Where can you get the best croissant in Champaign-Urbana? This question came up recently at a backyard gathering, when a friend lamented Art Mart’s move away from Urbana to Champaign. "Art Mart makes the best croissants in town," she said, with a hint of sadness. But is that true? What criteria are in play here? This required further investigation, so eight friends and I devoted a recent Saturday morning to blind tasting nine different croissants from five bakeries in town. Here’s what happened when nine friends tried nine croissants in Champaign-Urbana! You won’t believe which croissant wins! Number seven will shock you!
In order to choose the best croissant, we should establish some core criteria. Texture-wise, croissants should have two primary characteristics: they should be both flaky and buttery. The inside and outside of the croissant should be contrasting in texture – the inside slightly stretchy and soft, the outside slightly crispy and flaky. A good croissant will leave a bit of buttery residue on your fingers, but feel light, especially the middle, which should be studded with air pockets and translucent flakes. Ingredient-wise, the make-or-break element is the butter. The butter should suggest the tiniest hint of sugar or salt, but otherwise taste pure and unadulterated. Beware the cheap butter or butter substitute aftertaste, which can have a chemical vibe or remind one of movie popcorn. Value-wise, a croissant should be inexpensive enough that pairing it with a good coffee won’t break the bank, yet priced to feel like a special treat.
We tried nine croissants from five bakeries:
Pekara: Plain croissant ($2.90) and chocolate croissant ($3.56)
Art Mart: Plain croissant ($1.89)
Mirabelle: Plain croissant ($2.75) and almond croissant ($2.75)
Schnuck’s: Plain croissant ($0.69) and “fried croissant” ($0.69)
Rick’s: Chocolate croissant ($2.50) and almond croissant ($2.50)
Are there other places in town where croissants can be purchased? Yes. Did we fully consider the fact that we were comparing “specialty” croissants (i.e., chocolate, almond) with regular croissants? Not really. Do we realize that we left out savory croissants? Yes. Is this whole thing a sham? Maybe.
The Tour de Croissant is imperfect and partial. Our results, however, were surprisingly cohesive. To keep things honest and avoid bias, our croissant samples were served in random order on plain paper plates without any indication of their origin. We tasted all nine, wrote our evaluations — which included a numerical score for texture and flavor, a word association, and comments — agreed on a ranking, and then found out the corresponding bakeries.
First off on the Tour, we eliminated the Schnuck’s “fried croissant” because it tested positive for glaze and thus was merely a donut masquerading as a croissant. Embarrassing. The other eight, though, were ultimately ranked in four tiers of performance. Here they are, in ascending order:
FOURTH TIER CROISSANTS
Though it pains me to say, the bottom two croissants in our tour were both from Rick’s bakery. All nine tasters agreed that the almond and chocolate croissants from Rick’s were dense, sweet, and cakey, and did not fulfill their flaky croissant desires. “Tastes yummy,” wrote one, “but more like an almond cake than a croissant.” In taste and texture, they resemble a Mexican concha bun, which I often enjoy with my Mexican partner and his family. I know Rick’s leans heavily toward Mexican-style cakes and panaderia pastries, so this wasn’t surprising, but in this instance it makes for a kind of hybrid croissant that lacks the flakiness we were looking for. If you’re into that cakey style, these may be right up your alley. Reasonably priced at $2.50 each.
THIRD TIER CROISSANTS
Here is where it starts to get complicated. While there were some disputes about the exact ranking of the two croissants in this tier (i.e., which croissant was 5th best and 6th best), it was generally agreed that they both belonged here, with perhaps a tie. We were rather surprised that the Schnuck’s plain croissant made a solid showing in the third tier. “A little plastic/industrial,” sensed one taster, but another commented that it “achieved an airy and light texture.” The Schnuck’s croissant had a mass-produced appearance, and there wasn’t enough contrast between the outer crust and inner part, but it was light and basic and an incredible deal at only 69 cents. At that price, you could pair it with an artisanal jam or local cheese and have an excellent morning. Sitting alongside the Schnuck’s croissant in tier three was — believe it or not — the almond croissant from Mirabelle’s. While many raved that the almond filling was actually made of almonds, and subtly flavored, the pastry itself had a slightly off taste, a sort of sour-salty funk that made it a little over-the-top. Finally, the outside was slightly too crispy, while the inside was slightly too doughy. Priced at $2.75, which is reasonable given the almonds.
SECOND TIER CROISSANTS
Art Mart pain croissant
The croissants in this tier are solid choices, and would satisfy any casual croissant fan. At essentially a tie were the Art Mart plain croissant (much to the surprise of my friend Alex!) and the Mirabelle’s plain croissant. Let’s start with Art Mart. I spent much of the “blind taste” portion of the morning assuming that the best croissant I had tasted must be from the Art Mart. That’s how strong the Art Mart’s reputation for croissants is. One taster said this croissant had “complex flavor,” and was ever-so-slightly sweet, while another praised the “satisfyingly crisp” outer shell. The flakes, however, were merely average in size and consistency. The Art Mart plain croissant, which is very well priced at $1.89, was deemed perfectly “respectable.” Many felt that the Mirabelle’s plain croissant was also “competent,” if every so slightly uninspiring. The flavor was “pleasant,” with “great crispiness on the outside,” yet, like the Art Mart plain croissant, “not much attention paid to flakiness.” The lack of flakiness inside both croissants probably cost them a spot in the first tier. The Mirabelle’s plain croissant is somewhat reasonably priced at $2.75 (pictured right).
FIRST TIER CROISSANTS
All clickbait jokes aside, this part really did shock me. At the end of the blind taste test, all nine tasters agreed that one croissant in the bunch was a total knockout, croissant-of-your-dreams kind of croissant. And it was…the plain croissant from Pekara! “Great flakiness, perfect butter flavor, overall a serious contender,” wrote one taster early on. “Good croissant!” wrote one friend with a gift for understatement. Another simply wrote, “Yes.” Yes, indeed. The Pekara plain croissant had enormous translucent flakes, an airy and slightly stretchy inner texture, and a delightfully crisp but not tough outer shell. It tasted like expensive butter. It disappeared quickly. This is a seriously good croissant, and the good folks at Pekara must know it because it was the most expensive of the plain bunch, at $2.90. In second place was the chocolate croissant from Pekara. It achieved nearly the same flavor-texture success of the plain, but included a strip of rich, high-quality chocolate. Ridiculously satisfying, though at $3.56, it isn’t cheap. It didn’t feel right to award the top two spots to the same bakery, but Pekara totally nailed it for these nine tasters.
The greatest takeaway of the Tour de Croissant is that if you’ve got three dollars, you can get yourself a great croissant in this town. Hell, if you’ve got one dollar, Schnuck’s will do right by you. We were surprised that the top four croissants only included one specialty flavor. Turns out a well-executed croissant does not require almonds or chocolate to impress. If you’ve got a free morning and enthusiastic friends, I recommend completing the tour for yourself.
Now, I want to hear from you: what is the best croissant in Champaign-Urbana? Which croissants do we need to try next? Share your croissant secrets!
Acknowledgements: This article would not exist without my friends. Thank you for your discerning palates and attention to (flaky, buttery) detail.
All photos by Pamela Saunders.