Pastry and potential

Napoleon Cafe
706 Westport Rd.
Kansas City, MO 64111
(816) 931-4401

So the other night, when Mr. Moody and I were wandering around in Westport, we noticed that the lamentably demised Napoleon Bakery seemed to have returned to life. I called into Walt Bodine’s show on KCUR yesterday morning and got a confirmation from Pitch reviewer Charles Ferruzza that this was indeed true. This morning, I ventured there (on the way home from my first trip to the Parkville Farmers’ Market… I know, I know!) to see what I’d find.

My favorite pastry cafe in the world, Konditorei, helmed by the native-born-and-trained Austrian Albert Kutternig is a wonderful treasure of the Sacramento, CA area. They did our wedding cake (with bright rainbows, marzipan juggling clubs, and spun sugar roses!) and thankfully they’re booming, even in this economy. And my husband is a pretty fabulous amateur pastry chef himself. So my pastry bar is set fairly high, and in the time we’ve been here in Kansas City, I can’t say that any place I’ve visited really came close to Konditorei.

Artisan Francais did fantastic bread, and their pastries were decent, but they’re closed now (a mystery, because the place was always packed. Anyone out there know what happened?). The Pastry Goddess in Briarcliff gave it a go, but I found their offerings too sweet and cloying, and they recently went belly-up too. There’s incredibly good artisan bread at Fevere, but no pastries (and the other excellent local artisan bakery, Breadsmith in Brookside, went under a year after we moved here… at least La Cucina di Mamma is there now, making good use of their old ovens to produce wonderful thin pizzas). Andre’s is more about cakes and sweets, not so much the layered rich puffy delights I craved (and the ones they had seemed… stale and bland; maybe I keep getting day-old product?). We tried Cafe Apanaire in Waldo before they went up in flames, and were underwhelmed (I heard that when it changed hands sometime before we moved here, it went downhill significantly). The old Napoleon’s offered quite a few of the things we were looking for, but they were struggling and went under just a few months after we found it. They were the closest thing to a real Euro-style pastry cafe we could find in the area… now there’s nowhere to go to feed our picky pastry jones.

Well, I could say that before this morning. The new Napoleon Bakery has potential for mainlining.

There were pastries in the case… granted, not an awful lot of them, and two of the items I requested were already sold out, but what was there looked wonderful: several turnovers, croissants and danishes to choose from, and another case with a number of tortes and cakes. I also saw a few baguettes and some brioche behind the counter, but those were almost wiped out, too.

I wanted the breakfast quiche, but was too late (at 8:50 a.m. on a Saturday?). So I settled for the ham and cheese croissant, and took home a selection of other pastries to the family. The one I had was fresh and buttery, crisp on the surface but softly layered within, no skimping on the filling which was flavorful and highlighted by a nutty, tangy Swiss… clearly whoever made this knew exactly what they were doing.

Intrigued, I stuck my head into the kitchen door, and was immediately welcomed by a grinning fellow who turned out to be the owner. James Holmes was a pastry chef for the Westin Hotel for 20 years before making a deal with the surviving Napoleon founder… and apparently inheriting a number of his recipes in the process. The passion this guy has for his kitchen (which, by the way, is GARGANTUAN… easily three times the size of the front end!) is contagious, and we had a great conversation.

The pastries I brought home were almost uniformly fantastic; another excellent ham and cheese croissant, a cherry turnover, a chocolate croissant (my son initially spurned it, noting that most only have a token spread of chocolate within… once he saw the generous filling, he changed his mind), a broccoli turnover (the pastry was great, the filling — some unidentifiable curd — farmer’s cheese? really rubbery eggs? — wasn’t a winner in my book), and a lovely light-as-air golden brioche roll.

So, this guy definitely knows his pastry, and I can send anyone there for that without the slightest hesitation. The place is clean and pretty, and the other folks on duty were clearly happy to be there and very accommodating to customers. Holmes has nailed the warmth and hospitality as well as his croissants.

However… there’s room for improvement. The front end service was less than stellar… I think the girl was new, and even though there were only two other people in the entire dining area, she seemed flustered and unsure of herself.

The dining area was well-lit and pleasantly decorated, but a few small touches could have made it better. There’s no towel under the too-large-and-heavy self-serve metal water pitcher, which was collecting condensation and dripping all over the shelf and floor… an accident waiting to happen. There’s no place to collect used plates and silverware… just add a dishwashing tub by the kitchen door, this would help with the tables since there was obviously no table service.

The women’s restroom had no lock, and an old sign indicating this deficiency. Spend $20 at Home Depot and less than an hour to install, and customers would feel a lot more cared-for and safe. Put in a little thrift-store dresser that could double as a changing table, slap up a few posters, and you’re there.

I didn’t have any of the lunch items, but other writers have given them a series of mixed reviews. Perhaps they’ve improved along those lines, but no matter… lunch isn’t what I was searching for, anyway.

Running out of the little quiches so early in the morning was a surprise, especially since the place seemed so quiet. Are they just getting hammered by the really early crowd? Or are they that understaffed that they can’t put together more?

When I looked at the breakfast pizza, the suggested alternative to the quiche, I noticed a little seam around the edge of the crust… something that made me think of commercial production, not handmade dough. Sure enough, I was told that they didn’t make their own. That’s astounding… what could possibly be easier than throwing together some pizza dough?

If there was coffee service, it was well hidden. There were no aromas of espresso and I heard no steaming of milk while I was there. I can’t find a menu online (and why aren’t these guys on the web, in this day and age?), so I can’t confirm this… but lining up some experienced baristas and pushing the caffeine could only help.

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like this place; I really do, a lot. I just want it to survive, and Holmes has chosen a very difficult time and place to get started in this particular venture… KC isn’t exactly a hotbed of culinary appreciation. With a bit of effort and some attention to detail, I think he could not only survive but thrive. He’s already got the skill, the passion and the genuine sparkling demeanor of a dedicated pastry chef and host. He’s got a great location, and a dedicated corps of old fans to draw from.

I’ll be returning to enjoy the new Napoleon’s, and I encourage my readers to do the same.



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3 responses to “Pastry and potential

  1. Intrigued, I stuck my head into the kitchen door, and was immediately welcomed by a grinning fellow who turned out to be the owner.

    You crack me the hell up, Mom.

    • Well, there wasn’t really a whole door there, you know… it was more of a doorway. And it was right there on the way to the bathroom… it’s not like I went all undercover and sneaky or anything.

      Sheesh. If I hadn’t done that, it would have just been “oh, cool, croissants!” instead of hearing his whole story. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I didn’t, you know, spit into the spaetzle or anything.

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