But recently, at Scratch Pastries — a two-month-old patisserie/cafe in a Scottsdale strip mall — I was happily taken off-guard. The vibe is Parisian, for sure, but not in a cinematic way. Instead, it's hip and low-key, with languid Air tracks on the sound system, glossy tins of Mariage Frères tea lined up on a shelf, and a menu of luscious desserts and rustic sandwiches.
On one visit, chef-owner Duc Liao (pronounced "Duke") — clad in a white Le Cordon Bleu jacket and white Agnès B. beret — stepped out of the kitchen to check on the handful of lunchtime customers. When he walked over to my table to ask about my meal (which was delicious), we got to chatting. He had no idea I was a food critic and offhandedly mentioned he was going back to Paris in early March.
"What for?" I wondered aloud.
"Oh," Liao said nonchalantly, "I am shooting Issey Miyake's fall collection."
Quelle surprise, the guy's a fashion photographer.
I should have seen it coming. The writing was on the wall, so to speak. I'd been sitting at the blond wood communal table, staring across the room at an assemblage of international magazine covers and Louis Vuitton ads hung in aluminum frames. Turns out, it was all from Liao's portfolio.
Liao was born in Cambodia to a Vietnamese mother and Chinese father, and raised in Paris. His wife, Noelle — the graceful gal who took my order — grew up in Rochester, New York, and was working as a model in Paris when she met Liao. They moved to Arizona two years ago, partly because Noelle has relatives here, and also because Liao fell in love with the area on a visit a decade ago.
"We believe it's a good place to raise babies," he told me, mentioning his 2- and 3-year-old kids. "They can run around outside in the sun."
Before the Liaos were able to leave Paris, they brainstormed on what to do for a living here. Opening a shop, they decided, was a way of hanging on to the things they'd miss the most about France, so Liao enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu to study pastry making.
Why pastries? "Because they are beautiful, and they taste good," Liao says.
And he's right. The confections at Scratch not only look mouthwatering but taste delightful, too.
For as contemporary as this cafe appears, with its pale gray and pink walls and playful, bubblegum-colored cartoons scattered across the back of the room, the desserts here are elegantly traditional, from dainty butter cookies to tartes and éclairs. To drink, there's organic coffee and juice, Mexican Coke, Perrier and Orangina, and several varieties of Mariage Frères, a high-end line of classic teas that are incredibly aromatic — and just happen to taste fantastic with a croissant.
Speaking of my favorite pastry, I tried really, really hard not to inhale mine in a matter of seconds. It was superb — very flaky and airy, with a crisp, golden exterior and moist, buttery layers inside. If it weren't for all those glammed-up photos of fashion models silently warning me to behave, I probably would've eaten another.
It's just as well, I guess, because I still ordered dessert — several desserts, actually, on a few occasions. Don't ask me to choose a favorite, though, because each one had its charms.
In the way of chocolate creations, I loved the chocolate ganache macaroon, with swirls of ganache surrounded by fresh raspberries on a crunchy chocolate crust. A chewy miniature chocolate French macaron sat jauntily on top, accented with a shiny smidgen of edible gold leaf. The chocolate-praline dome was more straightforward, a half-orb of chocolate-cream-filled chocolate shell that resembled an oversized bonbon.
The strawberry-rose gateau tasted more of strawberry than rose, although the appeal was in its combination of textures. A round, crumbly shortcake formed the base, which supported a dome of strawberry gel. Just beneath its clear, sticky red surface was a fluffy mound of strawberry cream, and at the center of it, a blob of mashed strawberries. On top, a fresh rose petal anchored by a raspberry looked like a tiny crimson flag.
A couple of other desserts revealed hidden treasures as well. The green tea fleur, sprinkled with matcha, had a bit of soft caramel at its heart, while the Mont Blanc — a layered concoction in a small glass — contained sweet chunks of chestnut inside a blanket of dense, smooth chestnut cream. I had to scoop through a cloud of whipped cream to get at it, though, and when I thought I was nearly finished, I discovered some wafer-like meringue at the bottom.
Clearly, I satisfied my sweet tooth at Scratch Pastries, but I fed my savory craving, too. The lunchtime menu included half a dozen sandwiches and a handful of quiches, all served with a salad of fresh baby greens and herb-balsamic vinaigrette.
I've already proclaimed my love of foie gras in print, so you can guess what I thought of the foie gras sandwich. It was thin slices of chilled torchon topped with caramelized onions and baby greens, inside a soft sesame roll. The moist, salty smoked duck breast was also delicious, and the chicken breast with Dijon mayo was surprisingly succulent. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on the sandwiches tasted especially good soaked up in the bread.
Scratch also had lovely single-serving quiches inside a thin, tender pastry crust. Quiche Lorraine was quite comforting — warm, eggy, and full of herbs and thinly sliced bits of ham. Meanwhile, the mushroom quiche was all about the 'shrooms, studded with criminis and white buttons.
All in all, Scratch Pastries was a likable little pit stop for lunch or a dessert break. But the next time I'm there, I'm ordering two croissants.