Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
"I've always wanted a chocolate banana croissant. I thought it would be the best thing ever," Patrick Ascaso says as he sits at a table in his newly opened bakery, a lazy Marina morning floating past in the window behind him. He elaborates, "I love those flavors. So, finally, after 40 years, I have my own bakery and we did it. I can't offer you one because we use real bananas, and we only have the croissants on the days when the fruit is perfectly ripe."
Instead he points me to a plain croissant, which he's been waiting almost as long for. "As a child, we'd run to the bakery to get croissants. In Europe there is a bakery on every corner. They were part of my life." But in 1980, he left France to attend business school at NYU. "I was always on the lookout for a good croissant. In New York, at that time, everything was frozen, par-baked, nothing like what I was used to."
Fast forward 20 years spent in the investment world and a move to San Francisco, "always looking for pastries on the side" and always dreaming of starting his own operation. Finally, in August 2012, he signed a lease on a space for his own bakery. There were challenges, such as finding a way to fit his extra large oven into the small space (a process which took two months), and, most of all, finding the right pastry chef.
"I called Zachary Golper at Bien Cuit in Brooklyn to ask him a question about ovens. That led to me asking if I could spend a week at his bakery and he said OK. One of his pastry chefs was Justin [Brown]." Brown called Ascaso in April and asked if he would see him in San Francisco, which he did, and Brown was hired as Head Baker shortly thereafter. Ascaso also hired Phil Ogiela, formerly of San Francisco institutions like Fifth Floor, Aziza, and, most recently, Dandelion Chocolate, to be the head Pastry Chef.
The menu that the team put together is based on the tenet that everything is fresh and local when possible. They get organic flour from Petaluma, Strauss Family Creamery milk and butter, Tcho chocolate, and produce from the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. But what Ascaso believes really characterizes Le Marais is their traditional methods for making the viennoiserie. They use a natural levain base rather than an overnight rise and bake their products in a deck oven. The heat retention of the deck oven leads to a quicker bake and ensures a higher quality crust on top of the pastries and keeps them more moist inside. The viennoiserie is all laminated dough (Brown counted 55 alternating layers of butter and pastry in the last batch of croissants) and the menu includes regular, chocolate, chocolate-banana, and almond croissants, plus a variety of brioche and chausson. Le Marais is also making breads, including baguettes, pain de mie, and rustic levain. The baguettes are naturally-leavened and use a combination of wheat and oat flour.
In addition to the bread and pasties, there are cookies, cakes, tarts, and more. For more on what's offered at Le Marais, click through the slideshow above.