Popular French bakery chain Paul has opened its first outlet in Kuala Lumpur (May 22). While it seems to be safe from the long queues that have formed at some of its 650 stores in 45 countries worldwide, the Pavilion Elite outlet has nonetheless been buzzing with customers wanting to try some of its famous pastries and breads.
Paul turns 128 this year. It began in 1889 in Croix, in the north of France, with baker Charlemagne Mayot; his son Edmond and his wife Victorine later took over the bakery, and in turn, their daughter Suzanne and her husband Julien Holder, a baker himself.
The Holders bought a bakery in nearby Lille in the 1930s from the Paul family, and decided to keep the name.
Their son, Francis, took over in 1955. He’s the one who decided to give the ovens prominence, situating them in view of customers wherever possible.
“He is 78 now, but still in his lab developing recipes,” said Jean Pierre Erba, chief executive officer for Paul Asia Pacific and India.
“And whenever he travels to our outlets, the first thing he does is check on the ovens.”
Francis’ son, Maxime, took over as chairman of the company in 2006.
Groupe Holder, which owns both Paul and high-end patisserie chain Ladurée, has had KL in its sights for a new store for some time now.
“But the most important thing to us is the location,” said Erba.
It is the company’s policy that the first Paul store opened in any country will be a flagship store – combining a bread-making facility, in homage to the history and heart of the business, as well as a patisserie and restaurant.
“It was only when Pavilion Elite opened, that a mall was able to provide us with the kind of space we needed for all that,” he said.
Paul’s well-stocked display windows are inspiringly eye-catching and laden with variety. Every day, the delicious window dressing changes four times – breakfast pastries give way to salads and sandwiches at lunchtime, a new assortment of pastries returns to the window for tea and dinner time sees a change in the line-up again, with both sweets and savouries.
The pastries are all made in small batches for freshness, between 12 and 24 of each made at a time.
Look out for the éclairs and napoleons, the latter with a cream filling layered with thin, crunchy sheets of caramelised pastry.
“Another speciality of ours is the cramique sucre et raisins, a type of soft, sugared brioche filled with fruits,” said Erba. It’s a speciality of Paul’s birthplace in Lille, eaten dunked in coffee or hot chocolate.
And of course, any self-respecting French bakery must have macarons.
While you’ll find the familiar petite variety here, Paul is a big celebrator of tradition, and so their speciality is the old-fashioned large macarons.
“These triple XL – or maybe quadruple XL! – macarons are the originals, the ones that I remember from my childhood,” said Erba.
“Sometimes, my parents would give me some money and I would go to the bakery, buy one of these and save it all day until dinnertime. They came in chocolate and vanilla then, but at Paul we also have pistachio, salted caramel, and even seasonal flavours. Soon, we will have yuzu macarons – these are already a hit in Europe!”
The restaurant menu is built on a foundation of the breads Paul is famous for.
“Our trademark is the rustic sourdough bread, and our baguettes are also very popular,” said Erba.
A crusty country loaf forms the base for Paul’s popular sandwiches, which include the open-face tartines, from the warm tartine boeuf (RM38) topped with slices of grilled sirloin steak, caramelised onions and herbed cream cheese, to the cold tartine Niçoise (RM35), with tuna mayo, hard-boiled egg, black olives and cherry tomatoes. At the KL outlet, these are served ready-sliced. “We notice that in Asia, people eat in groups far more, and so this allows them to share, to mix and match if they wish,” said Erba.
While the crusty baguettes are quite timeless in their appeal, and Asian crowd seems to be gravitating towards the softer breads, like the Viennoise. “Especially popular are the breads from Southern France, often made with olive oil, or studded with olives,” said Erba.
For those dining in, there are also savoury crêpes, salads and more substantial mains. But even here, you may find a link to the wood-fired soul of a bakery – like the cuisse de poulet rôtie (RM48), herb-marinated and roasted leg of chicken.
“In the old days in most French villages, people didn’t have their own ovens,” said Erba. The only oven in the area would belong to the village baker. “So the people would take their chickens for the Sunday roast to him, dropping them off on the way to church, and picking up their freshly-roasted chickens on the way back. This dish is in homage to that practice.”
The breads are made fresh every day, and any unsold are disposed of at night. According to Erba, concerns about food hygiene and safety preclude them from donating any excess food – but because baking is done in small batches, they are able to minimise wastage.
Consistency is a key (not-so) secret to Paul’s enduring worldwide popularity. That is partly-driven by many of the ingredients being brought in from France, or from Europe – chief among these is Paul’s own formulation of bread flour, made from a traditional variety of wheat.
Also imported: the buttery tart shells, and the dough for the best-selling croissants, transported in hibernation for freshness.
“It’s also about being authentic,” said Erba. “People come to Paul for a taste of French pastries and bread, and so it’s important to cater to that. We need to maintain our quality with strict SOPs – we are quite paranoid about this!”
According to Erba, all Paul staff are local, including the bakers, who undergo rigorous training beforehand.
“I tell you, they are as good as any French baker!” he said.
Paul, Lot 2-09-02 & S 2-09/02, Level 2, Pavilion Shopping Centre, 168 Jalan Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur (Tel: 03-2145 2000/6000).