Every neighborhood in Paris, it seems, has a jewel-box of a pastry shop tucked on a little side-street, where you get drawn in by the chic design and discover the meaning of life in all its buttery, flaky glory.
Since February, Hillcrest has had a shimmering gem of its own — the hard-to-find and impossible-to-forget Pâtisserie Mélanie.
A bakery-obsessed buddy and I found our way there recently and bought out half the store’s small inventory of handmade treats.
We were also utterly charmed by the store’s minimalist art-deco-meets-mid-century aesthetic. We’d move in, but owner and baker Melanie Dunn already resides on the second floor of this combination work-live space with her husband and baby daughter.
Dunn is a former Crawford High School English teacher who, feeling burnt out after 10 years, spent three summers in Paris training to be a pastry chef at the famed Le Cordon Bleu.
She completed her program in 2014 and planned to begin work on a retail boutique at the end of the 2014-2015 school year at San Diego Unified. She’d open the pastry shop in February 2016, she thought.
Until she found out she had a different kind of bun in the oven. Pregnant at age 40, Dunn put down her whisk and decided to dedicate herself completely to motherhood.
“So here we are pretty much two years after I originally wanted to open and seven years after I decided to become a pastry chef,” Dunn said. “It’s definitely been a commitment in holding on to that end goal.”
Her primary goal was “to be an ambassador for very classic French pastry shop.” To achieve that, she’d need the support of her husband Axel Schwarz, whom she met at Crawford, but the baking was all on her.
Her approach would be old school: Small batch, low-volume, handmade everything from quality ingredients.
“It’s the handmade factor, so the question is, if I get bigger and can’t make them by hand anymore, will they lose that quality, that je ne se quoi?” she asks, thinking about the future.
“I can’t compete with Opera (patisserie) or Le Parfait Paris,” said Dunn, citing two of San Diego’s best-known French bakeries. “Maybe I’m really naïve about this (but) I’ll just really be happy to be a neighborhood bakery, that once in a while someone from the outside comes in and discovers us.”
And intrepid social media-savvy types have already uncovered this neighborhood find. To help entice you to seek it out, here’s a treasure map, of sorts, to Pâtisserie Mélanie.
Where is it? While its official address is 3788 Park Blvd., Suite 4, in Hillcrest, the entrance is actually on Essex Street. For a visual, it’s around the corner from Trust and across the street from Pardon My French — two delicious restaurant neighbors.
When is it open? Wednesday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., or until everything’s sold out.
What does it sell? There’s an array of familiar pastries, such as buttery croissants, pain au chocolat, sablé shortbread cookies, lemon and chocolate tarts and macarons. And there’s some unexpected fare, like kouign-amann Breton tea cakes, and cannelés Bordelais cakes. ($4-$12)
Any top picks? If you’re a French pastry shop that doesn’t nail a croissant, you’re in the wrong business, and Pâtisserie Mélanie’s buttery version is among the best in town. Those puffy, flaky, slightly sugary kouign-amann (pronounced queen ah-MAHN) are close to pastry perfection. In our newsroom tasting, they were second only to the ultra-caramelized micro-bundt cakes known as cannelés Bordelais. Labor-intensive to the max — they take Dunn more than 24 hours to create — these Bordeaux-bred little wonders encompass every trait you want in a pastry: crunchy from the caramelization, hinting of smokiness, with a moist, not-too-sweet custard interior.
But don’t take a bunch of hungry journalists’ word for it: They’re the shop’s top sellers, which pleases Dunn. “I was concerned if Americans would respond to the them and those are by far the favorites,” she said. “Macarons are everywhere and, while I have them, I wanted to do some authentic regional pastries. There’s something about the caramelization that everybody loves.”
If it’s a Parisian bakery, why doesn’t it look more, well, Parisian? Ah, but it does. It’s just not the image Americans usually have in mind. “I met with a lot of designers,” said Dunn. What they offered “was all a very clichéd approach to a Parisian shop. Black and white tile was mentioned a lot, with Eiffel towers wherever they could be put. … I wanted to emulate the most luxurious patisseries in Paris, with a sleekness and a minimalism. Plus, I just love art deco.”
Buying into the lifestyle: Pâtisserie Mélanie also has a carefully curated collection of home goods for sale, including kitchenware, bar sets and children’s games (in French, naturalment), ranging from $5 to $150.
Fun fact about Dunn: She grew up in Hawaii and attended the same Oahu school as former President Barack Obama, Punahou.
Address: 3788 Park Blvd., Suite 4, Hillcrest
Phone: (619) 677-2132