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The bakeries are here!

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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The farmers market influence will be evident not only on the menu itself, but also in what visitors see the moment they walk in. As in New York, City Bakery here will have counters brimming with salads, sandwiches, pastries and freshly made beverages -- a spread reminiscent of market stalls offering that day’s freshest picks. “What it is by design is you walk into the middle of choices, and you’re a little bit lost, in a good way,” Rubin says.

City Bakery’s longtime fans often rave about its house-made marshmallows and rich hot chocolate, but Rubin’s baking forte is pastries; he’s famous for his exquisite tarts -- blueberry-coconut and caramel-almond are among the most popular.

The bakery, also known for its seasonally changing menu of soups, salads and sandwiches (made by chef Ilene Rosen), won’t be producing bread, but Rubin has been giving the bread for his sandwiches a lot of thought. “We’re going to be getting breads from a couple of places in L.A.,” he says, declining to name names. “I’m also going to get some bread from far away.”

Could he be thinking of Breadbar? The bakery, after all, is aggressively wooing L.A.'s high-end restaurants and supplying the likes of Wilshire in Santa Monica and the Lodge in Beverly Hills. West Hollywood’s Bastide, in particular, is smitten.

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Chef Ludovic Lefebvre loves the bread so much that he switched exclusively to Breadbar as Bastide’s supplier. He has worked with Kayser on coming up with some specialty rolls and loaves, including a bacon bread that uses pork belly cooked by Lefebvre. When Breadbar drops off an order of bread, Lefebvre hands over a container of bacon for the next batch of dough.

“The bread is great,” says Lefebvre. “I don’t know what [Kayser] does exactly with his bread, but you can see the difference.”

Still, not everyone agrees. Breadbar has been courting Spago in Beverly Hills, but chef Lee Heftner isn’t exactly swooning. “I think their bread is good, but I don’t think it was significantly better than La Brea Bakery,” he says. “I get good-quality bread from La Brea Bakery that is hard to beat.

“They deliver to me seven days a week really good parbaked bread, which I bake all the way through before service.”

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If nothing else, Breadbar’s arrival may well spark debate over what good bread is. And as much as La Brea Bakery revolutionized the bread scene in L.A. after it opened in 1989, growing from a neighborhood bakery into an international commercial success, many would argue that the city is still hungry for good bread.

“We have nothing but respect for Nancy Silverton and La Brea Bakery,” says Richard Blanke, Breadbar’s director of operations. “But we are doing something completely different.”

Where La Brea Bakery has become all things to all people -- a neighborhood bakery counter and cafe, a ubiquitous brand at supermarket chains and delis, a restaurant supplier, a stand at the farmers market -- Breadbar’s niche is much narrower because to make bread the Kayser way, it can’t rely on the conveniences of ultra-mass production.

Silverton built La Brea Bakery on the principle that slow fermentation gives bread good flavor. To this day, the bakery uses that method, says Katie Despard, director of marketing. But around the time the bakery was bought by Irish corporation IAWS Group in 2001, Despard says, Silverton began to toy with offering parbaked bread -- or “store bake bread,” as La Brea Bakery calls it.

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Today, its parbaked bread is a big hit, allowing La Brea Bakery to deliver not only all over the U.S. but also abroad (to Ireland, Britain, the Philippines, China, Taiwan and Singapore). Its three facilities, in Los Angeles, Van Nuys and New Jersey, bake bread 80% of the way, then freeze it before shipping. Buyers then pop the bread in the oven to finish the baking without compromising flavor, Despard says.

“Originally, Nancy was hesitant to explore that method and that means of distribution because ... at that time, it connoted an anemic, doughy bread experience,” Despard says, “but obviously Nancy has revolutionized the process.”

Purists in Kayser’s camp would argue otherwise. The Parisian baker’s method is artisanal in the truest sense of the word, says French-bread expert Steven Kaplan. That means no mixers, no freezing and definitely no parbaking.

“You can make a nice-looking parbaked bread; it has a certain elan, but it doesn’t have the taste of real artisanal bread,” says Kaplan, a Cornell University professor who has been tasting, analyzing and studying French bread for 35 years and in more recent years closely watching Kayser work his bread magic.

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Kaplan ranked Kayser the best boulanger (in a tie with Dominique Saibron) in his guide last year to Parisian bakeries, “Cherchez le Pain.” The secret of Kayser’s mastery of bread in large part has to do with his mastery of the levain, or sourdough starter, and the process of slow fermentation, says Kaplan, who has since been recruited as an advisor to Breadbar.

In fact, Kayser co-invented a commercial machine called the Fermentolevain -- Breadbar uses one -- for storing liquid leaven. “It doesn’t require the vigilance that a normal sourdough starter would require,” says Kaplan. “Eric’s contention is that the liquid levain gives a more predictable reliability. He uses a mixture of liquid levain along with a little yeast for punch and acceleration. All the taste of the bread comes from the fermentation.”

That machine and the apprenticeship nature of baking have allowed Kayser to expand well beyond his shop on Rue Monge, in Paris’ fifth arrondissement, while staying true to the artisanal roots of bread, Kaplan says.

Le Pain Quotidien’s growth since its L.A.-area debut four years ago suggests that there is serious demand in L.A. for serious bread. Though it does not have the star power of someone like Kayser behind it, the small chain of bakery cafes -- which also supplies Providence, L’Orangerie, Pastis and Petrossian restaurants -- is built on similar principles. Apprentices who trained with founder Alain Coumont make the organic bread by hand at a central bakery in Inglewood, using only flour, water, sea salt and a levain; it’s allowed to ferment and rise very slowly to develop flavor, says Jack Moran, director of California operations. “We smell the bread even before we look at it,” he says. “And nothing is ever frozen, even for one second.”

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Missing element

PASTRY chef Myers, who hopes to turn her Boule shop into a tea salon and cafe, recently started making small quantities of bread for sandwiches and would like to produce more for sale.

“I feel like it’s a missing element to Boule patisserie,” she says. “We aren’t selling bread as of yet because we don’t have space for a bread oven.”

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She says she’s looking for an off-site kitchen so that she can add bread to Boule’s offerings.

At the fledgling La Maison du Pain in Los Angeles, co-owner Carmen Salindong says her intention was to open a wholesale business, but her sister Josephine Santos pressed for some retail too because “the neighbors are going to knock on the door.” And sure, enough, they did, nudging the sisters to set up tables and serve coffee.

The two sisters have no professional baking experience -- Salindong was an office administrator for years and Santos a bookkeeper for L’Orangerie -- but “we love bread,” Salindong says. So they started the bakery, following recipes in cookbooks, until their online ad for a baker caught the eye of Charles Charentin in Brittany, France. The 21-year-old, who came up through France’s baker apprenticeship ranks, flew in and began work a couple of weeks ago.

“He said our croissants were good,” Salindong said, “but that our bread needs work.”

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Even amid all the tinkering, La Maison du Pain is supplying bread to L’Orangerie and Off Vine restaurants, and slowly attracting walk-in customers.

Breadbar, meanwhile, is already slated for a renovation though it has been open for just more than a month. Eventually, says Blanke, diners will be able to see straight into the fully equipped kitchen and watch the baking action (for the moment, all the baking is done at an El Segundo central facility). And construction is underway in Century City’s Westfield shopping center for a second Breadbar slated to open in December.

After that, it perhaps depends on how ready L.A. is to go bar-hopping for bread.


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