Dough pros rise up

Premier bakers believe L.A. will finally warm to bread

For Eric Kayser, founder of Breadbar, it’s all about the loaf.

A fourth-generation baker, Kayser learned the craft of artisan bread over a four-year Tour de France, the craftman’s custom that gave the bike race its name. What began in 1996 with a single Paris boulangerie is now a baking empire, with six bakeries in Paris in addition to outposts in Japan, Athens — and just one in the U.S., on Third Street, next door to Orso.

Why us?

“It’s fertile ground,” says Richard Blanke, a trained chef who is now Breadbar’s director of operations. “Access to artisan pastries and bread is so limited.”

Not to be self-deprecating, but this isn’t a bread town. Even our first lady of the boulangerie, Nancy Silverton, says she didn’t open La Brea Bakery for the love of it.

“I forced myself to get into it,” she says. “It was really to complement the food at Campanile.”

In many ways, Breadbar has it easy. When La Brea opened in 1989, artisan breads were still the purview of New York and San Francisco. And Silverton’s customers had some choice words for her products, including “dirty,” “burnt” and “too holey.”

Meanwhile, with Los Angeles in thrall to the Atkins, Zone and South Beach diets, a bread basket had all the charm of a petri dish.

“Southern California was barren,” says Craig Ponsford, owner of Artisan Bakers in Sonoma and current president of the Bread Bakers Guild of America. “Even in the culinary world, it was behind the times.”

Great bread still isn’t easy to find. There’s a handful of premium bread bakeries, but the city has never seen a rush to fill the void. The latest entrant is a Brentwood outpost of Maury Rubin’s New York-based the City Bakery and while he offers pretzel croissants, melted chocolate chip cookies and caramelized French toast, he steers clear of homemade bread.

Instead, Rubin contracts with outside bakeries (including Breadbar), even going as far as Ann Arbor, Mich., to buy his rye bread from Zingerman’s.

Today, La Brea baguettes are a grocery staple in Los Angeles and around the country, but handmade bread can still meet local resistance. “There’s a lot of seducing that has to be done in L.A.,” says Renée Kaplan, who handles media relations for Breadbar. “There’s no tolerance in L.A. for pure French.”

Where other Kayser bakeries are direct clones of the original on 8 rue Monge, Breadbar soft-peddles the French influence for its Westside customers. The bread may be tumeric-hazelnut, but it’s complemented by salads, meats and cheeses. When the second Breadbar opens in Westfield Century City next month, they’ll add beer and wine.

So far, the fusion suits Los Angeles fine. Breadbar says sales have increased 20% every week since it opened last August and the business hit breakeven by December.

Still, the fundamental things apply. Inside Breadbar’s El Segundo baking facility, the bakers are French (as well as Japanese and Spanish) and the breads are hand-shaped. Their music, however, is gangsta rap.

Meanwhile, Silverton is now a consultant for La Brea, having sold it to Irish food conglom IAWS Group in 2001. “I miss touching every loaf,” says Silverton.

But there are benefits.

“I don’t bake all night anymore,” she says. “I still haven’t caught up on that sleep.”

L.A. may not have enough bakeries, but the ones we have are full of baguettes, ciabatta and olive breads. Variety Weekend went on a carb binge to find the loaves worth taking home fresh.

Bakery: Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery
1517 Lincoln Blvd.
Santa Monica
(310) 395-8279
Bread: Italian
What’s in it: Flour, water, sea salt, yeast
Taste: Flaky crust encases a melt-in-your-mouth fluffy white interior. Screams for butter. If it’s still warm, you won’t be able to stop.
Freshest: Any time. Bay Cities makes about 40 batches a day. It’s hard to find a customer who’s not carrying at least one.
Shelf life: Best eaten right away, but will last 2 days
Price: $1.49

Bakery: Euro Pane Bakery
950 E. Colorado Blvd.
(626) 577-1828
Bread: Rosemary-currant
What’s in it: Potato, flour, water, currants, rosemary, pre-ferment, touch of yeast
Taste: Potato makes the bread moist. Currants are less sweet than raisins and play nicely against the subtle earthiness of the rosemary.
Freshest: 6 a.m.
Shelf life: 2 to 3 days
Price: $4.25; dinner rolls, $.40 each

Bakery: La Brea Bakery
624 S. La Brea Ave.
(323) 939-6813
Bread: Sourdough baguette
What’s in it: Unbleached flour, water, sour culture, salt, wheat germ
Taste: A balanced sourdough. The inside is rustic and not too fluffy. The crust has a slightly buttery flavor.
Freshest: 7:30 a.m.
Shelf life: Best eaten in one day, but will last 2 days in its own bag
Price: $2.50

Bakery: Breadbar
8718 W. Third St.
(310) 205-0124
Bread: Alpine cheese bread
What’s in it: Wheat flour, water, salt, Emmental, natural liquid leaven, yeast
Taste: Emmental, a mild and nutty cheese from Switzerland’s Emme valley, gives this bread a nice pungency. Crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. A meal in itself.
Freshest: 7 a.m.
Shelf life: Best eaten in one day. Heat in oven if it lasts an extra day
Price: $4.95

Bakery: Il Fornaio
301 N. Beverly Dr.
Beverly Hills
(310) 550-8330
Bread: Ciabatta
What’s in it: White flour, water, salt, touch of olive oil, yeast, fermenting agent
Taste: Crust is firm but not too thick. We wished there were more flecks of salt on the surface, but it’s a perfect ratio of crust to inside
Freshest: 6:30 a.m. Parbaked loaves are baked throughout the day.
Shelf life: 2 days, wrapped in film
Price: $2.50

Bakery: Le Pain Quotidien
316 Santa Monica Blvd.
Santa Monica
(310) 393-6800
Bread: Whole-wheat Sourdough
What’s in it: Stoneground wheat flour, water, salt, yeast
Taste: Great sandwich bread. Soft and sturdy with a soft, dusty crust. Yeasty in flavor.
Freshest: 8 a.m.
Shelf life: 2 days
Price: $10; $5.50 for half; $2.95 for a quarter loaf