It might just be the Francophile in me, but when Renaud Gonthier, the master baker behind Renaud’s, says croissant with his French accent, the “croi” sticks in your craw and the “ssant” is soft and sibilant and lingering. The very word is desirous. That’s even before you eat one of his. Take his pain au chocolat, and you will take them frequently once you get hooked-a gorgeous golden brown rise of dough, just a hint of chocolatey goodness peeking out. Then a first bite, and it’s a pastry that has sound, not just taste, such crunch, and then the soothing chocolate smoothness-so much going on, so many senses pleased (for of course the cacao hits your nose, too) in something seemingly so simple.
“We stay true to what things are,” Gonthier said during a recent interview after the Loreto Plaza shop closed one Sunday afternoon. “Take a croissant. It’s a true croissant, just like what you’d have in France. It’s crispy, handmade, we don’t cheat on ingredients. That’s the French cooking business: Make sure it’s fresh, make sure it’s the right way, make sure it’s properly done.”
Gonthier and his wife, Nicole, have been making sure they’ve been doing things the right way in Santa Barbara for almost two years, but of late they seem to be everywhere, taking over at Cafe Luna in Summerland in August and opening a second Renaud’s location in the Arlington Plaza just a few weeks ago. When asked how running three stores was going, Nicole said, “It’s a lot of work, yeah,” as if she couldn’t bring herself to do more work answering the question. Gonthier, meanwhile, explained the operation: “We know what the inventory is and what sales are because of everything coming from here [the original Loreto Plaza location]. Sometimes I’m the one who does the deliveries to make sure we have enough, that things are well-organized, to make sure we keep the same standards.”
The two sites that share the name Renaud’s will also be pretty much similar. “Both have the same choices of coffee, breakfast pastries, cakes,” said Gonthier. “It’s even the same silverware, the same colors on the walls.” The smaller Arlington shop does have large window-doors that open up, however, so Gonthier insisted, “It will have a more Parisian cafe feel. But you can get an egg sandwich here or an egg sandwich downtown and it should be similar.”
Cafe Luna, while living up to Gonthier’s rigorous food standards, is, he admitted, “a different animal. We bought Luna, we didn’t build Luna. We try to match the food with the feel of the place, so there are more classic American choices.” Though Gonthier doesn’t foresee any of the locations serving dinner (much to the sadness of at least this writer, who had the extreme good fortune to attend a memorable Slow Food wine dinner at the original location), he can imagine dinner parties at Luna. He explained, “During the recent Celebrate Summerland weekend, our neighbor Mediterranee [Antiques] had a Brazilian party and it was a special feel-you can have live music and things like that.”
Although evening hours aren’t in the plans, those noticing more and more sweets beyond baked goods showing up at the stores, like heavenly meringues so light they feel like they might float off your tongue, aren’t merely having sugar-induced visions. “We’re trying to push into what a real French pastry shop should be,” said Gonthier. “We want to offer a selection of the more classic French confections.” In addition to the nougat and jelly candies, he’s particularly proud of his chocolate bark, claiming, “What makes it good bark is caramelizing the nuts. That makes it rich and different. That keeps the flavors up. It’s a simple process, but it brings the bark to another level.”
That constant striving is the Gonthier hallmark. “There are so many ways you can go wrong,” he said, “that there’s always a personal satisfaction of doing something perfect. It’s not easy. It’s not the same every single day-you can have a lot of humidity here in Santa Barbara, or one day it’s 90 and the next it’s 68. That changes the process.” And he wishes people appreciated that process, and not just the delicious product, even more. “It’s not how much time it takes physically to bake. For a croissant, you make the dough, you let it rest, it has to proof : it’s a 24-hour process,” he explained. “You can shorten it down to four to five hours, but it’s going to be different; you can’t tell the yeast to go faster. It’s not like we have things in the back ready to go. We’re making it.”
Eat like you’re in France at two Renaud’s Patisserie & Bistro locations: 3315 State Street in the Loreto Plaza, and 1324 State Street in the Arlington Plaza. Call 569-2400 or visit renaudsbakery.com. You can do so with an ocean view at Cafe Luna (2354 Lillie Ave., Summerland; 695-8780).