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Bay to Bakers: Bring It On!

Carolyn Jung - May 2014

Every 10 years or so, a paroxysm of sweet desire overtakes San Francisco that’s barely quelled by the numerous pastry shops that emerge to satisfy it. Carolyn Jung looks at the response to the city’s latest urge.

Take San Francisco’s standard mixture of farm-to-table, foraged, seasonal, globally influenced, and chef-driven. Now, fold in gobs of butter. The city has undergone a fully baked awakening of sorts, with the long-held hallmarks of so many of the city’s vaunted restaurants now being adopted by its best bakeries.

In the past year and a half, a slew of top-notch patisseries have risen around the city, many operated by former restaurant pastry chefs not content to serve up the usual suspects of blueberry muffins in winter or flabby baguettes year-round. Inspired by the unparalleled success of Tartine Bakery & Cafe in the Mission District, and finally looking to step out from behind the shadow of an executive chef, these pastry pros are crafting croissants piqued with fiery harissa, bagging granola made with specially sourced purple wheat, and kneading hearty loaves laced with unexpected centers of black quinoa and butternut squash. In doing so, they’ve turned the bakery into a destination. Here’s the city’s newest of them:

Before Belinda Leong opened her resplendent b. patisserie a year ago in Lower Pacific Heights, it’s a good bet that few people in the Bay Area knew anything of kouign amann, let alone how to pronounce it (that would be queen ah-mahn). Now, hordes head here every day just for this unforgettable pastry, a much less dense take on the traditional one hailing from Brittany. On Saturdays alone, 600 are sold, making it the runaway best seller. Meticulously formed from a tricky laminated dough sprinkled liberally with sugar, it’s like a crackly sweet croissant folded in upon itself. It’s so light and crisp that the first bite leaves you showered in golden shards. It’s so popular that Leong even packages kouign amann “ends” in bags now that sell out every day.

“I’ve been making kouign amann for eight years, but mine were never perfect enough to introduce until now,” she says. “It’s pretty cool that we’ve managed to popularize it.”

A former savory chef who switched to the sweet side while working at Restaurant Gary Danko, Leong’s deft way with viennoiserie is a result of her training with Pierre Hermé in Paris and a stage at Fauchon when a branch of the Parisian pastry shop existed in New York City. After leaving her post as David Kinch’s pastry chef at Manresa in Los Gatos, she conducted pop-ups in San Francisco before settling down in shop in 2013. She and business partner Michel Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute, envisioned a modern French patisserie with playful American influences, designing the space with a wide-open kitchen at its center to allow customers to see exactly how much work goes into creating one perfect pastry.

Walk in the doors and the heavenly scent of butter hits immediately, justifiably so, since the patisserie goes through more than 500 pounds every week. The biggest surprise, Leong says, is how busy it is. They are baking at near capacity already. Regulars come in as often as six days a week, some of them downing three pastries at once. At 9 a.m., customers even sidle in for ultra rich desserts like the chocolate caramel toffee mousse dome.

“Before, there was only Tartine or La Boulange,” Leong says. “I think we’ve helped fill a missing niche.”

William Werner is a man on a mission in the Mission: to defy the notion of what pastry is and can be. It starts with the madcap name Craftsman and Wolves, a nod to the craftsman-like precision of the profession and the hurdle-strewn track to perfection. It continues with the decidedly unfrilly interior of exposed brick walls, concrete floors, and plenty of masculine black and gray hues. It culminates with the actual pastries, with their sharp edges and angles, and flabbergasting flavors: kimchi cake with a tender crumb and fiery personality; madeleines that taste of cinnamon-scented mushrooms; and little cube cakes of vanilla, kaffir lime, and pine.

Then, of course, there is the famed Rebel Within, the savory sensation that has visitors from around the world flocking here and food bloggers losing sleep, trying to replicate it. Named for a favorite punk-country album by Hank Williams III, it’s an all-in-one, portable breakfast cake studded with Boccalone sausage, scallions, and cheese, plus a surprising center: a whole egg with a runny yolk.

Werner is not above admitting it all happened by mistake. He intended to put a hard-boiled egg inside, but—fortunately—he took it out of the water bath too soon. This happy accident now sells out by noon on weekends. “I knew the Rebel Within would turn some heads,” he says, noting a sweet offshoot called The Devil Inside (chocolate/almond cake with a soft chocolate center). “But I never thought it would sustain like it has.”

Werner, a pastry chef veteran of various Ritz-Carlton hotels, had long wanted his own modern version of a patisserie, but it took a tumultuous five years to get it. An early attempt imploded after his backers went bankrupt. Then, husband and wife founders of Naivetea, a Bay Area importer of Taiwanese oolong teas, stepped in to become his sole investors in 2012. The partnership has worked so well that Werner is even contemplating opening a separate tea salon next.

“We try to be a little adventurous,” he says. “If it’s already out there, we’re not going to duplicate it. People were a little scared at first. The staff had to really talk things up. I’m glad we stayed the course. After all, it’s always good to challenge your guests a little bit.”

After more than 20 years of working as a restaurant pastry chef at such storied Bay Area establishments as Delfina, Chez Panisse, and Range, Michelle Polzine was so over it. But she was at a loss as to what to do next until her brother, a well-compensated Apple techie, offered to take her on vacation anywhere she wanted. Inspired by a Hungarian cake she couldn’t stop thinking about that was made by a pastry assistant’s mom, Polzine chose Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. For five weeks, she ate her way through cafes, and in so doing, found her calling.

The result is 20th Century Cafe, which opened in 2013 on the bottom floor of an early 20th century building once owned by R.L. “Rube” Goldberg. The cafe/patisserie serves specialties from the Danube region. “Did I think it was risky doing Central European pastries? I still do!” she says with a laugh. “But that culture really spoke to me. People here get lattes on the run. There, you sit down with china and real silverware.”

Like her own Lucy Ricardo brand of sass and style, her cafe is retro all the way. In the beginning, she didn’t even stock cups for to-go coffee. Customer requests for electrical outlets to plug in electronic devices are still met with a polite “no.” They put up with the quirks, though, to get their hands on her regal Russian honey cake, 10 ethereal layers of honey-infused cake stacked high and slathered in between with honey buttercream. It’s also known as the “Krasinski torte” for her good friend, pastry chef Nicole Krasinski of State Bird Provisions, who contributed to Polzine’s KickStarter campaign that jump-started the cafe.

Polzine first tasted the cake in Prague, but it took her 14 attempts to get it just right. Now, as many as 28 slices and a few whole cakes are sold each day. “I like how I made a hit record and that people get it,” she says.

Now, they also come for the house-made bagels, poppy seed babka, linzer torte, and potato-filled knishes. Among them are a few homesick Polish expats, which suits Polzine just fine. “I want people to walk in and feel as if they’re either coming home or taking a trip to some faraway place.”

On the third floor of Macy’s on Union Square, past the racks of women’s sportswear, is a tucked-away space so awash in vivid gumdrop colors you can’t help but blink twice. Tout Sweet is the creation of Turkish born Yigit Pura, former pastry sous chef at Daniel in New York City, who went on to be executive pastry chef for Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas (closed in 2010) before becoming a household name in 2010 as the inaugural $100,000 winner of Top Chef: Just Desserts.

“People get giddy when they walk in here,” says Pura, whose first cookbook, Sweet Alchemy, will be published in August. “They get that childish smirk as if they’re a kid discovering something nobody else knows about.”

Pura heard the catty remarks that he was selling out by locating inside a department store, but he was smart enough to know that doing so would fast-track his project in a city where building from scratch is never an easy endeavor. Tout Sweet opened in 2012 to the delight of locals and international visitors who can’t resist the Nutella-stuffed sugar buns and Tesla pâte de fruit, so named for its “electric” flavor combination of passion fruit, Meyer lemon, and yuzu. The macarons are a must-purchase, so much so that 8,000 are made each week. Crafted over a laborious three day process, they sport deeply saturated colors along with memorable names such as the 5th Element. Inspired by the French cult film, it features a raspberry ganache infused with oolong tea, a flavor combination shared with Pura’s 5th Element cake. Like everything else, it’s baked off-site and delivered fresh three times a day.

“People wonder why so many patisseries have opened lately. I wonder why it hasn’t happened sooner,” Pura says. “There’s definitely a need driving this. Atkins may come and go. Gluten-free may come and go. But people’s love of good desserts doesn’t come and go.”

Unlike most others behind this new wave of new-style patisseries, the Marina District’s Le Marais Bakery wasn’t started by a former baker or restaurant pastry chef. Patrick Ascaso is simply a Frenchman with a nose for finance and a fine taste for butter and levain-based doughs. When he retired after 14 years of working in finance in San Francisco, his daily routine always involved a trip to Tartine. “I was going there every day for croissants,” he says. “I finally thought: Why not open one myself?”

So he and his wife, Joanna Pulcini, a literary agent, did just that last summer, financing Le Marais themselves, naming it after their favorite historic neighborhood in Paris, and hiring a team of bakers. It’s very French. But also Californian. Traditional croissants sell out, as well as one filled with dark chocolate and squishy banana chunks, a combo Ascaso fondly remembers as a bread topping for a childhood afternoon snack.

In fact, he always envisioned bread to be the driving force of the bakery. But in the beginning, he had to give it away to entice his well-heeled, carb-conscious clientele. Nowadays, the bread flies off the shelves—traditional baguettes and imaginative loaves of pear/kale and rye/apricot. The breads boast extremely sturdy crusts and an unmistakable tang from long fermentation. The bakery uses eight different starters, sometimes more than one per loaf. Everything is organic.

What’s more remarkable is that, until recently, all of this was made in a cramped, narrow kitchen and baked in one compact four-shelf oven at the end of the display counter. But this spring, Ascaso expanded into the building next door, doubling the size of Le Marais. That means not only space for a second production kitchen, but also a bistro in the evenings with a wood-fired broiler.

Opening Le Marais was the hardest thing he’s ever done, but also one of the most satisfying. “It started as a passion to produce the things we love,” Ascaso says. “We wanted to keep to traditions. But we also thought, ‘Why not use all these great seasonal products like restaurants do, but in a bakery?’”

Carolyn Jung, a James Beard Award-winning food writer, blogs at FoodGal.com. Her first cookbook, San Francisco Chef’s Table, was published in December 2013.