It seems like every available space in the West Village is being filled with a bakery. Chocolate Haven, Magnolia Bakery, Polka Dot Cake Studio, Amy’s Bread, Milk & Cookies and more have all set up shop in this trendy Manhattan neighborhood, creating the ultimate destination for dessert lovers. Just when it seemed like the neighborhood had it all, a new bakery named Puff & Pao joined the group, adding an Asian twist to the mix. Inspired by the cream puff craze happening in Asia, Puff & Pao owner Steve Elliot decided to bring the concept to America in sweet and savory form. The shop specializes in traditional cream puffs and Paolitos, a savory Brazilian cheese puff that is also popular in Asia.
The interior of Puff & Pao is distinctly Japanese, with clean lines, minimalist decor and bright colors. The large window and white walls in the front of the store make the 15 person seating area feel larger than it is. Stainless steel display cases separate the shop from the rest of the kitchen, where workers in black berets bake fresh batches of Paolitos and fill cream puffs for walk-in customers.
Puff & Pao’s cream puffs come in regular and sugar-free varieties, filled with chocolate or vanilla whipped cream. The chocolate filling is made with 65% dark chocolate and a touch of maple syrup, making it much richer than most chocolate whipped cream fillings. The vanilla filling is also impressive since it is made from real, whole vanilla beans. The brioche-like shell is less sweet than most cream puff pastry, and has a perfectly flaky crust.
Just across the display case are the bite-sized Paolitos. Normally I’m a sweet girl, but in this case I have to pick these savory treats as my favorite in the store. There is so much flavor packed into the small puff that only a name like “Pao!” could describe it. Flavors vary, but on my visit I got to try cheddar cheese and garlic, cheddar cheese and basil and cheddar cheese with chorizo sausage. The cheddar cheese and garlic were my favorite, but be warned that the garlic will stay with you long after you leave the store. In addition to puffs and Paolitos, soups and salads are available for a more substantial snack.
To accompany your food selections, Puff & Pao offers several imported teas and coffees. My favorite is the Rooibos tea, which has a subtle berry flavor and is caffiene-free. For a stronger fruit flavor, try the Green tea with Calamansi (a South East Asian citrus fruit.) Don’t be surprised if your tea comes with a frothy layer on top since most drinks are shaken, not stirred, at the store.
The owner has been working on the Puff & Pao concept for the last few years, spending the time perfecting recipes and selecting products for the store. While Puff & Pao was in development, the Japanese chain Beard Papa’s opened in America, becoming the first cream puff bakery in town. While both stores have cream puffs in common, there are significant differences: Beard Papa’s uses custard in their filling and only offers sweet puffs (no savory selections or drinks.)
Even after visiting both stores, I’m still not sure I understand the fascination with cream puffs. When I asked the owner of Puff & Pao about this new phenomenon he said he thinks it is because cream puffs are fun to fill. Filling the cream puffs in front of customers conveys what’s inside, and makes people excited to eat it. It is impressive to watch a puff be filled to the brink of exploding, but I wonder how long the novelty will last.
With Puff & Pao and Beard Papa’s now open, the cream puff concept will really be put to test in America. Ultimately I believe the secret to Puff & Pao’s success will be their Paolitos, not the cream puffs. I can’t imagine I’ll be tired of those poa-erful puffs anytime soon.
Puff & Pao
105 Christopher Street (1/9 subway at Christopher)
New York NY 10014