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A few Baltimore restaurants dip into the Cronut craze

Dining and DrinkingRestaurantsTheft

Hey, wanna buy a Cronut?

We're talking a real Cronut here, the original cream-filled, glazed cross between a croissant and doughnut that you can buy at only one place in the world: the Dominique Ansel Bakery, a French pastry shop in New York City's SoHo neighborhood.

The Ansel bakery doesn't ship Cronuts, and you'll have to get in line by 6:30 a.m. to get a shot at one — the maximum is two — of the 200 or so of the labor-intensive Cronuts that the small bakery churns out every day.

Cronuts, which Ansel launched on May 10, are the pastry that ate Manhattan, and their fame keeps growing. In three short months, Cronuts have become the culinary craze of the year, complete with tales of black-market sales and hired line-sitters. Their fate and fame were set even before the first one was sold, by a now-legendary May 9 blog post by Hugh Merwin on New York magazine's Grub Street website, titled "Introducing the Cronut, a Doughnut-Croissant Hybrid That May Very Well Change Your Life."

Within weeks, bakeries and restaurants worldwide began to try to imitate the Cronut with their own croissant-doughnut hybrids. They can't call them Cronuts, though — the name is trademarked — so they've been dubbing their creations "droissants" or "doissants." Just last week, Dunkin' Donuts introduced a knock-off version in its Asian markets that it's calling a "New York Pie Donut."

Baltimoreans who don't want to make, or wouldn't dream of making, the trip to New York City for the real Cronut experience can now taste facsimile versions in at least two Baltimore restaurants. Regi's in Federal Hill introduced its version of the croissant-doughnut treat in early June. And just three blocks down Light Street, the Rowhouse Grille started serving its version, which it calls a "Rownut," in mid-July.

"People are digging it," said Tess Mosely, the chef at the Rowhouse Grille, where the treats are deep-fried to order. "The response has been overwhelming. It's been a bigger response than I thought. Federal Hill isn't known for its sweet tooth."

The basic Rownut, which costs $5, is stuffed with vanilla cream and coated with a salted caramel sauce. Two other versions cost $7.50. One is filled with lemon gelato, and the other is a take on s'mores, filled with chocolate sauce and topped with graham crackers and marshmallows.

"They're all the sugar shock you need," Mosely said.

Regi's owner Alan Morstein said he thought the pastry would just be a quick fad.

"I thought it was going to be like the mood ring," he said. "But these things are really resilient."

Customers can get Regi's version of the pastry sometimes at dinner and always at brunch. Morstein said that 25 percent of his brunch customers order what he's dubbed a "Regi's Cronut" even though the restaurant puts complimentary muffins on every table.

"They want to experience the joy of Cronut," Morstein said. "They've heard about it. They've read about it. They're just captivated about it."

Morstein said he started serving his version of Ansel's Cronut at the insistence of his adult children, both of whom live in New York City and had been tracking the trend.

"They said you have to get on the Cronut kick," Morstein said. "You have to. You have to. You have to."

But if you eat a "Rownut" or try a "Regi's Cronut," have you really had a Cronut?

Its creator doesn't think so. "I haven't tried any of the imitations, I'm afraid," Ansel said in an interview. "But I figure it's the same difference between the omelet that one chef makes from that of another. Things taste different when different hands make them — everyone has their own techniques and quality of ingredients."

Ansel's Cronut takes three days to make from start to finish. The process begins with the making of a "laminated" dough, which is similar to croissant dough.

The making of a Cronut, the original version, requires not only time but also space for laying out sheets of laminated dough. And rolling out laminated dough is no day at the beach.

"I got a great ab workout," said Doug Wetzel, the executive pasty chef at Gertrude's, which served a bite-size tribute to the Cronut for a few weeks in June, which Gertrude's called a Croi-nut.

Wetzel said he wanted to give a gist of the Cronut experience to diners without their having to go to New York City. But he didn't want them to think that Croi-nuts were Cronuts.

"We really didn't want to do what they were doing up in New York City at Dominique Ansel Bakery," said Wetzel. He also wanted his version to be an appropriate dessert for Gertrude's. "[The Cronut] is something you need to eat with your hands," he said.

Wetzel said he had been thinking about bringing the Croi-nuts back later this summer after the positive reception they got during their two-week run as a dessert special. But then Wetzel received a cease-and-desist letter [read it here] from Ansel's lawyers telling Gertrude's that Croi-nut was much too close to Cronut for comfort.

Wetzel said he found the letter's instructions about how to properly identify his doughnut-croissant pastry to be too restrictive He won't be trying them again, he said.

"It was too much of a headache," Wetzel said.

Outside of the Rowhouse Grille, Regi's and Gertrude's, versions of the Cronut have been scarcely seen in Baltimore. Some Baltimore pastry chefs and bakers said they are hesitant, for various reasons, to produce anything that customers might confuse with a Cronut.

Chris Ford, the award-winning pastry chef at the Four Seasons Baltimore Hotel, said he won't be trying to re-create the Cronut any time soon.

"Because it's such a new and inventive product," Ford explained. "It's not like re-creating the Twinkie or oatmeal creme pie. It's still so new and needs its own time to shine."

Chad Gauss, the chef and co-owner of The Food Market, said he didn't want to be in on the Cronut trend. "I feel like I'd steal [Ansel's] idea," Gauss said. "I don't want to steal other people's ideas. I'd rather do my own thing. It's a matter of respect for them and respect for myself."

Gauss has actually tried a Cronut. "They deserve all their hype," said Gauss, who enjoyed Cronuts with his wife, Wendi, on the High Line, New York City's popular landscaped elevated park. "We loved them." Gauss said. "They were so good, all we could do was laugh. They were dripping down my arms, and I was wearing nice clothes, but I didn't even care."

Not everyone agrees that only the original Cronut will do.

Morstein contends that the "Regi's Cronut," which he makes from Pillsbury crescent rolls dough, is indeed a "cronut," even though it's not made by the place that has the trademark. He said he's not worried about receiving a cease-and-desist letter.

"It might not be the New York Cronut. Just like Baltimore pastrami isn't like Katz's pastrami," Morstein said. "But you're experiencing pastrami."

He said he plans to start making his treats with croissant dough he tracked down from a New Jersey vendor. "I've gone north of the border," Morstein said.

Mosely, the chef at Rowhouse Grille, also uses a prepared croissant dough but said she plans to start making her own.

Gary Vikan, the former director of the Walters Art Museum and an expert in fakes and forgeries, said it ultimately doesn't matter whether someone is eating a bona fide Cronut or an imitation by another name, so long as the result is the same. Only some people, like food historians and lawyers, need to insist that the real thing is the only thing.

"Authenticity is a kind of cachet," Vikan said. "If you've had the real thing in the real place, you've had a leverage on social esteem."

Anirban Basu of the Sage Policy Group Inc., a Baltimore-based economic consulting firm, agreed that prestige has played a role in the mania for Cronuts.

"That the craze started in SoHo is not an accident. Often the crazes start small but among people who are deemed to be most knowledgeable about what's in or what's not," Basu said. "To use a phrase from high school, as others see the most popular kids do it, they start doing it, too."

Basu said that the mania for Cronuts would ebb once the line at Dominique Ansel Bakery starts not to look so chic. "The best bet one has is that they won't be nearly as popular a year or two from now," Basu said.

But Morstein said the pastry has legs. "Cronuts are here to stay," said Morstein, who has taken to using "cronut" not only as a generic noun but also as a verb, too. "Everybody who cronuts loves the cronut."

richard.gorelick@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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