Friday, October 30, 2009

Bakery Nouveau: Breaking Bread (and still in search of a Cheese Danish)
4737 California Ave SW, Seattle 98116-4412 (206) 923-0534

It was a fine morning. Almost sunny in Seattle. Brisk. I was still looking for a good cheese danish. Maybe this would be the day. (Well, it wasn't, although I discovered some unexpected gastronomic surprises. The "sassy" comes later, so scroll down if that is what you're after).

We walked into Bakery Nouveau and were instantly surrounded by a palpable cloud of warm, fragrant croissant mist. A beautiful feeling. I systematically examined the long case of chocolates truffles, cakes, breads and flaky pastries, and then began my series of requests for recommendations to anyone who would listen to them. The nice hipster boy behind the counter provided me with his personal favorites in various categories.

Twice-Baked Chocolate Almond Croissant
In the flaky sweet pastry category, he suggested trying Bakery Nouveau's signature pastry: the twice baked chocolate-almond croissant. Dense with butter, but crunchy in all the right places, this creation reminded me of gnawing off the crispy, textured edges around the top of a muffin (aka muffin-tops) - always the best part.

What sets the twice-baked croissant apart from other almond croissants? This thing is filled with REAL ground almonds, not almond extract flavored pre-bought pasty gunk. I couldn't detect even a hint of that too-strong cheater's almond extract. Don't get me wrong. There isn't anything wrong with the frugal and diplomatic use of almond extract, but the copious amount used in some baked goods (local almond biscotti, case in point) often makes me literally nauseous. More good points: the chocolate in the twice-baked croissant is deep in flavor, ample, and not waxy or chunky. Note the generous ribbon of chocolate splayed over the croissant top (above). This was like a chocolate-almond-sugar-butter par-tay.

Plum Danish
The helpful and patient man behind the counter went into a long explanation at my request, of what twice-baked actually means: already baked croissants - perhaps day-old, but he didn't say that - are literally opened up and stuffed with the necessary chocolate/almond combo and re-baked). He also recommended the plum danish.  I was convinced to try the plum danish when he revealed that pastry cream was hiding beneath the fruit. The mauve, peeled, half-plum in the center was seductive, delicious, and sweetly sour.

What I didn't like was the hard crunchy sugar sprinkled on top of that lovely plum. My eating companion agreed that the sweet crunch did nothing to enhance the fruit, but instead distracted from its lovely texture and juicy flavor. The pastry cream underneath already provided plenty of sweetener. A bit more of that cream would have been nice... Perhaps it was a fluke, but the pastry itself was too dark for my taste - a few seconds over-baked. Too brown. I know. It's nit-picky, but Chef William Leary is supposed to be the best of the best, the creme de la creme of  pastry baking with all kinds of accolades and awards. But awards shm-awards: product should speak for itself.   I admit, at this point, I was having thoughts of Besalu's nectarine frangipan danish! You can see that important discussion here.

Besalu on the brain, I thought I should do a bit of comparison tasting. Here's the mini quiche Lorraine  (also recommended by the cute guy behind the counter, and I went with it because it's a classic. Well, and also, because of the B-52's song, which you can listen to here. Quiche Lorraine is traditionally made of eggs, cream, smoked bacon and cheese. I really enjoyed this little quiche. There were no actually bits of bacon, but a nice bold bacon flavor permeated the filling, and the crust was GREAT. It was thin, and didn't flake all over my lap or detract me from what shoud be the focus of the quiche, the egg-cream-bacon-cheese filling. Besalu's crust got in the way of eating - it was too dense and super flaky. This crust was subtle - artful. Pleasant.

The "Sassy"
At this point, we were stuffed. As I was bussing our table, I walked by a kind-looking gentleman with a beautiful olive fougasse laying prostrate on his table.  I said, "That looks delicious," and he said, "yes, it's great. Would you like a bite?"  - just like that!

And, of course, I said "yes! Yes I would!" I broke off a piece of the beautiful flat, braided bread. Wow. I confess, I didn't expect to be as impressed as I was. It was crispy and chewy on the outside, and soft but substantive on the inside, with a nice olive-saltiness. A fougasse is traditionally made with baguette dough, and apparently Bakery Nouveau bakes two varieties: a laminated version (layers of buttered baguette dough) and a regular version.

Come to find out after we chatted for a while, I had just broken bread with a pastor! Cliff introduced himself as a "lay pastor" at a local West Seattle church. After explaining "sassy food" to him, he was tremendously receptive to my food-sharing efforts as a means to engage with and connect with other humans. In fact, Bakery Nouveau even suggests on their website that one of the purposes of  their bakery is "building community one bite at a time." I gave Cliff my card and he promised to email me, which he promptly did! He recently had some interesting adventures in Montenegro. His interest in food took him to a remote village where he discovered traditional prosciutto and cheese production there, and established relationships with people over food, much in the same way. He shared is pictures with me via email.  

To Go
I shook hands with Cliff and we said goodbye. Butter was oozing from my pores, but my dining companion and I grabbed a few items to go, so we could continue the taste testing later. I picked up a cheese danish, a mini caramel apple tart, a slice of chocolate cake, and an assortment of Parisian macarons (since they are all the rage and I have yet to try one I like).

Cheese Danish: not so good. Tasted vaguely plastic-y, especially on the bottom. I'm disappointed.

Apple Tart was a BIG disappointment. Too sweet. Caramel was just goopy sugary stuff underneath the glazed apple slices.

The chocolate cake was good. A strong good. It was moist with a creamy, mousse filling that complements instead of battles with the rich chocolate cake.
I have come to the conclusion that I just don't like Parisian macarons.

Maybe I just don't get them. I would be happy if someone could help me appreciate what they are all about. Yes, I think they are pretty. Usually macarons are displayed together as a pretty pastel palate of lavender, mint green, baby pink, light yellow, and chocolate brown. Occasionally they are bright, as in bright pink. Despite being very pretty, every macaron I have had thus far, including Nouveau's, are far too sweet. The interesting flavors (like espresso, quince, passion fruit) are lost to me through all that sweet.  Maybe if I tried the green tea adzuki macarons that use real butter blogger, Jen Yu, made, I'd feel differently. You can see her over-the-top-with-the-trend yet gorgeous efforts for the daring baker challenge here. She is truly an artist with the camera, and I don't doubt that her macarons taste pretty great as well.

Final Assessment
Olive Fougasse Bread = great, especially broken with Cliff

Twice Baked Croissant = great if  you are in the mood for super rich, heavy crusty chocolate-y almond-y pastry

Chocolate Cake = nice, rich, moist, and layered with mousse. good stuff.

Quiche Lorraine= good crust, pretty good but slightly too creamy filling

Plum Danish = ok ...or good, if you're   hungry

Cheese Danish = not good

Apple Caramel Tart = yuck

Macarons = double yuck (and probably my problem - in my opinion these should just be used as decoration)

Bakery Nouveau on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cafe Besalu - In Search of Cheese Danish in Seattle

5909 24th Ave NW, Seattle, WA 98107
(206) 789-1463  Hours: Wed-Sun 7-3
I made the trip to Besalu in Ballard seeking cheese danish. When I think cheese danish, this is what I think of (courtesy of the lovely Pink Stripes blog). Sadly, I did not find my dream cheese danish at Besalu, but instead found a beautiful plum danish with frangipan. Not at all what I'd been craving, but heck, this was the dance of the sugar plum fairies on pastry. With a light dough and a moist center, this danish struck that difficult balance between dense and lusciously light and sweet. The almond padded plums were divine (see below, left corner).

While I was savoring my little bites of heaven and enjoying the very nice, almost-strong-enough espresso (Lighthouse Coffee), I eyed the two plates of  spinach quiche at the neighboring table.  I asked how the quiche was, and both ladies raved and raved and raved and raved ... not only about their spinach quiche, but about many of the pastries at Besalu. They introduced themselves as Kelly and Misty and explained that they make special trips, across opposite bodies of water, to meet up at Besalu for buttery bites together.

So....I tried Misty's quiche, and as I was attempting to delicately extract a bite with my clean spoon she insisted that I make my bite larger. She said something like, "you need to take a bigger bite, a REAL bite...get some crust too..."  Wow, I thought! OK! So, I enlarged my bite -  yes I did! And, indeed, it was very good spinach quiche. The crust was light, layered, flaky and buttery.  The filling was also light and fluffy but filled with spinach and topped lightly with cheese. This is not your average paperweight-style re-heated lump-of-egg and heavy-tasteless-cheese quiche. I have to admit that I wasn't dying over the bite. I like my savories less flaky, although I recognize that this quiche sets itself apart, texturally and aesthetically. It did look lovely. By now I had croissant-like flakes all over my lap.

Anyway...Misty and Kelly were kind, energetic, interesting, engaging, and extremely generous. They asked me not to take their photographs, but they did liberally share conversation, pastry recommendations and goddess cards. I picked Bast (I always knew of the Ancient Egyptian cat goddess as "Bestat"). The card read "Your independence is a foundation for your strength and success." The Bast entry in the accompanying booklet told me, more or less, to act more like a cat: to seek play, to act independently, to be self reliant now, to pursue projects on my own.

As I look into Bast/Bastet a bit more, I see, according to Wikipedia, that Bastet fittingly means female devourer (yeah, of pastries and other people's food...)! Perfect. Serendipitous, even.

Here is my grown-up (in human years )dining companion reading the booklet entry on Ishtar, the goddess he chose. Ishtar is all about boundaries. The quiche is in the background. I guess my independence is pushing me to cross boundaries and eat at other people's tables.

We tried many other pastries - some fantastic. Others,  less so.

The checkerboard shortbread was buttery and rich in chocolate, but a little grainy. To my great dismay, the hazelnut twist impressed me the least. Hazelnut and dark chocolate is a personal favorite pairing -a common combo in France and Germany, but little seen on US territory. This twist had me intrigued, but on first bite: I tasted only bread and orange. The flavor of hazelnut was lost under all that orange, and a certain amount of sugar-sweet brings out hazelnut flavors. This twist was almost savory and far too bread-y. Bummer.

We had to get a second checkerboard shortbread because my grown-up companion sampled the first checkerboard cookie before knowing that my littler companion had already laid claim to it. When she noticed the missing corner chunk she was mortified enough to spend 15 minutes standing in the out-the-door and growing, Sunday-morning, customer line for an unblemished cookie.

 Luckily other kind standers-in-line held her spot as she darted back and forth between our table and her place in line. Besalu is a little gem of a bakery - a friendly, wholesome, bread-baking-in the oven, neighborhood bakery, but of a world-class caliber. See, Besalu's pastry chef, James Miller, was nominated as a semi-finalist for the James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef Award for 2009.

As I hovered in the back, asking celebrity pastry-maker James Martin a series of most likely annoying questions as he tried to work, he mentioned to me that he would soon be bringing apples from his orchard in to the cafe. So, let it be known that apple-quince pastries are in the works for the near future. As we were sipping the last of our coffee and dusting the flakes off our clothes, a tray of beautiful plum tarts came out of the oven. Here they are before they were even put out in the pastry case.

Other pastries we sampled: The Pear Galette was a big favorite. Light, uncomplicated by any distracting flavors, and truly amazing. The nectarine-cheese danish: lacking in creamy umph and a tangy bite. Boring.

I left Besalu wondering if really, this was one of the best pastry in the country? Could it really be? Well, I left with the resolve to continue my prowl around town for a decent cheese danish. But I may just have to return again for another plum-frangipan danish or a plum tart. At this rate, and based on reports, I may not find a better danish anywhere this side of the Mississippi.

Cafe Besalu on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Cafe Campagne

Cafe Campagne
1600 Post Alley at Pine
Seattle, WA 98101
(206) 728-2233

This place is great. It is provincial-style French food in the Pike Place Market. People rave about Cafe Campagne, so, since I am so often disappointed by other people's favorites, I went in with low expectations.  However, from the start to the finish of my experience, everything was wonderful. Plus, it was one of those almost hot September days in Seattle (yes, I know, I'm most likely violating some sort of food-reviewer's protocol by waiting more than 2 weeks to post my review - please forgive), and I was reveling in the last bit of real sunshine before the grey autumn chill.

First off, I was quickly seated on the patio outside at a lovely four-person, table-clothed table, despite being all alone. That was nice. I'm annoyed by the condescending games some hot spots play. The restaurant might be eerily empty, but the staff can't find a single place for you to sit, and then they sneer at you as though you should have known better than to show up without a reservation. Granted, I had arrived at Cafe Campagne at that awkward time between lunch and happy hour. Most places don't have hundreds of reservations for 3:40. Regardless, the hostess was gracious and the server was even more so.

I should probably also mention that upon entry, I was greeted by a lovely bouquet of sunflowers and a menu bathed in light.  The entry was clean and lovely.

I also appreciated the fact that the servers poured drinking water from glass pitchers without ice. There was no ice! I repeat: the water was room temperature and beautiful. I even confirmed that the absence of ice was intentional. Refreshing not to have to ask for "water no ice" for a change.


Well, I had an hour to kill and I was hungry. It was almost 4 P.M. Happy hour at Cafe Campagne starts at 4, and it looks wonderful. For only $2 you get a hefty Petite Burger D'Agneau (Small lamb burger served with balsamic onions and aïoli on gougère) and $1 for the Pâté Sandwich (Country-style pork and chicken liver pâté on gougère).One very nice feature of Cafe Campagne is that you need not order a full glass of wine, but may order3 oz. wine "tastes" for a few dollars. During happy hour these "tastes" are half off.

Alas, I ordered off of the lunch menu because I didn't have time to wait for happy hour to start. On the server's recommendation, I ordered the Pâté de Campagne (country-style pork and liver pâté with traditional garnishes) and a nice glass of dry white wine. The garnishes included little mini pickles (cornichon), a generously sized and well dressed mixed green salad, two types of mustard, black and green provencal olives (you can see them peeking out from under the onions in the lower picture), and several slices of pickled onion.  I was also served a lovely little baguette with a beautiful clean triangular pat of unsalted butter. This was a meal.

I  finished off my wine and a good portion of the lovely, rich hearty pâté. Then, I had to I asked for the bill and collected my things.

As I was leaving I befriended a neighbor. He comes to Cafe Compagne every year from Chicago. He loves it. He ordered and loved the Calamar à la Provençal (Squid sautéed with olive oil, garlic, parsley, capers and lemon), which had been on my mind since looking at the menu.

The "sassy" came as I was walking away, up the alley. I turned to get a final shot of the patio, and two gentlemen asked if they were in the picture.  You can see them, behind the Vespa scooter.

 So, I came back and said that they were, and could I please take another shot. They said, "Sure."

Then, I walked up to their table and chatted with them for a moment, asking how their meal had been. I explained that I had just eating a few tables down, but was on my way. They explained that everything had been delicious, and WOULD I LIKE A BITE OF THEIR FOOD?

Why yes, I said. (This is sassy at its best - when I don't even have to ask!)

They handed me a piece of what looked  like ricotta and bacon pizza (see the hand, above, coming towards me...), but on the menu is described as Tarte flambée (Savory bacon and onion tarte). It wasn't hot out of the oven, so I'm giving the tarte the benefit of the doubt. It was really just ok. Dough-y. No bright flavors of which to report. Bacon was flat. Onions flat. Tasted a lot like a drier version of one of Pagliacci's no tomato sauce ricotta cheese pizzas. I also tasted their Pommes Frites (french fries), which had also lost some of their luster, sitting outside, now,  for half an hour or maybe more ( you can see them hiding under a napkin on the left).

Although these sassied bites were fun, they weren't the most tantalizing, gastronomically speaking. Meeting these two charming gentlemen, both in the health care industry in the New York City area, was the highlight of this sassy experience, and worth the effort.  They were in Seattle for a conference and both were full of life and humor. My yearnings to return to NYC re-stimulated, I said goodbye and considered how much I enjoy how bites of food facilitate meetings such as these.

Cafe Campagne on Urbanspoon