It’s 5 a.m. on a black and blustery morning as I drive through the empty streets of Madison Valley looking to find out what croissants have to teach Seattle about living right.
Little yellow leaves — wet with rain and stuck to the black asphalt — are illuminated by light glowing through the steamy windows of Ines Patisserie.
“Want a coffee?” asks Nohra Belaid, owner, as I come in the door and unbundle. “Well, this isn’t Starbucks so we don’t have sprinkles,” she explains in a thick French accent, “but I could make you a cup.”
France gets a bad name in American politics (Freedom Fries), and even among liberals the French are often stereotyped as snotty, silly and spoiled by their long paid vacations.
But secretly, I think Seattleites are Francophiles. From the success of a new crop of Parisian-style bistros, to the popularity of French electronica music and the ubiquity of those black and white striped quarter-sleeved shirts, we think the French know how to live well — maybe even better than we do.
My most recent proof of this trend is our city’s obsession with croissants. There’s Bakery Nouveau in West Seattle, Columbia City Bakery, Café Besalu in Ballard and two dueling croissanteries (that’s a word in French!) on Capitol Hill.
I have always loved croissants. I loved my first one out of a Costco plastic clamshell package (this is before I knew better, Nohra). I loved them when nobody ate bread because of Atkins. I love them now that nobody eats bread again because of gluten.
I thought I had tried every croissant in the city when a friend mentioned Ines Patisserie. She told me Nohra was not only famous for the finest baked goods, but also for “challenging Seattle’s ‘sycophantic’ culture of customer service.”
One look at Ines Patisserie’s Yelp page and my interest was piqued. Opinions of Nohra’s customer service range from the polite: “she might not be everyone’s cup of tea,” to the incensed: “Rude!!!!!” to the bizarre: “The croissant was delicious [but] …after hearing that our son was an only child, [the owner remarked] that we would be leaving him all alone in the world when we died.”
Many defended her attitude as “eccentric” “passionate” and, of course, “French” and the most common review is 5 stars. But in a total of 48 reviews, on a scale from 1-5, there are literally no 3-star reviews. You either love this place or you hate it.
“People in Seattle don’t like you to be blunt, to be honest,” says Nohra, dressed in tight black jeans and a crisp white shirt. “In France, we’re not PA [passive aggressive].”
That frankness extends to Nohra’s relationship with her customers. She’s just as likely to reference some intimate detail of a patron’s life and give them a free goody as she is willing to argue with them about politics or ignore them if they annoy or interrupt her.
The first time I met Nohra she told me it was the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s suicide and asked for my opinion on the misunderstood souls of brilliant women all before she took my order.
“At its heart, ‘the customer is always right,’ is about monetizing you,” she says, arguing that a customer that isn’t interested in experiencing the bakery but is too busy and self-important for a little conversation, or to wait for a conversation to end before they’re served, isn’t a customer she wants as “part of the family.”
For her, family and customers, food and politics, life and work are all one big mashup. She grew up in the Champagne region of France, the daughter of immigrant parents from Algeria and Lebanon. She was one of eight siblings in a family that always ran restaurants and bars, “I grew up behind a bar,” she says offering a rare smile, “I think [this] was always my passion.”
Nohra brushes egg across the tops of plump golden croissants as she talks. She calls them her babies, which seems appropriate not only for their fleshy texture and fetal shape, but because of the intense attention she pays them. It takes her three days, from start to finish — the dough goes through a series of risings, foldings and fermentings before it is baked — to produce them.
Nohra’s pastries, as they begin to fill up the cases, are like a reflection of her. Rich almond cakes with a whisper of Middle Eastern spices; raspberry and mint colored French macaroons that look just as you imagine Paris to be; delicate puff pastry proudly displaying bright, northwestern produce.
And when the croissant arrives, hot and on a wicker plate, I’m pretty sure it’s the best croissant I’ve ever had. This side of France, at least.