Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eaten Lately, NYC (#1 in a Series)

Almondine Baguette at Almondine

Almondine, in DUMBO, showed up on my radar screen when Cornell history professor and French bread expert/fanatic Steven Kaplan rated theirs the best baguette in NYC (not a great distinction in Kaplan's bread worldview) in a taste (and smell and feel) test organized by NY Magazine.

As a bread lover and amateur baker, I'm mildly to moderately obsessed with Kaplan. I heard him several years ago on NPR (probably The Splendid Table) and found it amazing that an American (a Brooklynite, no less) could be recognized by the French as the expert on their bread. I was seriously tempted to buy his untranslated French-only guide to Parisian boulangeries when I encountered the only copy I've ever seen (at the Upper East Side's Kitchen Arts & Letters), even though I can't read French and wasn't planning a trip to Paris anytime soon. And of course, his appearance on Conan in which he engaged in some heavy petting with a baguette (seems to be gone from YouTube, but worth tracking down if you can) just reinforced my fascination with this strange, brilliant man.

Before I get to Almondine's bread, here are some choice Kaplan quotes taken from the NYC baguette showdown (linked above) and a separate NY Mag interview:

“It’s as if the female crumb has completely reduced the male crust to helpless impotence.”

"...I yearn for a symbiotic relationship between crust and crumb. I covet the voluptuousness of a fleshy crumb, laden with aromas, tightly embraced by a virile, caramelized crust, together dancing a tango of flavor."

“It’s insipid. It lacks sapidity."

"If the baguette is engaging in appearance, if it emits a bewitching bouquet of aromas, if it's crusty and sings to me under my caress, if I suspect that it will be a sumptuous treat, then I will eat it on the way home from the bakery. Such a baguette needs no accompaniment — neither butter nor cheese nor jam." (Though I wouldn't express it quite this way, I'm in complete agreement with Kaplan's sentiments on this one.)

So, on to Almondine's bread. They offer a traditional baguette (I'm guessing that Kaplan would point out that the term "French baguette" is redundant) and an Almondine baguette, which is shorter, a bit plumper in the middle, and with pointier ends than the traditional style. While the difference in shape is more obvious, the use of whole wheat flour in combination with white flour is what really makes the Almondine a distinct offering.

In any case, the Almondine is what I had and it didn't last long, not even making it out of DUMBO. I don't have an elaborate Kaplanesque point system, but I've eaten enough bread to know this was excellent. Great, contrasting textures inside (crumb) and out (crust), and whatever the proportion of whole wheat is, it really makes a nice contribution to the flavor. Next time I'll try the traditional version.

I should do a roundup of other NYC bread highlights at some point, and I'll have to work in something about my hometown's truly excellent 222 Artisan Bakery.

Bonus Link: the syllabus for Kaplan's "Social History of Food and Eating" course at Cornell.

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