Portsmouth, France? Paris, NH? Where am I living and working these days?
Must I pinch myself because I spy a real pasty shop right here in Downtown PTown? (not that PTown – Port City P Town. N’ampsha’s PTown).
The disaster that was the Red Iguana, and the lunch place before that whose name seems to elude me, crashed and burned explosively in this real estate prior to this entity. The Congress Street Space tucked between the Music Hall Loft and Cafe Med, even with it’s battle scars, is now home to a real French Pastry shop. Tea? Espresso? Pastry? Cookies? Brioche? Bread? Croissant? Macaron? All yes. And fresh crepes to boot. The shop, called La Maison Navarre, is run by what appears to be a French couple (I do know for a fact they are from France, I didn’t ask about their personal sleeping arrangements) with hopes that this cursed retail space hopefully can breathe new life. Their bios are online but that’s cheating since I experienced it real time. But their story is there if facts actually interest you, the reader.
The décor is modern, clean, a little odd for a café but it works. Nice sit down bar and a few tables. A room in the back that I doubt anyone will ever see. Chalkboard Menus painstakingly created except for the addition of a block text “Tax not included” at the top of each menu (it’s the little things, right?)
Says the web:
“Enter into the Sweet World”
To give, to celebrate or simply to enjoy, La Maison Navarre offers fresh homemade
high quality products. In the long tradition of “Patisserie, Salon de Thé”, we perpetuate
the taste, the elegance and the French know-how.
I had the distinct pleasure of a freshly drawn Double Espresso made from – get this – Costa Rican beans. Not Italian, not French, but South American! The owner explained that these beans were strong in flavor (check) smooth (check) but not over roasted (check). I was allowed the opportunity to sample the aroma of the beans as well. I will say, it was not quite the usual espresso in flavor. Great Crema, nice temperature, a good bite but not overly extracted. The Costa Rican beans a bit smoother and subtle than say a Starbucks Espresso (knocking neither, I like both, it’s hard to nail down a proper espresso in these parts since, well, no one appreciates them).
With thick French accents the couple briefly explained their operations and products.
I ask, “Is that a popover?”
“No Monsieur, is better…is brioche, Oui” the woman kind of said, minus a few strategically placed French words that I heard but that probably weren’t said.
My mind reaches for Brioche – delicious, pastry, fluffy, rich, eggy, buttery….fatty. Boo Calories.
Instead I had a fresh “Madagascar Vanilla” éclair with real pastry crème, glazed with vanilla sweetness, not from a warehouse bakery. While quite good, it didn’t blow my mind, which made me somewhat sad thinking it would.
Patrons were gushing about the place to the new owners, but all were from ‘away’ it seems, Chicago, Michigan, “we wish we lived here because we’d be back every day” or some fluff like that. I appeared to be the only local but it was an odd hour (3PM on a Monday) so hard to tell if this was destined to be a tourist trap or a locals haunt. I prefer the latter, or a combination of both. It certainly is no Elvis room but I like the vibe and I can’t wait to try it out again and see how the menu opens up over time.
Oh, and one note. The French need to learn American Espresso pricing norms – $2.50 for a single shot is great but a double shouldn’t be $5. I mean, theoretically it should since it is twice as much coffee, but the ‘Bucks bangs on an extra buck or so. I like that model. $5 kind of stings us Americans in a tiny cup. I can say, the caffeine hit me like a plane crash, I started dancing in my seat about halfway through. This, I liked. The buzz was real.
So keep your eyes out for this fresh little gem. I need to return to try a croissant which I hear rumblings of being most excellent. Welcome to Portsmouth, whatever it has become!
121 Congress Street, Portsmouth, NH
Photo Credits: First Espresso Image is mine, the rest lifted off MN media.