Last weekend, we had a few friends over to celebrate the completion of some remodeling to our home, and I was in full party planning mode: Cheese plate. Baguettes. Cocktail shopping. Snacks galore. And something I don’t usually do was on the list this time, too: Grand Patisserie.
I’d heard rumblings about a west Omaha French bakery that had lots of pretty cakes, macrons, pastries and breads, but I wasn’t sure what it was called, and I didn’t know where it was located.
I can tell you this much: After several croissants, a memorable pistachio cake and an absolutely lovely pavlova, I won’t forget where to find Grand Patisserie.
The spot, in an unassuming strip mall southwest of 144th and West Center Road, is tucked in a corner; the sign reads just “Patisserie,” which translates loosely from French as “pastry shop.”
Inside, there’s just a couple of tables — I never saw a diner that stuck around, though I’m sure some have — and it’s mostly set up just the way I used it: To pick up pastries for an event, or treat your co-workers to breakfast.
The case at Grand Patisserie, though petite, is chockablock with treats big and small, including cookies, pastries, macarons, tiramisu, fruit tarts and, on the weekends, loaves of freshly baked bread.
Here’s one thing I noted right away: the pastries are very pretty. A light and airy chocolate mousse cake came dusted with cocoa polka dots, and a millefeuille, which translates from French as “thousand sheets,” is layer upon layer of thin sheets of pastry filled with vanilla pastry cream and decorated with a geometric pattern of black and white stripes.
Somehow those layers inside the millefeuille remain crisp and airy in between the deeply flavored layers of vanilla cream; it’s a study in texture. The chocolate has depth and richness, but isn’t overdone.
Co-owner Zied Allam, who runs the bakery with his wife, Rafika, said before starting to bake full time, he was working for a “giant corporation” in Omaha. He wanted to both make space for his own creativity and pursue baking, a hobby he’s had since childhood. When he would travel to big American cities like New York, or to Europe, or to Tunisia, where he’s from, he always wondered why Omaha didn’t have a French bakery like those cities did.
“I would always ask ‘Why can’t we have something like this?’,” he said. He decided then to make his hobby into something more.
Allam started making pastries and giving them to friends to gather feedback. When the feedback was good enough, he started a pop-up bakery on the weekends inside Roast, in Aksarben village, in 2016, and did that for three years, up until 2019, when he took over the lease at his current space on West Center.
Then, their business was mostly catering special events, as much as 85 percent of it, he said, with no walk-in hours. But as more and more folks wandered by the small storefront and peeked in the windows, wondering what was going on, they decided to open to the public and sell retail.
Then COVID hit, and their event bookings all disappeared.
“The only thing that saved us was that decision two or three months before to open to the public,” Allam said. That model of our business flipped.”
Now, 90 percent of their business comes from walk-in customers, like me. He said a large portion of their business has also come from social media promotion and Facebook food groups.
“Soft,” “creamy,” “light” and “airy” were terms I kept returning to again and again in my notes, and they came into play again when I tried what might be my favorite of the desserts, a crisp cloud of pavlova stuffed with a berry filling and vanilla pastry cream, then studded with raspberries, blueberries and a blackberry.
Generally when I review a bakery, I limit myself to one or perhaps two bites of a dessert; it’s a lot to try. But the pavlova is the singular moment I found that I could have easily eaten the entire thing and not felt a minute of regret.
Airy is the best word to describe the pavlova and the pastry cream, with a dollop of bright, berry pink jam at its center. I’d love to serve these at the conclusion of a fancy dinner party (If I ever had reason to have a fancy dinner party.)
A friend who tried a few bites of the square pistachio cake filled with pink jam pronounced it delicious; it must have been, because it was gone before I got a chance to sample it at the party.
My friends also enjoyed two cylinders of flaky, buttery baklava, stuffed with almond paste and topped with a dusting of pistachio.
We tried a wide variety of macarons, pretty in hues of yellow, pink, purple and pistachio, and wished they had a bit more crisp to their exterior. Several friends commented that each flavor had a hint of mint; I noticed it on the chocolate one I sampled, too.
Another day, I visited the bakery in the morning to try a different round of pastries: two croissants, a pain au chocolat, and both an almond and a pear almond “tart,” flaky baked goods that felt like they would match best with a hot cup of coffee.
The tarts had the same base: a sort of flaky, shortbread-adjacent buttery cake, more nutty than outright sweet, the pear version decorated with a glistening slice of fruit.
As you might expect from a pastry chef using French techniques, the croissant and pain au chocolate are both wonderful, the kind of buttery, flaky and yes, airy treat that most bakers spend entire careers striving to perfect.
Allam said even after baking for many years, he’s still learning, but most of the technique he uses today he learned in France and Tunisia.
On weekends, the bakery offers a selection of breads, including a rye sourdough, focaccia and specialty loaves, like a braided loaf spiced with Zaatar seasoning and cheese bread with or without jalapeños.
An oval boule of rye sourdough with a crisp crust and soft interior filled with even, medium sized air bubbles might have been the simplest thing I tried at Grand Patisserie. But for this burgeoning sourdough baker, it might have been the most pleasing: Simple. Balanced. Just sour enough, with a lovely crust, perfect for a slice of toast or a sandwich.
Allam’s devotion to his craft and high-quality ingredients — he ran through a laundry list of the high quality items he relies on like local milk, eggs and cane sugar, and an even longer list of things he avoids, like chemicals and preservatives, when we talked on the phone, is evident with just one glance in the bakery’s case.
His devotion to giving something special to Omaha, and to diners like this one, is even more inspiring.
“Why can’t we make it look like Paris,” he asked near the end of our conversation. “Why not make it something good?”
I don’t see why we shouldn’t.