In preparing to open my own sourdough bakery, I spent a day recently taking a whirlwind, calorie-packed tour of several San Francisco bakeries.
My “work” was amply rewarded, not in pounds gained but in a perspective and palate broadened by exposure to a variety of bakery designs, concepts, menus and tastes.
The tour also brought me unexpectedly face to face with one of San Francisco’s baking luminaries, Michel Suas, a delightful soul and pied piper of a whole generation of baking entrepreneurs.
I selected my targets by Googling “best San Francisco pastry shops.” There were numerous lists and more shops than I could visit in a day. I then created a Google map with pins marking the addresses of each bakery location so I could hit as many possible with the least amount of driving.
First stop was Tartine Bakery, a mecca for sourdough and pastry fans. As I walked expectantly into the Mission district building on a cool, sunny morning, I encountered a compact dining room filled with customers hunkered over cups of coffee, pastries and breakfast treats. The place was abuzz with conversation and food prep. The decor was understated. Painted wooden chairs and tables showed signs of wear from the thousands of hands, purses, butts and elbows that pass over them daily.
I ordered a Tartine country loaf, a morning bun and coffee for breakfast, and an almond croissant for my wife, who could not join me as she was elsewhere in the city on business.
The place seats about 25-30, depending on how tightly you squeeze, and has a counter where about eight people can comfortably stand. I stood at the counter and enjoyed every bite of my sugar-glazed cinnamon roll.
Takeaway: Busy is good, and flavor is everything. Nothing whets the appetite so much as seeing a lot of people enjoying themselves, and if you have a great product why bother with fancy seating, expensive light fixtures and neon signs?
Next stop, Craftsmen and Wolves, was located within easy walking distance in a brick commercial building.
The cabinets and display counter were modern and sleek looking, yet an exposed brick wall and spartan wooden tables and benches softened the look, creating an eclectic, funky feel.
I didn’t have room for the bakery’s signature pastry, the “Rebel Within,” consisting of a whole egg baked inside a muffin. I ordered a kouign amann and a jasmine tea. Having just bolted a morning bun, I couldn’t wolf it down as readily but it was enjoyable.
I read that the unusual name (abbreviated CAW) refers to craftsmen bakers and wolf-like creditors. Having experienced the startup costs of a small bakery, I can relate. I also admired the chutzpah of someone daring to set up shop in Tartine’s back yard.
I next drove northwest to Marla Bakery Restaurant for lunch. The bakery is located in a small commercial district surrounded by residences in an area called Outer Richmond. The neighborhood is more village-like compared to the denser, urban Mission district I’d just left.
I entered Marla, took a seat and ordered a half of a grilled cheese and soup and hibiscus tea. The meal arrived promptly and was rich and satisfying. The atmosphere was a homey, Midwestern sort of arrangement of painted chairs and stained wood tables, macrame wall decorations, and flowers.
A large wood-fired bread oven divided the dining room and kitchen. It’s not the kind of showpiece fire-fed oven you’d see at a pizza place but a workhorse. Heat from the wood fire circulates up and around the bake chambers.
A worker was stuffing olive wood into the fire chamber in preparation for the overnight bake. I had a very enjoyable chat with a young bread baker who explained some of the details of the bread schedule and oven.
Their bread was displayed on the bottom shelf of a glass-front sales/display cabinet. I left thinking the place could do a better job highlighting their bread by bringing it up to eye level as well as telling the story of the remarkable oven.
Driving due east I stopped at Heartbaker, a combination bistro/bakery with a small bar, beer on tap and locally produced artwork on the walls. I ordered a chocolate brioche pretzel. By now I was pretty well stuffed, and my notes don’t indicate what I thought of the pretzel. It was not well-shaped but had a decent flavor.
The bakery/bistro had an interesting sidewalk cafe created by two portable half walls bookending a couple of tables with chairs. The half walls roll inside at night. This was mid-afternoon, not a particularly busy time for any bistro, but several couples were enjoying their meals as sunlight poured through the cafe’s open doors.
Time was fleeting so I skipped the next bakery on my map and went straight to b. Patisserie. I had read about the partnership between Michel Suas, founder of the San Francisco Baking Institute, and Belinda Leong, another pastry chef who had briefly studied under him. I expected their bakery to be a highlight of the trip, and I was not disappointed.
B. Patisserie is located in Pacific Heights, a busier commercial district than either of the previous two stops on my tour. The place was packed with customers spoiling their dinners on amazing croissants, tarts, madeleines, scones, cookies and other goodies.
I made my way along the counter, admiring but not buying. I simply couldn’t stuff another pastry in my mouth, or so I thought. I chatted with a counter worker who tried without success to get me to try a pastry. Instead I purchased a bottle of water and went outside to sit and digest the day’s activity.
While outside I noticed through the bakery’s picture window a tall, blond gentlemen talking with a worker behind the pastry counter. Although I had never met Michel Suas, I thought I recognized him from pictures I’d seen on the Bread Bakers Guild of America website. I went back inside and asked the woman who’d waited on me if it was indeed Michel (I think I referred to him as Michael.)
“Oh, you know Michel?” she asked.
“I know of him,” I replied. While I waited she got his attention and brought him over. I introduced myself as aspiring baker from Lafayette, Ind., with plans to open my own shop in the near future. I explained his bakery was the fourth or fifth I’d sampled that day.
He asked me which shops I’d seen, and we compared notes. Here was a man, I thought to myself, at ease with himself, proud of his profession, and full of life. A good role model.
He asked if I had tried one of their pastries, and I explained I couldn’t possibly fit another in my belly. Before leaving, however, I purchased a kouign amann the size of a softball. I told him I would eat it later, but he said it would be better eaten fresh, adding, “You’ll be in pain.”
I shook his hand and went back outside. I opened the sack, peeked in, and took a bite. Then another, and another until there was nothing left but crumbs all over my shirt. I looked through the window and saw Michel looking out at me giving me the thumbs up. I returned the gesture and then continued on my merry but bloated way.