Ballard’s Cafe Besalu and Crumble & Flake on Capitol Hill both recently lost their James Beard award-nominated pastry-genius owners. What’s happening now?
Those of us in Seattle who dearly love baked goods have been beset by pastry-related anxiety recently. This spring, after nearly two decades of undisputed baking excellence, venerable genius of pastry James Miller divulged that he was selling his Cafe Besalu in Ballard to a cafe chain.
Then baker-maestro Neil Robertson disclosed that he’d be turning over Capitol Hill’s newer, but perhaps equally beloved, Crumble & Flake Patisserie to the owner of a gluten-free bakery. If there’s anything more dispiriting to fans of classic European-style baked goods than the forlorn kind you often find at chain cafes, it’s the poor specimens who’ve been deprived of their gluten.
But those are bakery-snob prejudices, and every baked good deserves to be evaluated on its own merits. The further facts of the matter were also cause for cautious optimism. The company getting its mitts on Besalu was local coffee roaster Herkimer — around since 2003 with just three locations, much lauded for its quality and integrity — and Besalu’s longtime bakers (besides Miller) would remain.
5909 24th Ave. N.W., Seattle; 206-789-1463; cafebesalu.com; Wednesday-Sunday 7 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Crumble & Flake
1500 E. Olive Way, Seattle; 206-329-1804; crumbleandflake.com; Wednesday-Friday 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 9 a.m.-3 p.m.
And the owner of gluten-free bakery Niche, Toby Matasar, would bring to Crumble & Flake some real-deal glutenous experience, including French training at L’Ecole Lenôtre and Patisserie Seurre in Paris, plus four years as executive pastry chef for Tom Douglas.
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Robertson professes mixed feelings about selling. “It was literally my life,” he says, noting that “a small shop like Crumble & Flake is a very personal thing.” (Small might be an understatement: Crumble & Flake is tiny, barely occupying the southeast corner of the trapezoidal block at Denny and Olive.)
After the “huge amount of physical and mental energy to keep it running,” Robertson’s trying out retirement, though he wonders whether he’ll “start to dream about working in pastry again.”
Meanwhile, James Miller is living a dream — he and his wife have moved to Cafe Besalu’s namesake, the hills above the town of Besalu in the northeast of Spain, where they’re restoring a 16th-century manse into a guesthouse (enviable photos of their place and progress may be found at blog.mascostabesalu.com, though the woodworms sound like a pain).
The new owners offered reassurances that nothing of any significance would change. The transitions were undertaken with training and care; the names remain, and so does much of the staff. But what becomes of a bakery minus its visionary?
At Besalu last week, the counterperson said, sounding a little weary of being asked, that everything is “remarkably the same,” while behind him a woman worked a very large ball of bouncy-looking dough with evident expertise.
It still feels remarkably the same: unpretentiously sweet, with its floor of tiny tiles, its peachy-orange walls and KEXP playing.
The plain croissant remains a classic beauty, unabashedly browned on the exterior for that perfect shattery-crispness, producing a cascade of happy shards, with whorls upon whorls of buttery tenderness inside, like eating a divine fingerprint. (I brought one of these back to my possibly equally pastry-obsessed colleague, Tan Vinh: “Holy cow,” he said.)
A piece of rich but airy quiche still puts the overcheesed, dense ones you’ll find some places around town to shame. Super-juicy, clearly local, sweet-tart blackberries — just four nice big ones, a classic exercise in proportion-restraint — formed the heart of a seasonal Danish; the barely lacquered, golden-brown exterior of the pastry made a lovely contrast.
A Washington cherry galette had a puffy, gorgeous picture frame of ethereally layered pastry, delicately dusted with powdered sugar, around a portrait of summertime in deep red and golden-yellow cherries. If this one might have spent a moment too long in the oven, the pastry becoming a bit dry, the cherry interior was so juicy, a reservoir of liquid formed.
At Crumble & Flake, Toby Matasar says she got almost all of the place’s recipes, and that she’s “continued with the exact same menu of items to maintain consistency and continuity.” She has, however, introduced her own chocolate-chip cookie, and says that new items — “cakes, tarts, ice cream and sandwiches,” plus packaged gluten-free goods from Niche — are “definitely” on the way in the next few months.
How such dilution of Robertson’s exacting, single-minded vision will pan out remains to be seen. In the meantime, Crumble & Flake’s French favorite kouign-amann remains an example of alchemy: both super-buttery-rich and ultralight, with the less heavily caramelized than most exterior sticking happily to your teeth on your way to the pillowy, many-layered inside. It still has the faintest, caramelly hint of salt.
The financier is just as good as remembered, and that is very, very good, with sour cherries playing off tender, almondy cake. I’d never had the chocolate-cherry-almond croissant; it was richer than rich with crackly browned edges, a blanket of slivered almonds and a puddinglike combo of its named ingredients inside, nutty and bitter and sweet.
A plain croissant — admittedly eaten later in the day, so give it a little slack — was slightly dry, not as ethereally fluffy inside as usual. The vanilla filling of a “cheweo” sandwich cookie seemed grainier with sugar than it ought, cloyingly overpowering the twin dark-chocolate cookies, but I’d never had one of these before — someone very sweet-toothed would probably adore it.
Overall, those with a possibly inordinate love of baked goods in Seattle have reason to hope. We’ll just have to continue monitoring the situation, pastry by pastry.