that way. The milk tea I make at home is not perfect but it comes pretty close to tasting like the stuff you can get in Hong Kong, Vancouver or Toronto.

  • Elina says:

    Does anyone know the name of the owners of the now closed Coffee Mill cafe? I am looking for one of their wonderful recipes….

  • marj says:

    what’s the address of La Croissanterie?
    im a student at concordia and looking for a quiet place to read