Happiness is a warm pain au chocolat

pain au chocolatWhen I moved back to Hawai‘i six years ago after being away for 17, I brought with me a suitcasefull of cravings. For two years they lay dormant as I luxuriated in the poke explosion and plate lunches and nostalgic Liliha Bakery orange freezes. The sanctification of local produce by George Mavrothalassitis, Alan Wong, Ed Kenney, Hiroshi Fukui et al mixed with our island ocean bounty had me all lucky-I-eat-Hawai‘i. I discovered pa‘i ‘ai and swore off supermarket bag poi. But my tongue has TDD and in time those cravings awakened. I wanted what I couldn’t have. I complained that I couldn’t find skirt steak in the markets (Whole Foods solved that). I complained that I couldn’t buy fresh cavatelli. I told myself “You’re in the middle of the Pacific, relish what you CAN get.” “Shut up, I want a pain au chocolat!”  And every time I found one somewhere in town (like Panya), I tried it. And every time I was bitterly disappointed. Until today.

I had read about the new Fendu Boulangerie in Manoa Marketplace, and a Pavlovian waterfall poured forth from my mouth. I lived in a small town in Switzerland (the French part) for five years, and every morning I would stop in at my local boulangerie (it just means bakery) for a pre-work pain au chocolat. I’d go on long- weekend jaunts to Paris and get pain au chocolat. They’re as common there as doughnuts are in the U.S. But they’re as rare as albino gorillas here. And hope sprung again at the news that a boulangerie opened in the valley of my ancestral digs.  It took three tries before I found Fendu open.

This morning I stood in line with families and orchid-cultivating grammas before I could get close enough to the cases to see whether or not they even had pain au chocolat. I saw something that could be it, but they were coated in powdered sugar, which is just not done in the old country. But a big brood finally left and I could sidle up to the counter and bingo. Pain au chocolat. Except they’re called chocolate croissants. Why? (Say it: Pah oh show-ko-lah. Not so hard, yah?) I asked for one, feeling like Charlie buying his one gold-wrapped Wonka bar. As the girl picked it up with tongs and put it in a little brown bag, a tiny hard-of-hearing elder asked “Oh, you jus lookeen?” “No. I’m waiting for my order.” I was ready to shove her out of my way should she wedge herself between me and that brown paper bag. I paid my $1.75 and two steps out the door, pulled the little rectangle out of the bag, shook off the powdered sugar and took a big bite. I just stood there as the concrete around me melted and the buttery layers of flaky pastry delicately crunched and the dense chocolate (baker-owner Niel Koep uses Cacao Barry from France—oh. thank. you.) coated my tongue and for a minute I was back in Nyon, on the edge of Lac Léman. It has just the right amount of greasiness, staining the bag. I turned right around and bought another one. The counter girl wordlessly handed me a napkin to wipe off my chocolate-smeared mouth and I stammered “C-c-can I have another please? Is, is, is the, uh, chef here? I have to tell him something.” And pale, round, friendly Niel Koep (who was executive pastry chef at the Lodge at Koele on Lanai for yonks and is actually from New Jersey—go figure) emerged from the back and I told him I’ve been looking, looking, looking for pain au chocolat and my search just ended. He seemed kind of embarrassed as I incoherently gushed to him. I walked back to my car, in a contented daze. A perfect little edible piece of France amidst ghetto Manoa BBQ, the billowing smoke of the kiawe-grilled-steak tent and McDonalds.
Fendu Boulangerie, Longs end of Manoa Marketplace, 354-0736; Tue-Sat 6:30 a.m.-7 p.m., Sun 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon

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