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Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn’s Très French Bijoux

Home to New York’s top-voted croissant, the neighborhood is rife with French bakeries, restaurants, retail and influence.

Facade of Brooklyn French Bakers, located in the Columbia Street Waterfront District. Illustration by Tim Le @l_e.tim

It was the summer of 2021 and Nelly Azambre, Teddy Collet and Sabrina Labouré barely knew each other. Each from a different region in France, they had relocated with their families to Brooklyn, where they met one another through mutual friends and their children’s school.


The three discovered they had much in common: Each missed the pastries and bread they were accustomed to eating back home. Labouré took online classes to earn her CAP de Boulanger, the certification bakers must have in order to set up shop in France. Azambre followed suit. A retail space, many early mornings and much grit later, there they were: Azambre, a former civil engineer; Collet, a former chemist; and Labouré, a former banker, now collectively known as the Brooklyn French Bakers.


“The three of us came [to the United States] because of our spouses,” Azambre said. “We are not bakers and pastry chefs at all. We learned during COVID, baking at home, and we took classes online.”


The doors to their 273 Columbia Street bakery were open for less than a year before their croissant was named the best in New York City in 2023 by French Morning New York, a website publishing news pertaining to French and French-speaking people in New York City. Brooklyn French Bakers beat out 13 other artisan bakeries, selected by readers of French Morning New York, to win the grand prix in the yearly competition for the city’s best croissant.


On a recent morning, the air outside of Brooklyn French Bakers was thick with the scent of a croissant whose crispy, near-caramelized exterior masks a buttery, melt-in-your-mouth interior. The bakery provides pastries and other baked goods to coffee shops in the area, including Nerd Be Cool.


French bakeries abound in Brooklyn. In Carroll Gardens, where Italian bakeries hold court, there are a handful of French ones. Le French Tart Deli, which also has an outpost near the Brooklyn Bridge, is on Court and Degraw, across the street from La Bicyclette, which has locations in Williamsburg and Fort Greene. Also, there's Bien Cuit on Smith Street.

The restaurant scene, too, is rife with French influence. There’s Bar Bête, Cafe Luluc and Bar Tabac on Smith Street, and French Louie on Atlantic Avenue. There are French immersion programs for children – Smith Street Maternelle and Le Souris Verte – and Carroll Gardens is home to the International School of Brooklyn, well-regarded for its French immersion program.


French influence in Carroll Gardens is “a much more recent phenomenon” than that of other cultures, mostly Italian, in the neighborhood, according to Dominique Jean-Louis, chief historian at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History.


“The French presence in Carroll Gardens stems from the 1990s,” Jean-Louis said. “The area used to be predominantly Italian. It’s accessible to Manhattan, so it was a popular choice for working- and middle-class Italian families who maybe wanted to get away from Lower Manhattan and find something with more green space and a slower feel. Those families were much more prevalent in the earlier part of the 20th century, and then we saw the uptick in French immigration in the 1990s.”


Large enclaves of French people immigrated to SoHo, Chelsea and the Upper West Side in the early 20th century, followed by Carroll Gardens in the late Nineties and early Aughts, according to Jean-Louis. There is typically a defined impetus for increased immigration to a particular area, but for French immigration to Carroll Gardens, the catalyst is not so clear.


“It seems like a few different things were happening at once,” she said. “On the one hand, there’s the remnants of a strong Eighties economy. Most of the immigration, as far as I can tell, from France to Carroll Gardens is by middle-class, upper-middle-class families who have the means to move to New York. New York in the Nineties was not the cheapest place to move, especially to more established neighborhoods in Brooklyn, like Carroll Gardens. So it was really an influx of higher-income French families.”


When people talk about Carroll Gardens, they occasionally cite a “village feel” reminiscent, to some, of European villages, Jean-Louis said. Save for Whole Foods and Ikea, shopping centers are centralized in Downtown Brooklyn and Industry City, allowing mom-and-pop butcher shops and fish markets to thrive on Court and Smith Streets.


The neighborhood lends itself well to boutique and specialty retail that European cities such as Paris have mastered. Inspired by her time living in Paris, Kelly Wang opened Rue Saint Paul, a boutique selling clothing, jewelry, accessories, home goods and skin care, on Court and Degraw, a few doors down from La Bicyclette. The shop is named after the street Wang lived on in Paris.

Photo by Robespierre Dornagon @robes.co

“I love that local, small boutique experience that I got when I was in Paris, so I wanted to bring that home,” Wang said. “You go into the city and you have very few neighborhoods – West Village and different parts of SoHo – that have that smaller, boutique experience, versus the big brands on Fifth Avenue [where] the discovery process is lost.”


Bar Bête on Smith Street is the brainchild of Chef Marc St. Jacques, who grew up in Montreal and Toronto before moving around the U.S. Previously, St. Jacques was the executive chef at Auberge du Pommier, an award-winning fine dining restaurant in Toronto, and the executive chef of Michael Mina’s Michelin-starred restaurant in the Bellagio in Las Vegas. St. Jacques also owns Ruthie’s, a more casual alternative one block up from Bar Bête.


Bar Bête was inspired by St. Jacques’ childhood memories of eating at French-Canadian bistros.


“The menu, at first, was going to be French-Japanese-ish, and then, as it settled, I got more excited about French bistro fare,” St. Jacques said. “Even though I don't think any of our dishes are French bistro dishes, there are nods to those things. We have a lot of butter and richness in the food. The food's not overly fancy or fussy, some of the dishes are very stark, but hopefully they’re flavorful and big.”


St. Jacques and his staff are constantly workshopping the menu, though Bar Bête has become known for staples such as the duck fat potatoes and the yellow cake, the latter of which was an accidental hit.


“We ended up getting our liquor license about two to three months early, which is unheard of in New York, and I was like, ‘We’re gonna open, then, let’s go,’” he said. There was just one problem: The menu didn’t include dessert.


Days before the friends and family soft opening, St. Jacques celebrated his daughter’s one-year birthday. He served a yellow cake with chocolate frosting and sea salt, which became a hit at Bar Bête’s soft opening and, now, a menu go-to.


“There’s this yellow cake at the end of the rainbow. You get through the meal and you remember there’s this fun thing,” he said. “I think it changes the tone of the restaurant because of that.”





When asked what brought them to New York, and more specifically, Brooklyn, Azambre of Brooklyn French Bakers said her spouse’s company moved them to New York City, and they chose Carroll Gardens because of the International School of Brooklyn and the French dual language program at PS 58.


“I have three kids,” she said. “When we arrived, we wanted a school that was half-French, half-English because none of them spoke English.”


As for Collet, the decision to move was perhaps less logical than that of his former chemistry career.


“It was my wife’s dream to live here,” he said.


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