Croissants And Chocolat
With a French heart, Bakery Nouveau adds soul to Seattle
Proper manners and discipline were the pillars of my grandmother's home in France. And measured against her vision of well-behaved children, my brother and I had yet to reach our full potential.
So when we came for summer vacations, she kept us busy to keep us out of trouble. Wagging her finger ominously, she doled out chores and tasks the way a teacher issues detention.
But one summer, I lucked out.
Every morning before anyone else was up, I was sent down to the village bakery. My job was to pick out the best croissants for breakfast — puffy and flakey on the outside, dense and layered inside — and order up the day's baguettes "bien cuites," or well done, as my grandmother instructed.
This was no ordinary errand. The village boulangerie was a heaven that didn't exist in my suburbia on the other side of the Atlantic. Inside, the perfume of slowly baked butter thickened the air, and a hidden oven exhaled a heady aroma of crisp bread crusts. Trays heaving with honey-colored croissants, pain au chocolat and brioches launched fierce cravings while the éclairs and tartes aux fruits twirled hypnotically in a revolving dessert case. Wiping my nose marks off the glass, I vowed I'd never tell my grandmother how much I loved this "chore." I had the distinct feeling it might spoil her fun.
Soon, I couldn't imagine life without the boulangerie. It provided the bag of warm croissants that transformed an ordinary breakfast into something more exciting: as the French call it, "le petit dejeuner." This was also where I started meeting most of the neighbors. After all, we saw each other every day. Put simply, the boulangerie was the soul of the village.
Back home, reclaiming this aspect of "village life" is like playing a tune on a piano missing a few strings. Seattle has a number of outstanding bakeries, but traffic keeps them out of range of my house near West Seattle. And as for our many coffee houses, it's as if George Orwell himself had whipped up the baked goods for one of his bleak social landscapes: uninspired, tasteless and stale.
Fortunately, all that changed late last winter when a friend suggested we meet at a new neighborhood bakery.
"The guy who runs it won the World Cup of Baking!"
I was at Bakery Nouveau the next morning.
This small, French-style bakery was William Leaman's venture after trouncing the French team (whoa!) and winning the 2005 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris.
Relying on my personal barometer for a bakery's worth — therefore forgoing the alluring golden almond croissants and brioches — I paired my cappuccino with a pain au chocolat. I'll spare you the delicious details. But each bite confirmed a verdict I knew wouldn't go down well with my French relatives — not to mention my grandmother.
This pastry wasn't just good; it was better than many pain au chocolat I've had in France. No wonder Leaman won the World Cup.
The former home of Borracchini's at 4737 California Ave. S.W., the place has plenty of things to love. The homemade chocolates, for instance. Neatly arranged like precious gems, they have irresistible names like Earl Grey, Passion Fruit and Vanilla Bean Ganache.
If indecision is your weakness, prepare yourself for the pastry case, a tour de force: delicate tartlets, plump éclairs, layered Napoleons, dense slices of traditional apple tarte tatin, and precious mini-cakes, like the Mademoiselles. All are almost too beautiful to eat. But do it anyway. You won't be sorry.
The decisions don't come easily among the breads, either: oatmeal date, sunflower rye, ciabatta or Parmesan cheese. The baguettes, so good they induce pangs of nostalgia, are sealed in crisp crusts.
While peering at a tray of whimsical pastel-colored Paris macaroons, I found it hardest to believe Leaman's ascent to top-ranking "pâtissier" began in a barbecue pit in his native Fayetteville, Ark. Laughing, he admits, "My education comes from the 'culinary school of hard knocks.' "
An after-school baking job ignited his passion, and at 19, Leaman owned his own bakery. Falling in love with and moving to West Seattle, his on-the-job "schooling" continued as Salty's pastry chef and later at the Essential Baking Co. In between, a two-year stint at Las Vegas' Paris Hotel allowed Leaman to perfect his hand at cakes, breads, chocolates and breakfast pastry under the guidance of respected craftsmen.
The 2005 World Cup on his résumé and his first son on the way, he decided to take a break. It was a short respite, and Bakery Nouveau was born.
Leaman explains the vision for his bakery and what it could bring to his neighborhood: "I wanted to create a culture, a place to get a baguette."
It's working. Leaman's neighbors can't get enough from the guy known as "the world champion of baking." The Sunday farmers market crowd forms a line that leads out the door. School kids come wanting to learn how to shape the bread, and Leaman is teaching them.
"I think there was a pent-up desire" for such a place, Leaman says, and customers "have unleashed it on all my baguettes and croissants!"
The bakery operates with a small oven, which requires baking all day. "We announce it when the product comes out; it makes it like an event, it's fun," Leaman says.
It is fun. It's also social and far friendlier than the monotony of supermarket bread aisles. On my regular stops to grab a bag of croissants or linger over a cappuccino and a shortbread cookie, I feel change stirring. Breakfast is starting to feel a lot more like "le petit dejeuner," and each bite affirms I've found the soul of my neighborhood.
Jacqueline Koch is a writer and photographer based in Seattle.