COULD L.A. be turning into a real bakery town? It seems to be shaping up that way, judging from all the dough on the rise.
On West 3rd Street, Parisian master baker Eric Kayser recently opened the understatedly appealing Breadbar, with a second branch in the works in Century City. At the Brentwood Country Mart, New York restaurateur Maury Rubin is getting ready to introduce the city to a bakery cafe that's unlike anything it's seen before. In West Hollywood, pastry chef Michelle Myers has expanded her offerings, making bread for sandwiches to supplement her line of sweets at Boule.
Elsewhere, Belgian company Le Pain Quotidien, which has multiplied six times over since 2001 in Southern California, is expanding into Manhattan Beach and Pasadena in the coming months. The Japan-based cream puff specialist Beard Papa's has opened in Hollywood. Santa Monica chef Hans Rockenwagner plans to turn his thriving bread and pastry business into a bakery cafe in Venice. And on an unlikely stretch of Pico Boulevard, two sisters with no formal training have plunged right in, opening La Maison du Pain and importing a trained Frenchman along the way as they slowly get off the ground.
For a city of such great size and culinary enthusiasm, Los Angeles doesn't have many world-class bakeries. To be sure, those we do have are hot spots: Clementine in Century City, EuroPane in Pasadena, Jin Patisserie in Venice and Sweet Lady Jane in West Hollywood among them. But such places are few and far between.
The new arrivals -- particularly Kayser's Breadbar and Rubin's City Bakery -- could signal that L.A.'s bakery culture is finally starting to grow up.
"Los Angeles is a very interesting city, with people of many cultures and many restaurants," says Kayser, reached by phone in Paris. "Because they have culture, they can understand bread."
Breadbar opened quietly in August, with no advance publicity whatsoever. "We have a saying in French -- we work with the mouth and the ear," Kayser says. And Breadbar's concept is deliberately self-explanatory: It's a bar for bread.
Bread is the first thing you see when you walk in -- the long crusty baguettes, the olive-studded loaves, the round seed-crusted rolls all beckoning from the back wall. All the menu items are bread-centric. You're not ordering a ham sandwich or a Brie salad or fresh cucumber soup, but "baguette and ham" or "walnut bread and Brie salad" or "buckwheat bread and fresh cucumber soup" -- with all the bread names in capital letters.
The sandwiches and salads aren't just afterthoughts, either -- the ham sandwich is terrific, with Parisian-style ham, caramelized onions, Emmentaler cheese and ripe Roma tomatoes, all enveloped in that marvelous baguette. The wonderfully custardy artichoke and sardine quiche has beguiling flavor. Then there are the pastries -- Normande tart, a thick, meltingly tender, sandy-textured crust filled with custard and McIntosh apples with bright flavor; the hazelnut sable is deliciously crumbly. But there's no question what it's all about at Breadbar. After all, this is ambitious bread.
Kayser, 41, began baking as an apprentice at age 16. Now one of the top bakers in Paris, he has an approach that borders on the obsessive. One might argue that this is true of any serious artisanal baker, but in Kayser's case, that obsession extends to the fine points of opening outlets around the world. In addition to Paris, he has branches in Tokyo, Moscow, Athens, Tel Aviv and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. All, like the L.A. bakery cafe, are set up to make bread his way, down to the last detail.
Before opening Breadbar, "we tried many ingredients, to try to find a good flour and a good salt, to find [filtering] equipment for the water," says Kayser, "and I selected some." But things aren't perfect yet. He plans to return to L.A. in November and check on his bakers -- they apprenticed with him in Paris and elsewhere -- and continue tweaking.
"We work in a very artisanal way, and that takes time," he says.
It's that sort of meticulous attention to detail that transformed Rubin's City Bakery into a neighborhood institution in New York. Since opening in 1990, it has thrived near Manhattan's Union Square, building its menu around the legendary farmers market nearby. And in those 15 years, Rubin says he has turned down more than 200 offers to open a City Bakery elsewhere. Until now, that is.
The right match
WHY L.A.? "I saw the rare opportunity to run City Bakery the same way here," says Rubin, who aims to open in early December. "The ability to be so close to the farmers markets [of Santa Monica] is such an important building block to me. And equal to that, I think the food we make and that the food that the people in West L.A. want to be eating -- it's the right match."