I have been waiting for years for the South Bay to get a world class French bakery – not a place with croissants in the case next to red velvet cakes, cupcakes, and whatever else is trendy this week. I have dreamed of a haven where the baguettes and croissants are coming out of the oven all day, and you can have them with a cup of fiercely strong coffee and be transported to Paris.
This year I have gotten my wish twice over as two have opened within close driving distance. One, Le Pain Du Jour on Inglewood Ave. in Hawthorne, has excellent pastries in a spartan atmosphere; unless you feel like eating from the bag while sitting on lawn furniture on the patio, it’s a to-go place only. The other, L’Amande French Bakery in Torrance, is more exciting – they have recreated not only French pastries, but the style and menu of a genuine Parisian café. What is more remarkable, they have done this in a mega-shopping center location at the corner of Crenshaw and PCH.
Traditional atmosphere is in short supply given the location, but the place isn’t soulless – there is a pleasant patio with some greenery, and the interior has some French signs and memorabilia. You probably won’t notice those, because you will be mesmerized by the pastry case, the bakers rolling out dough for baguettes, pan-de-mie, and other breads. As I strolled the long counter of pastries, I noticed a sign announcing that a seed bread would be available from the oven at 11 a.m., pumpkin bread at 3 p.m.
It would be easy to just order baked goods and coffee and delight in pastries, but there is a full menu of traditionally French quiches, omelets, salads, and sandwiches. On one visit we chose breakfast items, on the other lunches, but to start both we had croissants. The plain ones are rich and buttery, the chocolate exactly the rich treat you might expect, but my favorites are the more unusual pistachio croissants. These are filled with a small amount of pistachio cream and crusted with chopped pistachios, and if you like those nuts at all they’re a must-have. We also enjoyed an apple papillote, crisp pastry folded around apples with cinnamon, and we looked longingly at other fruit pastries that we knew we wouldn’t have room for.
We followed with a chicken pesto, tomato, and goat cheese omelet and a quiche Lorraine, both of which were served with a substantial salad. The omelet was authentically French, which is to say smaller than the American standard; the French consider American omelets overstuffed. If you regard the omelet filling as a component of your meal rather than a meal that just happens to be surrounded by an egg pancake, you might prefer it. I certainly liked mine, the warm flavors of Southern France all represented in basil, pine nuts, chicken, tomato, and unctuous goat cheese. The quiche hit the spot too, just bacon, eggs, cheese, and the most minimal of seasoning in a crust, but executed perfectly. We savored breakfast with coffee and real hot chocolate and felt like ourselves in the presence of civilization.
We returned with friends a week later for lunch – a smoked salmon sandwich, grilled cheese panini, spinach croissant, and croque monsieur sandwich. Croque monsieurs are a joke in my family – my brother once spent two weeks in France eating them at least once a day because they were one of the few things he knew how to order. It’s a ham and Gruyere cheese sandwich battered with Bechamel sauce and more cheese that is first baked and then cooked on a griddle, and there are many different theories about how and when it got a name that means, “crunch this, sir.” It’s an elegant sandwich when made correctly, and this one was. It even had a quite satisfying crunch that justified the name.
The grilled cheese panini was another triumph of technique and good ingredients – less because of the three-cheese blend than the raisin-walnut bread it was served on. I rarely order grilled cheese because it’s something I can make so easily, but was happy to have a bite of somebody else’s.
The smoked salmon sandwich was also true to French ideas about the correct proportions of ingredients, the salmon a distinct flavor but not overwhelming the ricotta, onion, and capers. If you are expecting a mouthful of fish, this is not the sandwich to order; I mention this because the only complaints I have heard about L’Amande have been about portion size, comparing their sandwiches to those from New York delis. This sandwich is delightful and served on a fresh-from-the-oven baguette, and I’d have it any time.
We picked up a baguette for the road – how could we not? – and wished that they posted a schedule of when they bake their different breads. I’d like to try their wheat bread, a loaf of that raisin-walnut, and… well, I’d like to try everything, because this is the bakery I have always wanted within short driving distance. L’Amande is a bit more expensive than supermarket bakeries, and you should figure that brunch will run between fifteen and twenty dollars per person. It is worth it, oh yes.
L’Amande is at 2553 PCH in Torrance, northeast corner of Crenshaw, next to Rite-Aid. Open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wheelchair access good, large parking lot. No alcohol. Website at lamandebakery.com. Phone 310-326-8980.