When you're a small bakery with big aspirations, a South Goldenrod Road address just won't cut it. After all, you're a sophisticated boulangerie with roots in France. So once you've tested the waters in a less desirable quadrant of the city, you set your sights on prized territory – which, in the case of Benjamin French Bakery, is the heart of Thornton Park. Having conquered the space that once housed the Marie-France boutique, owner Benjamin Coquillou promptly converted it to a boulanger's liking: display cases lined with macarons, croissants, éclairs, cream puffs, tarts and, bien sûr, Napoleons. (The tangerine walls and black furnishings are a holdover from the old place.) No matter the decor, it's difficult not to immediately order a sweet pastry upon walking into this bakery, but patience proved to be a virtue as we occupied one of two small tables in the back and pored over the menu of sandwiches, quiches and savory pastries.
Knowing the sweet indulgences to come, we tempered our desire for rich sandwiches like the croque monsieur ($5.75) and croque madame ($5.99) and chose to commence with a relatively healthy Le Monaco ($7.99) – chicken breast, tomatoes, slices of hard-boiled egg and a light mayo on ciabatta bread. Simple, fresh and magnifique. With its broccoli, leeks, onions and nutmeg sauce, the quiche vegetarienne ($6.85) would make the realest of men proud to devour this meatless, intensely flavored, eggy wonder.
Of the seven quiches offered up on the menu, only two were available, and considering the popularity of these savory pies for breakfast and lunch (especially on weekends), the shortage was almost to be expected. But then my eyes caught a square slab of savory flakiness beckoning from the display – the friand. Having never sampled one before, I took great delight in every ethereal, crackly bite of its spinach and feta ($6.85) filling, and the pastry only served to solidify Monsieur Coquillou's standing as a master pâtissier.
Then came the pièce de résistance, or rather, pièces de résistance: a chocolate croissant ($2.69), which I have no reservations in calling my favorite chocolate croissant in this city; an apple turnover ($3.45), so light in texture but hardly light on flavor; and cannelés, a rich specialty of Coquillou's native Bordeaux region. The cakes come in various sizes, but we purchased a bag ($1.99) of minis to enjoy with our coffee. Their soft, custardy centers contrasted with a caramelized coating that made them difficult to stop eating.
We also purchased a rustic baguette ($2.99) to enjoy later at home, and while that may seem a lot for a loaf, it was a small price to pay for the best French bread I've enjoyed in some time. I'm not one to readily dispense superlatives, but hyperbole, on the other hand … let's just say that if Thornton Park winds up being Benjamin's Waterloo, then I'll happily join the Coquillous in exile, wherever that may be.
If I searched hard for a fault, I could point to the fully automatic Jura espresso machine, but that gleaming contraption churned out a perfectly good cappuccino ($3.89). I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, given that the Coquillous appear to be pushing all the right buttons.
Benjamin French Bakery
716 E. Washington St.