Neil Robertson, the fine-dining pastry chef (Canlis, Mistral Kitchen) who now owns the teeny Seattle bakery Crumble & Flake, said he was stunned when named a James Beard semi-finalist earlier this year. Anyone who has tasted his pastries is likely less surprised: Robertson's ability to marry traditional technique with innovative flavors is incredible—as is his ability to push the envelope on just how much buttery flavor can go into one little pastry.
The legendary lines that made pastry fiends hesitate have died down a bit—a recent Saturday morning had only a few people waiting outside for the nine o'clock opening—and there is still a reasonable selection of treats available in the early afternoon.
So, now that attaining the celebrated pastries is not impossible, what should you get when you go to Crumble & Flake? We tasted through everything they serve to help you make the right choice.
Smoked Paprika and Cheddar Croissant ($3.75)
When you're making a grilled cheese sandwich, the bits of cheese drip off and crisp up in the pan, and that brittle cheese becomes the highlight of the sandwich. The same process happens here. The paprika heat builds with every bite, and the combination of flavors is extraordinary. This is a signature pastry you shouldn't miss.
Pistachio Croissant ($4.50)
A weekend-only special, this is similar to a more common twice-baked almond croissant, with a luxurious twist. The overall effect of a double-baked shell—with additional nuts for even more crunch—and the layer of lavish pistachio cream and orange water inside is something like that of an upscale baklava. Nut fanatics: prepare to freak out.
Pink Peppercorn Cookie ($2)
If you needed proof that Neil Robertson is a genius, this cookie is it. The thinness keeps the cookie crisp, even though it is, in fact, crumbly shortbread. The floral spice of the pink peppercorns hits with the force of a screaming baby at the start of each bite, but the sweetness of the cookie calms it down like a knowing mother, letting it fade out before you bite in and do it all over again.
Cheweos: Malted Milk and Chocolate ($2.50 each)
A modern spin on the classic grocery-store cookie. Soft, chewy dark chocolate cookies take over, and the filling is all butter, no shortening. The filling is richer, more full-flavored, and rounded than the cookie you remember, a smooth upgrade. The malted milk filling is a fun, nostalgic flavor that melds the two parts of the sandwich together. The coffee flavor is reminiscent of coffee ice cream, rendering the overall effect of the cookie to be mocha-flavored.
Kouign Amann and Chocolate Koiugn Amann ($2.75)
Crumble & Flake excels where butteriness is essential, and in no pastry is it more so than the koiugn amann: layer upon layer of flake, curled up inside a fortress of crispiness. The hit of salt along with the caramelized sugar exterior opens the taste buds for the incredible buttery adventure within.
And then we do it all over again, this time with dark chocolate ganache oozing about between the layers like a wave of top-notch chocolate frosting. This works much better than the more solid chocolate in the chocolate ganache—and, really, by using ganache, Robertson has ingeniously figured out a way to sneak yet more butter into one small pastry.
Goat Cheese and Apricot Danish ($4.50
The goat cheese flavor is potent, but not overly tangy or gamey, which makes it play well with the sweet, loose apricot jam in this pastry. The laminated brioche dough is the same as what is used on their cinnamon rolls, but here it fits in perfectly with the traditional Danish. As summer progresses, you'll see a peach filling instead of the apricot.
Chocolate Chip Cookie ($2)
Sometimes a smart pastry chef knows when not to mess with a classic, and Robertson does a great job of leaving the essentials where they should be in this cookie. Rich but not too sweet, and with excellent chew, it's a classic chocolate chip cookie at heart. Simple upgrades with dark chocolate, brown butter, and pecans—better than walnuts (fact)—don't interfere with any traditional aspects of the cookie.
Cinnamon Roll ($3.50)
This isn't your standard Cinnabon. The laminated brioche dough makes a tall, flaky pastry that is elegant and refined. The layers, woven with cinnamon and topped with tangy cream cheese frosting, made it the cinnamon roll you'd bring to meet your parents, not the one you'd eat Cheetos in bed with at four in the afternoon.
Cherry Financier ($2.25)
There are two kinds of old-school cherry filling: diner pie (which is still pretty common) and grandma's cobbler (which is rare). The moist little snack cakes brought back the latter type—in style. The nutty undertones (from browned butter and ground almond) complemented the cherry stars of the show. In cherry's place, this summer you may see a rhubarb version, but any fruit seems safe in Robertson's hands.
Are you the kind of kid who always snuck butter straight? Then this is the croissant for you. (Uh, and me. But I definitely stopped doing that when I was a kid.) The already butter-laden pastry gets an extra boost of flavor from the starter used in it: a natural sourdough. It is not the flakiest croissant, but the outside is crisp and the inner layers distinct, airy, and stretchy.
Chocolate Croissant ($3)
Whole pieces of dark chocolate add class to this pastry, and the bitter notes of the chocolate are smoothed by the heavy butter flavors of the croissant. The use of chocolate pieces means that chocolate flavor doesn't appear in every bite.
Crumble & Flake does not completely nail this notoriously difficult French pastry, but that isn't to say they don't do a damn good job. The crisp exterior teetered on the edge of being burnt, falling just to the inside of the line while sporting a heavenly caramelized crust. The inside was properly eggy, and but just a skosh too soft, meaning that while the vanilla flavors were perfect, the texture seemed a little bit undercooked. Moist is good, but the layers couldn't support themselves yet, and instead of a web of air pockets, there was mostly just dense egginess. But honestly? It still tasted great. This one is weekends only, though, so plan accordingly.
Apricot and Stilton Scone ($2.50)
We're not sure the world is ready for blue cheese breakfast pastries...yet. However, the strong blue cheese factors make this a fitting snack with a light salad or as part of a meal. The apricot bits balance out the Stilton flavor, but that blue-cheese-feeling in your mouth remains, as does the funky aftertaste--more appealing with a glass of sauternes than with a cup of coffee.
If you've ever purchased a brownie out of a vending machine, you know the kind of multi-layer brownie that Crumble & Flake imitates—nay, mocks—with their upscale, pristine version of the chocolate treat. The bottom is a cakey layer, super-dense and stuffed with tiny chopped walnuts, while the top is soft, light, and fudgy. You may not spot this over the summer, but the Crumble & Flake team confirmed that it will be back on the menu come fall.
Macarons ($2.50 each)
All of the macarons skewed to the sweet side, the gooey side, and lacked some of the airiness we look for in this cookie genre. That said, the mango and lime version redeems itself in flavor, embodying the essence of an entire key lime pie in a single, elegant, one-bite dessert. The Irish coffee version tasted boozy: a little odd, but also oddly good. The lavender and chocolate cookie wasn't for us: too sweet and too soapy.
Freshly-filled Cream Puffs ($3.50 each)
Each of the four flavors of cream was piped individually into the puffs after we ordered, and they were very, very creamy—overstuffed, even. They retained their freshness and puff, though. Those who prefer their desserts on the savory side will appreciate the coconut version, which is packed with coconut milk flavor, not the cloyingly sweet flavor of piña coladas. The yuzu's mild citrus flavor was a favorite, while the hazelnut was extremely strong, which some tasters found overwhelming. The chocolate was quite bitter, like what you'd get from dark chocolate, but unfortunately the cream diluted the chocolate flavor and it ended up weak.