story and photos by Bakery Boy
Big, round, flour-dusted loaves crowding the storefront window transfix me before I even step into Balthazar Bakery. Displayed upright between sturdy wooden pegs, these rustic, dark-crusted disks as thick as cheese wheels resemble the kind of dense, hearty bread that has been the staff of life since the Middle Ages, perhaps since biblical times.
This astounding first impression, one in a series of positive impressions, leaves me literally speechless. That the salespeople are far too busy serving a steady stream of customers in a compact showroom to talk with me much, and that the bakers bustling in back have little space to accommodate a curious visitor like me, and that I am rarely long between bites of something fantastic, all contribute to my mute encounter with one of New York’s finest bakeshops.
CHANDELIERS & CEILING ART There’s something special about a bakery where the showroom sports a pair of brass chandeliers and classical ceiling art like something from the Sistine Chapel. But the real works of art at Balthazar are the breads, tarts, pastries, and cakes.
The classy setting complements its sibling operation next door, Balthazar Restaurant, a French-style bistro in a former leather warehouse at the corner of Spring and Crosby Streets in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. The restaurant’s high ceilings, dark wooden furniture, and shiny zinc bar lend it a look that seems to go back farther than 1997, when it opened. A dinner menu ranging from lobster risotto hors d’oeuvres to sautéed skate or grilled lamb t-bone entrees and an extensive wine list attract a discerning audience.
Desserts and other baked goods, however, stand out as star attractions. The main reason this bakery exists is to supply the adjacent restaurant. Luckily, Balthazar Bakery produces far more than needed to satisfy those seated in the dining room. Which means anyone who stops in before the shelves are emptied each day by the Balthazar faithful can take home incredible baked goods.
FIRST, THE BREADS Those huge boules that originally catch my eye and draw me in, known as pain de seigle or French rye sourdough, cost a hefty $24 each, although just-as-tasty medium and small versions go for $11.50 and $5.75. Other artisan loaves include pain au levain or white country sourdough ($4.25); multigrain with honey, flax, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds ($6); walnut bread ($6.50); brioche loaf ($8); potato onion ($4.75); and during harvest season some delightful cranberry-raisin-pecan bread ($8).
I start in with a batard of still-warm and aromatic kalamata olive bread ($6.50), a mere end of which makes it out of the store uneaten, only to be finished off during a subsequent subway ride. Then I add a square-ish loaf of ciabatta laced with rosemary ($4.75) to share with relatives where I’m staying in Brooklyn. I have yet to pass up walnut bread in any form, a personal favorite since my years working as a baker in a Seattle bakery known for it, and today is no different. Finally, anticipating a long drive the next day and the need to nibble, I stash away a humble yet terrific baguette ($2.50), vowing to let few if any crumbs fall to the car’s floor.
NEXT, THE SWEETS Sufficiently stocked with the staff of life, I next consider Balthazar’s selection of sweets. An apricot frangipane tart four inches across ($5.50) sets a comforting autumn tone and, at first bite, squelches any plans I have to chat up the bakery staff as I usually do. They’re awfully busy, I tell myself, so just stand out of the way and enjoy.
I save most of the apricot tart in a box and next sample an individual-serving cheesecake ($5.50) also four inches across, nearly as tall, and with a velvety creaminess consistent from outside to middle and from start to finish. Perfection…but unfortunately within minutes nothing’s leftover for later. A couple of bites of a fresh berry noisette ($5.50) with blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries on a fluffy hazelnut soufflé briefly carry me back to summer before I tuck the rest into my box. Then I dive straight into winter with a dense, chewy, walnut brownie ($3.50) that calls for a stiff shot of hot espresso as accompaniment.
Other enticing choices include coconut cake and flourless chocolate cake, whole ($25) or by the slice ($6.25); sizable cookies such as oatmeal raisin, chocolate walnut, and shortbread ($1-$2); cute little shell-shaped madeleines in lemon, chocolate, or pistachio ($2); and crunchy-sticky palmier ($1). There are also croissants (expected in the French setting) and donuts (unexpected).
According to Balthazar Restaurant’s menu, bakery-fresh options prepared for the table range from warm chocolate cake with white-chocolate ice cream to a caramelized banana ricotta tart; pavlova consisting of baked meringue with warm seasonal berries, chocolate pot de crème with toasted coconut cookies, an apple tart tatin with crème anglaise and vanilla ice cream, plus others (each $9, served).
ENOUGH, ALREADY! As a born-to-the-role bakery fanatic with a history of checking out every bakery I find, I’m not one to say “stop I’ve had enough” very often. At Balthazar I had to apply the brakes. Every item I saw, smelled, or tasted made me want to try others. I quickly and contentedly consumed a week’s worth of my normal bakery-research calories in a mere half-hour. And yes, I can hardly wait to go back and try some more!
Balthazar Bakery: 80 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012 (corner of Spring and Crosby Streets in SoHo); www.balthazarbakery.com; 212-965-1758; Monday-Friday 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Balthazar Restaurant: www.balthazarny.com; reservations 212-965-1414.
Been there yourself? Care to add your thoughts? Want to suggest another bakery? Leave a comment below.