Bien cuit: The French use that term for breads and pastries that emerge from a short stay in a quick oven so brown they might as well be black. The phrase translates as “well cooked.” You already know the taste. Call forth that blistered wild-yeast flatbread you ate in that trendy farm-to-fire-to-table restaurant. Think of the last great pizza you wolfed down, the one with the smoke-perfumed crust and the charred high-top crown.
Croissants served bien cuit at Easy Tiger, a two-year-old bakery and beer hall in Austin, Texas, recall that taste. Only they taste better. So do the pretzels. While they don’t get the well-cooked treatment, Easy Tiger pretzels are paragons of the loopty-loop form, at once chewy and firm, like drawn and quartered bagels. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We haven’t even gotten in the front door.
From the street, Easy Tiger, which claims a slim storefront in sight of an interstate overpass, alongside a stream that might best be described as a slow-trickling culvert, looks like a slackers’ lair. Press your nose to the window to see the crew of mussed-hair hipsters, working in a nimbus of flour, rolling and spanking various doughs. If you spy a slightly older fellow with a straw hat cocked back on his head, spanking the doughs a little harder than most, that’s David Norman. A veteran of Bouley Bakery in New York City, he’s a partner in the business and the resident dough puncher.
It’s quiet on this end of Sixth Street, the rowdy Austin thoroughfare that gets blocked, Bourbon Street style, on Saturday nights. Especially in the early afternoon, before the downstairs rathskeller fills with beer geeks, before college students throng the tree-shaded patio and crowd the Ping-Pong tables, before the speakers above pulse with local music from Alejandro Escovedo and the Sensitive Boys or Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears.
If you don’t mind the occasional table-tennis ball caroming into your beer pitcher, you’ll pass a few happy afternoon hours downstairs and never suspect that superior croissants await upstairs. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Especially if you snag a seat at one of the trestle tables and call for a glass of whiskey-barrel-aged stout. And you begin with a sheaf of raspy beef jerky, cured and smoked by partner and chef Drew Curren, or a crock of pale yellow beer cheese so light and frothy you’ll swear it’s buoyed by aerosol. Especially if you close with one of those fried egg and homemade bologna sandwiches that the Easy Tiger boys stack on house-baked pain au lait.
But to know the true pleasures of this place you must eat deep into its roster of breads and pastries. That means starting in the morning with a cup of coffee in hand and a selection of Norman’s croissants in reach. Bite into one of the butter-shellacked lovelies he calls a plain croissant. Your shirtfront will flake with pastry shards. If you sport a beard, you’ll need a comb later. Soon, your hand will reach for a twice-baked almond croissant. And then a high-domed chocolate croissant. Before long you too will be preaching the gospel of bien cuit and showing your friends cell phone pictures of the croissants you ate that time in Austin.
Three more Southern bread shrines
Alon Balshan turns out traditional Jewish breads like challah and French riffs like orange brioche. alons.com
Beloved for its wild-yeast farmhouse bread, this English Village standby also bakes custardy pain aux raisins. chezlulu.us
Lionel Vatinet is a champion of the Bien Cuit School, known for rustic, hearth-baked breads with crackling crusts. lafarmbakery.com