By Grace-Yvette Gemmell
Photographed by Meredith Perdue
[N]ew World cuisine that appropriates Old World cuisine is at its best when it fiddles with tradition (take pizza, that perfect marriage of Old World craft and New World ingenuity). Chefs who first master, then improvise on a culinary idiom often produce dishes that are not only unexpected, but that also stand independent of the traditions that inspired them.
The pastries, quiches, soups, and sandwiches at Portland Pâtisserie and Grand Café, in the Old Port, are well on their way to standing on their own, with authentic French underpinnings and just enough New World innovation to keep things interesting. This is thanks to 34-year-old pastry chef Catherine Côté-Eliot, enlisted by owners Steve and Michelle Corry (the duo behind classic Portland restaurants Petite Jacqueline and 555) to translate French patisserie conventions into innovative confections fit for Maine palates.
Pastry chef Catherine Côté-Eliot departs from the classic French pâtisserie mold with light entrées like an English-inspired Toad in the Hole breakfast pastry and a tarragon chicken salad sandwich on a croissant.
A veteran of Portland’s Standard Baking Co. and NYC institutions Financier Patisserie and Jacques Torres Chocolate, Côté-Eliot studied at the French Culinary Institute, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s married to Parisian transplant and Petite Jacqueline chef Frederic Eliot. She also holds a degree in architecture — which, if you think about it, demands a skill set similar to that required for designing elaborate pastries like croquembouche, a magnificent conical tower of profiteroles, or macarons, those filled meringue cookies often found at your more chi-chi wedding receptions. Architecture — of steel and mortar or of chocolate and meringue — demands a balance between technical proficiency and innovation, an eye for both substance and style.
Housed in a renovated Victorian building with high ceilings, Portland Pâtisserie has a design sensibility that’s one part Louis XVI, one part midcentury modern. The room has a streamlined decadence, with crystal chandeliers encased in metal spheres above gilded, minimalist café chairs and marble-topped tables. Natural light fills the room, pouring through floor-to-ceiling picture windows that allow for excellent people watching.
The room’s aesthetic — pared down, yet somehow still dressed up — reflects the same philosophy as the menu.
“I enjoy simplicity in my creations,” says Côté-Eliot. “Good ingredients, good flavors, but not too crazy on the display. I let the food speak for itself.”
Take one of her savory crêpes, filled with a hot mess of caramelized onions, duck confit, and robust Gruyère — it’s like an over-the-top serving of French onion soup in a delicate, delicious encasement. Then there are Maine-French hybrids like buttery lobster Bretons or the “Parisian lobster roll,” Maine lobster on a bed of fresh greens, tossed in a lemon vinaigrette, topped with chives, and served up on a crisp and flaky croissant. With creations like these, Côté-Eliot proves she’s no captive to tradition, even while paying her respects.
“These days, it’s quite difficult to be original,” she says. “It’s all been done. I’m always working on new pastries. As a chef, I don’t want to get bored at work, and likewise, I don’t want our patrons to get bored with what’s in the case.”
So far, the young pastry chef doesn’t have to worry about inducing pastry ennui. A survey of the dessert case reveals an Aladdin’s cave of delicacies: flaky croissants and savory-sweet duck-fat sables snuggle next to lemon and blueberry chibousts (pastry creams given a boost from egg whites and flavored with things like citrus zests and liqueurs). A perfectly crusty pain aux raisins abuts a cluster of almond horns filled with marzipan. Dainty madeleines await a dip into a frothy café au lait, while off on its own sits an imposing noisette, a massive dollop of chocolate hazelnut cream smashed between a crunchy-chewy macaron shell and girdled with a constellation of blanched filberts. In another corner, chocolate-filled chocolate éclairs nuzzle up to almond-covered slices of bostock, a kind of elevated French toast consisting of a day-old wedge of brioche drenched in almond syrup, topped with frangipane — a sweet, buttery almond paste — and baked until it assumes a caramelized, golden sheen.
Then there’s the delightfully garish spectrum of macarons, from electric blue to primrose yellow to siren red. In flavors like wedding almond, tart lemon, and buttery rose (to name but a few), Côté-Eliot’s macarons are on the heavy side compared to their light and airy French cousins — more like tiny, aromatic whoopie pies that are easy on the eyes — but they’re tasty in their own right.
And all this is just what’s on display. Côté-Eliot doesn’t shy from special orders. One regular patron, a French gentleman, puts in a weekly order for a large gâteau opéra — a ganache-and-buttercream-layered sponge cake glazed with chocolate and soaked in coffee syrup. When he was a boy in Paris, he told her, his parents would bring one home if he had behaved himself — which, by his account, wasn’t very often. Now, with a new pâtisserie in his neighborhood, he has his weekly cake no matter how he behaves. It may have been nostalgia for la mère patrie that first drew him, but it’s the confections themselves that keep him coming back.