San Francisco Croissant Competition

on 2024-05-19


The first time I heard of San Francisco Croissant Competition was right after the conclusion of last year's event. I saw the instagram post of Midwife & Baker celebrating their second place. It immediately got my attention as I soon found the official post on the competition result and bookmarked the first (Maison Nico) and third place (Thorough Bread and Pastry) - both of which I hadn't been to at the time, and some of the other finalists. I couldn't help thinking what would be a better opportunity to stay on top of the latest bakery trend and plan for my future review trips.

Time flies. I still remember the day I told A with exhilaration about this competition and anticipation of attending it next year. Later, knowing the arrival of baby Arthur is right around this time of the year, I shelved the plan and thought I'd miss it again. However, things turned around after the initial out-of-hand period. With the timely arrival of my dad to help babysitting, I saw the possibility of A and I taking half day to San Francisco for the event.

Who'd know things took another turn after believing the possibility can be a reality. When I was thrilled to click on Eventbrite link, it didn't take me to ticket purchase. Instead, it informed me of waitlist. At the beginning I wasn't sure if the sale hadn't started yet or ended before I saw it. But soon I accepted it's the latter as the announcement of sale was almost a month ago.

But I wasn't about to give up. I tried all kinds of contact to get in touch with organizer, first through Eventbrite, then Facebook and later Email. In the meantime I also scrounged the Internet to find resale tickets. After couple of days no news whatsoever, my optimism dwindled and disappointment creeped in again. Just at the time I was about to shelf the plan again, shoutout to Sophia from French Morning(FR) / Frenchly(US) for generously issuing me media pass as well as general pass for A, making my dream of experiencing top tier French pastry event come true. Here I'd try my best to report my experience at the competition as a first-timer. Hopefully, it brings you useful information about finalist bakeries as well as the event.

Getting there

As it's been a rare occasion that we'd drive to SF, I ususally try to squeeze in as many bakery visits as possible. This time is no exception (even if we will soon be overloaded with croissants, still gotta do the due deligence of trying more!). The bonus reviews are for Maison Nico and Butter & Crumble. Maison Nico has been on my radar since knowing it has won the first place last year. Butter & Crumble recently came to the scene and soon received high praise from both crowd and media including Infactuation Best SF Croissant Guide.

We first went to Maison Nico for breakfast. I've tried their Viennoiserie Box from Neon devlivery twice. This is the first in-person visit. Then we swung by Butter & Crumble to pick up preordered Large Pastry Box. Please follow the link above for the full review.

It's been not easy to drive all over the city with a big road closure (due to Bay to Breakers race). Luckily we made it comfortably in time, about 15min early. The venue (The Clift Royal Sonesta) is at Union Square among a cluster of hotels. It would be hard to find parking had the valet not been provided. It's nice that the organizer coordinated with the hotel to provide valet for event attendees. Smoothly and quickly we got into the lobby. Finally, we are here, the Holy Grail of French pastry craftsmanship is right behind the double door where the competition will take place. My excitement was at its climax.

The line has formed in front of the entrance double door and circled all the way around the hotel entrance to the street outside 15min before starting time. Peeking into the event hall, I saw tables having been set up and chefs standing behind tables getting ready for the showtime. I thought it'd be such a golden opportunity if I could enter now and talk to the chefs before they get occupied with the public. So I boosted up my courage and asked the folks at check-in if I could enter early with my media pass. To my surprise, they welcomed me with great hospitality and we were in!

The Competition

There are two rooms for the event. The main competition takes place in the room behind the entrance double door where bakery tables are set up (layout drawn below). Connecting to the main room is a lounge / bar where charcuterie and coffee are provided.

Upon entering, we were dazzeled by the copious display of assorted pastries on every table and droused in the aroma of enticing butter. Imagine a Cornucopia filled with baked goods, maybe a cool idea if going for best presentation award.

Thanks to the early entry, I got the pleasure to interact with several chefs, hearing introduction of lineup and exchanging opinions on tasting notes. Looking back, this is my favorite part of the whole experience. You don't get to gather ten world-class chefs and their team in the same room on any day, let alone exploring their creation and techniques.

However, the self-paced, at-ease discussion session didn't last too long. Once door was open to the general public, tasting became more rushed. The venue soon got very crowded with shoulder to shoulder. We were constantly handed plates of samples by hospitable bakery teams. But due to the busy scene, there was no time or space to have thoughtful bites, take notes, ask questions, make comparisons etc. Instead, we were always trying to finish whatever was given (so to have available hands) and got very full very quickly.

In hindsight, a better strategy would be only accepting the items of interest, asking smaller portions so to build our own sample plate. Something to optimize next time. Since our taste buds were soon overwhelmed with a bloom of flavors (also tummy capacity reached maximum), we lost focus on the tasting of Grand Prix, i.e. plain croissant. We didn't end up trying plain croissant from every contestant. Among the ones we've tried, the differences are too subtle to tell due to the interference from other pastries. I'm not complaining. I was still a blast. I really like the hospitality and passion from both bakery teams and organizer, creating an awesome vibe for everyone to appreciate French baking culture.

Tasting Notes

With limited tummy space as the main constraint, I didn't taste all twenty competing items, one plain croissant and one creative item from each bakery. Aside from that, I missed a myriad of interesting creations. Most of them ran out after we slowed down. Here I will report tasting notes and rate scores (out of 5) for what I've sampled grouped by bakery. Competing creative items will be labeled by ⭐.


Black Sesame Kouign Amann (4.3) - Strong black sesame flavor by embedding grounded seeds in the laminated dough. Caramalized exterior.

Cubano Croissant⭐ (4.8) - One of the few savory items in the whole competition definitely stands out. Ham, mustard and some soft cheese? Good on its own. Especially good after all the sweet items.

Plain Croissant (4.8) - Very open crumb. Good gluten development for inner membrane layers. Super thin yet elastic. Crispy crust not shattering. Buttery and salty just to the right amount.

Lemon Meringue Pâte à Choux (4.5) - Smooth and balanced lemon curd, just like the curd from One House Bakery. The Choux shell is crispy and light. Meringue is French style more like fluffy cloud than sticky marshmellow, which is the best style to lemon meringue combo. Bonus point it has a torched finish.

Thorough Bread and Pastry

Gibassier⭐ (4.5) - Firm tight crumb brioche, light orangy background constrasting anise. Warm spice and marmalade is a good combo. Can see small candied orange peel embedded in the dough. Just a touch of sweetness. Very light and refreshing.

Saint Regis

Black Sesame Croissant (5) - Black sesame cream filled center. Flavor is strong. Cream is light. Charcoal croissant shell is more for the matching color than flavor. It's a good representative of their plain croissant, crispy exterior and open crumb. Inner membrane layers have good elasticity, indicating well-developed gluten.

Matcha Brioche Feuilletée (3.8) - Laminated dough baked into loaf with matcha cream center. The dough base differs from croissant in that it includes eggs, hence the name brioche, whereas typical croissant dough only includes butter without eggs. Compared to croissant loaf, it has softer, lighter crumb thanks to the enrichment from eggs. In addition, it has yellower appearance and richer taste, also thanks to the inclusion of mighty eggs.

Matcha cream is on the thicker side. Might be butter cream rather than whipped cream. Personally I like lighter cream as the one in black sesame croissant.

It's the first time I've had brioche feuilletée. So I don't have strong preference of what it should be. Considering a cross between croissant and brioche dough, it carries features from both, laminated layers and light as pillow. The deduction of points is mainly for the cream filling. It's a bit heavy, especially in constrast to the dough. It would have been better if using whipped cream to have matching light texture.

Chocolate Crown Croissant (4) - plain croissant base with milk chocolate ganache layer. Good base. Smooth ganache.

Chocolate Tartlet (4) - Very chocolaty. Chocolate cookie exterior. Chocolate ganache center. Chocolate pearls and firmer chocolate ganache on the top.

Honey Cake (3) - Mild sponge cake with cream.

Missed all the colorful croissants. Seem to be filled with different flavored whipped cream, e.g. green for pistachio, red for rasperberry, rainbow⭐ for a combination of all??

Missed cherry blackberry brioche.

Craftsman and Wolves

Skipped as having tried all their crossaints items. Please check full review in separate blog here.

Jane the Bakery

I've visited the bakery several times before. Please check full review in a separate blog here.

Flakey Cheese Twist (4.3) - Super flakey. Very savory. Prominently garlicky. Most likely made of croissant dough scraps. Dangerously addictive. Good snack.

Chocolate Chip Toffee Cookie (4.5) - Relatively thin. Center not doughy but chewy. Crispy edges. Deeply caramalized. Flavor more on the sweet caramal side than the dark chocolate side. All features are not good or bad. Just styles of chocolate chip cookie that please some more than others. E.g. A is not a huge chocolate head. He definitely enjoys this version better than the deep chocolatey one from Butter & Crumble we picked up on the same day.

Plain Croissant (4) - Tasted later at night. Slightly soft crust. Perfectly tender and elastic crumb. Nice butter flavor and salt level. To be honest, after having been overloaded with croissants that day, if it's still so irresistible that I want to gobble down another piece, it says something.

Rhubarb Nascarpone Croissant⭐ (3.8) - Danish construction. Croissant base topped with cheese spread and rhubarb pieces. Rhubarb is an interesting seasonal flavor. But the base is not too flakey, dough layers sticking together, probably due to cheese and fruit on top weighing it down. Mascapone doesn't shine through. I don't taste either the tangy sweet flavor or the creamy smooth texture.

My impressions from earlier visits:

  • interesting creative flavors
  • solid foundation as in good croissant, brioche dough base
  • croissants with filling or topping may have soggy dense base

I think the impressions this time very much align with earlier.

Starter Bakery

Hazelnut Kouign Amann (4) - Grounded hazelnut paste in the center and a whole hazelnut on the top. Intense hazelnut flavor. Caramalized exterior.

Cardamom Kouign Amann (4.2) - Cardamom laminated into the layers. Floral. Unique.

Chocolate Babka (3.8) - Laminated brioche. Chocolate flavor is very prominant. Dough slightly on the dense and heavy side.

One 65

Good croissant base. Offering bread samples as well. Always a proof of solid foundation to have bread in addition to pastries. Didn't get to taste many of the flavored croissants, like rasperberry chocolate, apple, and riz au lait. They are either classic, e.g. apple or unique, e.g. riz au lait, flavors that definitely worth trying.

Pistachio Chocolate Croissant (4) - Light and open crumb. Green layer is more for color than flavor. Chocolate ganache on top with whole pistachio kernels.

Plain Croissant (3.8) - Good gluten development for inner membrane layers. Crust is more thin and shattery than crispy. Prefer the latter than their version.

Bonjour Bakehouse

Blueberry Scone (4.5) - Crispy and caramalized exterior. Tender and moist interior. Chef proudly recommended me their scones to try for the distinct difference to American style. They use high quality produce from San Mateo farmer's market. At bakery, they bake larger ones thus having more textural contrast.

Plain Croissant (3.8 pending) - It's cut into smaller pieces and sitting outside for a while. But can still taste crispy crust and well-developed gluten for inner membrane layers. Slightly dry probably due to exposure to air. Need to sample fresh ones to give fair score.

Missed Ham and Cheese Croissant⭐. Smells and looks super legit.

Like owner's confidence and passion. Plan to visit the bakery in person in the future to make up the missing items.

One House Bakery

Toffee Bread Pudding⭐ (5) - Tastes rich caramel and condensed milk. Bread part is more like cake. Crumb fully soaked with syrup. Very addictive and pleasant. Finished the whole cup and wanting more even after being very full of croissant. That says something.

Lemon / Passionfruit Curd (4.8) - Ultra smooth and light. A perfect balance between tart and sweet. Spread on the end piece of brioche feuilletée from Saint Regis. A nice way to enjoy both. Consider as an improvised new pastry. As mentioned earlier, lighter filling fits brioche feuilletée better.

Red Bird Bakery

Pistachio Strawberry Danish⭐ (3.8) - On top of croissant base is a layer of grounded pistachio paste and topped with fresh strawberry. The pistachio paste has good consistency, not too thick as nut butter not too light like whipped cream. The flavor combo is classic. The croissant base is slightly too dry.


It's a great pleasure to have attended this event. On the way home, I was already thinking about next year and similar event such as baguette competition. Stay tuned on the blog as I plan to follow those upcoming events and bring you in-depth report.

Speaking of in-depth, I will apply optimized strategy based on the experience this time to have more systematic and professional tasting during the event. This brings up my feedback to contestant bakeries and organizers.

It's understandable for once-a-year showtime from best of the best, all the finalists want to present to the audience as many of their proud creations within the two-hour window as possible. Under such incentive comes with great generosity and hospitality. However, abundant amount of food also brings waste. In my daily life, I'm always very concious of getting the right amount so to have minimal or no waste. At the event, whenever given plates of samples, we always finished everything even if we were not interested in some of the them or we only wanted a small portion. This led to getting full too early to try items of interest for review. I also noticed many other participants only had part of the sample and threw away the rest. This issue can be addressed by giving custom samples requested by participants, say specific items and specific portion size.

Another issue is the overcrowded venue. Soon after opening to general public, the whole space became shoulder to shoulder. Every bakery table got so busy and rushed that they just kept pumping out more sample plates until it ran out. There wasn't a good time and spot to taste and interact with bakery folks. In hindsight, it would be better to bring sample plates to the other room for tasting. But then it's away from the scene. It would be overall more comfortable if the venue is bigger and people get to spread out more.

Overall it's such a blast. I couldn't think of a better festival for bakery lovers. All the above feedback is more nitpick to make future events even better.