There's a certain kind of place where you go for a quick latte in a paper cup en route to BART at 7 a.m., and maybe a muffin or a scone. There's another kind of place you go for pasta and a side salad served alfresco on a sunny afternoon. And yet another for Asian takeout, or pancakes, or vegan desserts, and still another, by golly, where you go to order wedding cakes. That's six places, each conjuring a completely different scene and setup: white-aproned waitrons in the pasta place, tattooed postpunks in the vegan one, and in the cake place a jolly baker straight out of a nursery rhyme, dusting flour from his arms as you outline your wedding plans.
How, then, does a little place in Berkeley aspire -- and to some extent manage -- to be all six at once?
It's called the Bake Shop, and it's barely big enough to swing a baguette in. Its glass cases, which pretty much fill the retail floorspace, shield trays of baked goods, vats of salad, cups of pudding, premade sandwiches, and more. From the huge ovens that nearly rub elbows with the cash register emerge pizzas, and from the kitchen beyond appear egg breakfasts, daily pasta specials, and soups du jour. These are consumed at a handful of teensy-weensy tables, some inside and some outside in a narrow courtyard flanked by an optometry outlet.
This might well be the wave of the future, the first step in America's next alimentary evolutionary stage: the all-in-one cafe/bakery/deli/pizzeria/full-service pan-ethnic restaurant. In an increasingly narcissistic age, it's an oasis for families or couples who can't agree on quantity or style or even sweet versus savory, each individual craving a completely different meal.
When it first opened in 1986, the Bake Shop was affiliated with Bette's Oceanview Diner in West Berkeley. An early owner was Carolyn Weil, who had been the first pastry chef at San Francisco's Stars. Under her management, the shop was written up in Gourmet and Bon Appetit. Later it was bought by Peter Conn, who had taught bakers at Il Fornaio at the Gourmet Ghetto's opposite fringe. He changed the shop's name to Art of Baking and offered artisan breads made from organic flour. Marc Teitelbaum and Neucimar Silva bought the bakery in March 2004.
Brazilian-born Silva, who arrives well before sunup to make sure the breakfast pastries are out by seven, entered the baking trade nearly fifteen years ago He was an assistant pastry chef and line cook for four years at Oliveto, where he worked with Paul Bertolli and Becky Smith, then as pastry chef for six years at the Market Hall's pasta shop. He also did a stint with Jeff Dodge at La Farine.
The grim chill of an early winter morning propelled Tuffy and me to a table inside. There we assembled an array of treats whose sturdiness and fearless butteriness were born of a time and place during which our forebears contended with even colder temperatures and had to actually work outdoors in them. Reassuringly weighty in the hand, a pear-ginger scone provided the perfect counterpoint to black coffee. The drink's plaintive bitterness balanced the scone's richness and complex flavor: pear morsels mellow and almost creamy against the teeth, candied ginger jumping out sprightly and sly. Subtler in color and flavor than the leaden, nutmeggy pumpkin pies and breads that plague us every autumn, the Bake Shop's pumpkin muffin was delightfully understated. With its firm golden hat outspanning its stout little body, it was filling -- clearly a muffin, but without reading its name on the card you might be at a loss to identify what sort of muffin. Which could be either good news or bad. On the other hand, the earnest apple turnover made no secret of its identity, with spicy chopped fruit tumbling from the crumbly brown pocket -- its humble surface spangled with coarse sugar -- at every bite.
Tuffy tackled a scrambled-egg-on-croissant sandwich. While Silva used to buy croissants from outside, as he still does with bagels, now he bakes his own. As a croissant, this one was as delicate as a breath. As a sandwich casing, it was miscast. You simply cannot load enough fillings into a flaky little crescent to make it worth five bucks. Tuffy would later find similar fault with an egg-salad-on-focaccia sandwich and an avocado sandwich on a roll: good bread, scandalously scantily stuffed. The avocado version was the greatest offender, with perky red Romescu sauce cosseting a layer of fruit nearly as thin as a credit card.
Did I say flaky? Did I say crumbly? Halfway through our repast, I noticed myself nervously scraping crumbs and sugar crystals into a little pile on the tabletop with a card. It's a compulsion of mine, this aversion to messy food, to meals that clutter and shed. For anyone with such compulsions, the Bake Shop is a minefield. What is great about its baked goods -- their butteriness, their complexity, their multitude of chips, bits, strips, and crystals -- is also in a cruel twist of irony what's bad. You and your surroundings will be showered with specks, the kind that make grease-spots bloom on books and clothes.
We decided to take our lunchtime purchases to a park, where falling debris buries itself mercifully in grass. There we engaged upon pillowy focaccia topped with sweet onion strips and slightly-too-fibrous artichoke; and slices of Kalamata-olive-artichoke-sundried-tomato pizza on a very, very thin crust. The pizza was toasty and bubbly on top, if a bit oily and salty: a summery Mediterranean spunk that spotlighted the less-is-more purity of the dough. Silva uses the same basic dough to make his pizzas and focaccias as to make his fresh breads. These include chewy potato rolls that evoke an old Portuguese favorite, and baguettes that are crusty outside, soft and yielding inside but not sourdough. With so many other East Bay bakeries churning out award-winning sourdoughs, Silva decided to stay out of the dogpile.
The quiescent mildness and snowy whiteness of his baguettes make perfect foils for a velvety salad that mixes chunks of grilled onion, eggplant, and pepper with carrots cooked to an intriguing chocolate-like texture and, of all things, firm polenta cubes. Eaten with bread, the salad -- its reds, oranges, and yellows stained-glass bright against an earthy, herbed sweetness -- is a meal in itself, as is Silva's dense parsley-spiked lentil-feta salad. His sesame-scented tofu salads with broccoli and asparagus, while flavorsome and certainly substantial, feel way out of place amid the surrounding Europalia and do not, by any stretch of the cultural-fusion imagination, go with bread.
We struck it lucky with dessert, but then it's hard not to in a bakeshop. Only subtly sweet, the rice pudding was chewy and thankfully heavy on the rice; our cup of light-as-an-angel's-wing bittersweet chocolate mousse just made us want more. The size and shape of standard makeup compacts, a chocolate-chip cookie and a ginger cookie were crisp and assertive, but every nibble launched a barrage of crumbs. Almost as an afterthought, we bought one of the vegan chocolate-cherry loaf cakes that wait on the counter, snugly plastic-wrapped, for impulse shoppers who can withstand neither the bottomless darkness of its color nor the promise of cherries. This would prove my hands-down favorite. Silva first saw the recipe printed in a magazine, back in Brazil; for his own version, he reduced the amount of sugar. It's a very ordinary cake, he insists. But then, that has been the secret of many a success.
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