THOUGH I HAVE zero medical training, I feel qualified to tinker with one of the most timeworn adages about health. Having lived in Paris for 27 years, I've concluded that a croissant a day keeps the doctor away. At the very least, it's the best way to start the day.
A croissant safari is also a delicious way to explore Paris—especially now. In a welcome rebuff to the many bakeries that use industrially made dough, a new generation of pastry chefs committed to top-quality ingredients and traditional methods is leading a renaissance of the emblematic indulgence. Sampling their wares will also not only get you out of bed early (croissants tend to be best in the morning, when they're freshly baked), but take you to parts of the French capital you probably wouldn't see otherwise. Some of today's best croissants are made in lovely neighborhoods where Parisians actually live, as opposed to the well-trod precincts around major museums and monuments.
The first thing I learned about one of the most quintessentially French of foods, by the way, was that they weren't originally French at all. Austrian-born Marie Antoinette is said to have introduced thekipferl, a crescent-shaped Viennese pastry, in the 18th century after she arrived to marry King Louis XVI. Another story attributes the croissant's French debut to Austrian baker August Zang, who opened a shop in Paris in the 1830s. What is certain is that local bakers refined the pastry by making it with a yeast-leavened dough that's layered and folded several times with chilled butter, a process known as laminating. This labor-intensive routine is what gives the croissant its flaky quality, and part of what made the pastry so popular.
My own croissant connoisseurship began under the tutelage of Maria, the Spanish concierge in the elegant Seventh Arrondissement building where I lived when I moved to Paris in 1986. I was an unlikely tenant; everyone else in the building was in bed by 9 p.m., and many of my genteel neighbors walked with canes. Every morning, Maria tied a black scarf over her head, went to early mass, then bought a morning baguette and croissants for my landlord, a retired British diplomat, and his French wife.
“'It takes 48 hours to make good croissant dough,' he said.”
One morning Maria surprised me in my pajamas when she knocked on the door with my mail (she usually slid it under the doormat). When I peered around the heavy oak door, she handed me the post and a white paper bag. "Feliz cumpleaños, Señor," she said with a slight bow. Since she knew it was my birthday, I guessed she'd been paying keen attention to my mail, but any uneasiness vanished when I tucked into the best croissant I'd eaten in my life, a lightly buttery pastry turban with a crust that flaked apart in golden, rectangular crumbs and hid a delicate, cottony interior. That afternoon, when I stopped by to thank her with a bunch of rust-colored chrysanthemums, she crossed herself before taking the bouquet—unbeknownst to me, in France the flowers are seen as appropriate only for cemeteries—but we became friendly. I asked her where to find the best pastries in the neighborhood; that night I found a tidy hand-written treatise pushed under my door.
Maria bought her croissants at La Maison Pradier during the winter and Gosselin in summer, because, she explained, the latter's fours (ovens) were newer and therefore hotter when it was humid, which meant better crusting. Her favorite shop, though, was Gérard Mulot in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, often the destination of her midday walk.
"You should know from the smell that a croissant was made with good unsalted butter, but it should not be the dominant taste," she wrote. "They should be a nice golden color, but not too dark, which means they've cooked too long and could be dry."
I became an eager student of croissants. The key to spectacular examples is the dough, bien sur. "It takes 48 hours to make good croissant dough," said Fabrice Le Bourdat of Blé Sucré bakery in the 12th Arrondisement. "First you make the dough and let it rest for a day chilled. The following day you add the butter and do thefeuilletage [laminating]. Then you spread and stretch it, roll it again, and let it rest so that it rises slowly. It's a very time-consuming process involving a lot of manual labor, and this is why so many Paris bakeries now buy their croissant dough ready-made."
Many, but not all. I recently embarked on a week-long tour des fours with a baker friend who was visiting from abroad. On our expedition, I learned how important the raw ingredients—butter, flour, milk, sugar and yeast—are to a great croissant. The new generation of bakers painstakingly sources minimally processed, often organic, components for dough. (Mr. Le Bourdat, for example, said he uses organic yeast, because "it contains no extraneous chemical agents and produces a slower fermentation, which allows the flavors to develop more fully.") I was also reminded of why Paris is the only city where I don't mind hearing the alarm clock go off.
Top Spots for Croissants in Paris
A fresh crop of bakeries serves up flaky delights—and other very tasty baked goods
THE BOHEMIAN | GONTRAN CHERRIER
Tousled 30-something baker Gontran Cherrier came to Montmartre, the storiedquartier the locals often call "Le Village," in 2010, and it's easy to see why he quickly found a following. Mr. Cherrier's croissant is a soft scroll of pale-yellow, butter-scented pastry tissues that are a pleasure to pluck apart. Another delectable choice at this simple, white-tiled bakery is his miso-seasoned rye bread, which makes flavorful bookends for sandwiches when lightly toasted. 22 rue Caulaincourt and other locations, gontrancherrierboulanger.com
THE CLASSICIST | SÉBASTIEN GAUDARD PÂTISSERIE DES MARTYRS
A sure sign of the new affluence of the Ninth Arrondissement, the central Paris district also known as "La Nouvelle Athènes" for its neoclassical early 19th-century architecture, is that it's attracting craftsmen like Sébastien Gaudard. He opened La Pâtisserie des Martyrs, which has a handsome Belle Époque-style décor with marble counters, glass lanterns and a check tiled floor, on its main market street at the end of 2011. It's since become a neighborhood institution. Mr. Gaudard's croissants have a gossamer glaze of sugar that brightens the taste of the butter in the pastry. When pieces are torn off, the fluffy interior remains fused to the crunchy outer layers, a sign of a transcendently good croissant. Mr. Gaudard's are the ones that end up on my own breakfast table most often.22 rue des Martyrs, sebastiengaudard.fr
THE ARTIST | DU PAIN ET DES IDÉES
Not far from Canal St. Martin, the old industrial waterway that's become the aquatic spine of one of the hippest neighborhoods in eastern Paris, is baker Christophe Vasseur's Du Pain et des Idées. (Its magnificent painted glass ceiling from 1875, cast iron bread racks and gilded details bespeak his former career as fashion executive.) Since Mr. Vasseur relaunched the bakery in 2002, it's acquired a cult following for its bread—try the thick-crusted pain des amis—and fluffy, crispy-tailed croissants. For a perfect breakfast, pick up a couple and head over to Ten Belles, the coffee shop on the other side of the canal. And don't leave without one of Mr. Vasseur's apple tartlettes—a fine fan of sliced apple spread atop a smear of deeply reduced apple compote on a disk of crunchy pastry. They're what the French would call une tuerie (absolutely fantastic). 34 rue Yves Toudic,dupainetdesidees.com
THE CELEBRITY | LA PÂTISSERIE CYRIL LIGNAC
As a main host of culinary programming for France's M6 television channel, Cyril Lignac is one of the country's best-known food television personalities. He also runs a cooking school and several restaurants in Paris. In 2011, he and former Fauchon pastry chef Benoît Couvrand opened the pretty but edgy La Pâtisserie. Its facade is painted oxblood red and the marble-faced counters are lighted by a forest of spotlights. Stopping by on a recent winter morning, I wondered if the croissants would live up to Mr. Lignac's somewhat hyped reputation, but the downy golden crescent I tucked into did him and Mr. Couvrand proud indeed; it just might be the lightest croissant in town. There are also seasonal offerings, like the éclair à la figue de Solliès, or fig-filled éclair, a riff on another great French classic. 24 rue Paul Bert (and 2 rue de Chaillot),lapatisseriecyrillignac.com
THE BAKER'S BAKER | BLÉ SUCRÉ
It was vexing to find a line at Fabrice Le Bourdat's Blé Sucré for its 7 a.m. opening, but once we withdrew to the adjacent Square Trousseau for our tasting, I realized that the wait had been worthwhile. My still-warm croissant had an alluringly brittle, shell-like crust, but it was the interior that was so good—fluffy but elastic, it tore apart in fine layers and was redolent of high-quality butter. My pal insisted I try one of her madeleines, which had delivered what she described as a "perfect Proustian moment." But I was still trying to figure out why Mr. Le Bourdat's croissant was so good, and then I got it: What the waking palate needs is a little salt, and that's exactly what this pastry almost imperceptibly delivered. Mr. Le Bourdat's shop is rightly vaunted as one of the best—maybe even the best—of the new breed of Paris bakeries. 7 rue Antoine Vollon, blesucre.fr
Corrections & Amplifications
Sébastien Gaudard Pâtisserie des Martyrs is a bakery in Paris. An earlier version of this article called it La Pâtisserie des Martyrs.