Locolat’s baguettes boast a slightly blistered, crunchy exterior that left me covered in shards of browned crust after tearing into one on my couch. The rich, buttery flavor and chewy texture made my Whole Foods baguette taste like Wonder bread in comparison.
Piferoen may not brag about the source of his baguettes directly on his menus, but he doesn’t need to. Nearly every mention of his delicious sandwiches in local restaurant reviews publicize the bread’s lineage.
Locolat’s not alone in its attempts to market out-of-town loaves. Commercialized par-baking and expedited shipping make bread available anywhere willing customers are willing to pay the shipping costs.
Calvert Woodley Fine Wine and Spirits sells H&H bagels shipped from New York City. Brabo in Alexandria opened up by touting breads from Ecce Panis in New Jersey. Dino in Cleveland Park sources its bread from Tribeca Oven, which began life in Manhattan before relocating to New Jersey. Owner Dean Gold subscribes to the theory that New York’s water significantly contributes to the superiority of the region’s breads.
The hype stands in significant contrast to the era’s biggest food-buying trend: locavorism. Locolat’s baguettes float to town on gallons of jet fuel even as other pricey restaurants tout local ingredients, listing area farms, and even specific farmers, as the sources for meats and vegetables on menus. So why not do the same for bread? The distant sourcing may be in part because customers react so profoundly to the perceived superiority of pedigree baking.
H&H Bagels, for instance, built a reputation making authentic New York bagels available wherever someone is willing to pay for shipping. Every morning Calvert “fresh bakes” the frozen bagels for a steady stream of morning customers.
The provenance, though, can distract critical impulses just as easily as it can ramp up an eatery’s feeling of authenticity. Actually eating H&H Bagels as purchased in Washington is a distinctly underwhelming experience. I bought a few at Calvert Woodley to compare to a locally baked version from Bethesda Bagels. The imports displayed a few small dark patches that seemed the result of uneven cooking. After cutting one open, the irregularities revealed themselves as holes that had almost risen to the surface, but had not broken through. The texture was bready, almost doughy; toasting did little to improve the inferior bagel.
In comparison, the exterior of a bagel baked in Bethesda and purchased locally was an even, golden-brown. The bagel’s innards were dense and chewy, presenting a subtle tangy taste I could only describe as “bagely”.
I asked Stephen Fleishman, owner of Bethesda Bagel, to compare the two. “The biggest problem is perception,” he said. “People hear New York bagel and think it’s a better product.” Bethesda, to some, doesn’t quite have the same name appeal as the Big Apple.
The odd thing about the imported-bread braggadocio is that Washington has finally become a pretty decent baking town. And the guy who deserves a chunk of the credit is Mark Furstenberg, the man who opened Marvelous Market and Breadline. Furstenberg traveled to Paris to learn from the masters at Le Moulin de la Vierge and L’Autre Boulange, in the process bringing artisanal baking to a city accustomed to buying bread at Safeway.
One day last month, I snagged a plain roll from Taylor’s K Street NW location and took it to Furstenberg’s home in Kalorama. Furstenberg reached into the crinkling brown paper bag I brought, pulled out the sesame seed studded roll, and frowned. Next, he placed his nose against the cut end, inhaled deeply and nodded, confirming some inner suspicion.
Handing me the roll, he instructed, “Smell this.” I took the roll and sniffed the same cut end, noting nothing special. Nervous, I stuck my nose deep within the precut bready void meant for Patten’s delicious fillings and took a deep breath.
“It smells like grocery store bread,” I said.
Furstenberg shook his head as he corrected me.
“Yeast. It smells of yeast, but not grain.”
Furstenberg pulled out a mahogany-colored whole grain loaf he had baked that morning. He told me to take another whiff. The difference was clear: Furstenberg’s loaf was deep, grainy, and complex.
The ingredient in the Taylor roll that invoked “grocery-store bread” was indeed yeast. Yeast-heavy dough is quick to rise, less temperamental, and processed start to finish in a matter of hours. Commercial bakers lean heavily on the leavener to produce bread reliably and quickly. In other words: From a haute-baking point of view, Taylor’s rolls were lousy.