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Wonder Bread : Just Why Are Washingtonians Lining Up for a Slice of L.A. Cuisine?


WASHINGTON — In this city built on the plan of Paris but without its esprit--or its baguettes--people are falling over themselves about a new bakery.

An entrepreneur, who, of course, once dabbled in politics, opened a small bread shop this summer in the epicenter of upper-crust, white Washington and suddenly the nation's capital has bread lines.

Mark Furstenberg began researching his venture in California, scouring coastal bakeries and tasting loaf after loaf. Then, one day in Los Angeles, he came upon "Celebrity Bread" on La Brea Avenue.

There, Furstenberg had one of Nancy Silverton's sourdough rolls. "All I know is that it was the best bread I ever had," the Washingtonian said.

He spent seven days and nights in Silverton's La Brea Bakery, working the ovens, cleaning bread sheets and surveying the lines of customers.

Before he flew east, Silverton handed him three jars of liquid. Each contained a cup each of white, rye and wheat sourdough "starter" that she created four years ago by soaking organically grown grapes in a mixture of flour and water, then straining out grapes. He put the starters in separate barrels, adding flour and water to begin the process of making dough.

"I was dazzled," Furstenberg said of Silverton's now mythical mixtures. "There aren't many successful food people who just give you their recipes."

Furstenberg opened the doors to Marvelous Market in midsummer, and after the Washington Post ran three successive stories on his bread, he has had to limit the number of loaves per customer to two.

Lines of salivating customers began snaking around the block, particularly after Furstenberg's "good friend" Phyllis Richman, the Post's food critic and the city's doyenne of tasting, declared the bread "world class."

"You should be suspicious of my making that statement, since that bread is being produced by a good friend of mine. Yet, after 14 years on this job, I hope I have built up enough credibility to compensate for that," she confessed in a unique column in which, instead of reviewing a restaurant, she fawned over Furstenberg's bread.

And while she has no financial investment in Marvelous Market, Richman conceded in a recent interview that she is thrilled about its success because "I have an investment in there being good food in Washington."

But why is Washington getting so crazy about a bread?

One answer is that it's good stuff--sourdough loaves laden with figs, olives or currants; whole wheat boules riddled with walnuts; $1.25-baguettes baked to perfection; crusty, meaty hunks of bread that are meals in themselves. More than one taster has called the bread "addictive."

But why the "phenomena," as several suburban matrons independently dubbed the neighborhood bakery as they waited outside the storefront?

"There's a void in this city," declared Arnold Gordon, after being turned away from the back door of Marvelous Market an hour before opening time. "People are looking for things like good bread and local bakeries, things that remind them of their roots back home."

A Pittsburgh native, Gordon is no philosopher. Rather, the 43-year-old father of two is a Chevy Chase, Md., real estate agent whose wife sent him out early one Friday morning to get two loaves before the weekend frenzy for bread. "This place," he added thoughtfully, "fulfills a crying need."

Perhaps it is also that this is a city where people are generally more interested in such things as FERC, FEMMA and Fannie Mae than food.

Which brings to mind a line in Nora Ephron's semi-autobiographical movie "Heartburn" about the breakup of her marriage to superstar Post reporter Carl Bernstein. "You can't even get a decent bagel in Washington," the weepy Ephron character, a New York food writer, lamented in the moments before she was to marry the Bernstein character, a Washington columnist.

In fact, Richman and others admit the food situation in Washington has vastly improved compared to what it was a mere decade or so ago. "People went to each other's homes for dinner," said Richman. "There were few good restaurants. The problem was Washington didn't grow up as an ethnic community; only recently have ethnic neighborhoods really sprouted."

And now there are 50 varieties of ethnic restaurants and markets, she said, yet people still complain that this isn't exactly the land of the galloping gourmet.

For while Washingtonians are enthusiastic about several top restaurants of the quality found in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco--the Big Three food towns--most people aren't satisfied with what else is around.

"I mean, would you be proud of a place that boasts more Ethiopian restaurants than any other city in the nation?" asked Lane Ireland, a machinist who had driven from suburban Maryland for bread.

Wailed one woman--who wouldn't give her name because her husband is "a big cheese on the Hill and he only speaks on background to reporters so why shouldn't I?"--"There's no arugula, there's no cilantro, there's no deli!

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