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All hail the new upper crust

Dedicated bread cafes, fabulous $14 bread baskets: New Yorkers sure love those loaves.

June 08, 2005|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

New York — One morning I headed south from the Union Square farmers market thinking life could not be much better. The sky was that unbelievable blue. I had just bought fresh asparagus and even fresher fluke. And I was on my way to one of the best bakeries anywhere, an Amy's Bread that had recently opened in the West Village, on a block that has now become almost Parisian in its assemblage of high-end fish dealer, world-class cheese shop and old-style pork butcher.

I picked up a mix of chewy, satisfying whole-grain, olive and semolina loaves and twists from the dozens of varieties on display in the gleaming tiled shop, then decided to push my luck by searching out lunch nearby. And not three blocks away I came across a whole new shrine to the risen food: Blue Ribbon Bakery Market, a restaurant with a 140-year-old wood-fired oven in the basement, had just opened a retail shop with shelves lined with Pullman loaves, whole-grain rounds, baguettes and more. I couldn't leave without a perfect flaxseed loaf and a flatbread filled with bacon and onions.

Only three days later I was heading for a different farmers market, in Tribeca, when I found another new bakery in the throes of opening -- this one from David Bouley, whose four-star restaurant is just across the street. Electrical wires were still dangling and the walls weren't all painted, but neighbors and tourists were already lined up for pistachio-walnut bread, huge miches, cheese bread and pepper bread. I walked out with a small oval of saffron-walnut bread and half of a Viennoise baguette packed with chunks of dark chocolate, and with a wallet $11 lighter.

This city has always had an embarrassment of yeasty riches, especially with the rise of artisanal bakeries in the last 10 years, but now the bread scene feels extraordinary. While most of the rest of the country has to settle for squishy Italian or "baked on premises" La Brea in supermarkets, here, in what is virtually a European satellite, we can walk into Dean & Deluca and take our pick from no fewer than 17 bakeries. Or we can sit down in a good restaurant and face more choices in bread than water. Bouley the restaurant serves two types of rolls, then dispenses a variety of sliced bread from a cart for the cheese course. And at brunch at Balthazar, the excellent basic bread is served at every table, but patrons can also order a mixed basket for $14 (the price of a burger); on Saturday many tables had done exactly that.

And, always, we can make our way to a fragrant shop in any number of neighborhoods and choose our own daily bread, a different one for every day of the week, sometimes even every hour of the day.

The best bakeries -- especially Amy's, Sullivan Street and Tom Cat -- turn out good bread at its most basic, with crust worthy of the name and a core that has substance and texture and true bread flavor. But now Blue Ribbon's bakery has taken bread to an even higher level. Essentially it's a bread cafe, the floury equivalent of a coffeehouse, where patrons can choose to have slices of any bread toasted and spread with any of an array of toppings: butter and honey; Stilton; smoked trout and cream cheese. There are no tables for lolling with a laptop, but a bench outside on the leafy sidewalk is a perfect place for tearing into the greatest thing since sliced bread: toasted and cheese-covered sliced bread.

The shop also sells top-shelf accouterments for breads, including butter made in the restaurant down the block; salmon and trout smoked there; and house-cured artichokes and olives.

Bouley Bakery, a reincarnation of the retail shop the chef had at one time inside his restaurant, is also a market, with ice cream, roast chickens and soups for sale alongside the breads. (A bar and cooking demonstration area are up a flight of stairs.)

New Yorkers have always taken their bread extremely seriously. Maybe it's because even newcomers cut their teeth on sturdy bagels, or because fad diets can never compete with a lifestyle that involves StairMasters at every subway stop. But no real restaurant could get away with offering cotton, and even neighborhood grocery stores sell bread with real heft. Bread is New York's chocolate. Or at least its cheese.

(The unstoppable trend toward cheese connoisseurship has also fueled the city's appetite for bread: a creamy French Chaource, after all, has to be served on a different platform than a firm Spanish Idiazabal.)

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