First Look: Bakeshop

Concentrics and Jonathan St. Hilaire open a Midtown cafe

I'll start with the best part: the scone. I had ordered it with a sandwich to go from Bakeshop (903 Peachtree St., 404-892-9322). The place, with only three community tables, was packed, and I decided it would be more tranquil to carry my sandwich to Starbucks.

I was handed the scone when I placed my order, and I promised myself I wouldn't nibble on it while I waited for my prosciutto sandwich. But my wait became so long that half the crowd cleared out. My stomach growled. I found a seat at the end of one of the tables.

I love scones. I'd call them my favorite pastry. This one was made with chopped pecans and dried apricots. It was the last one in the pastry case and its odd shape had caught my eye. It was not a plump oval. It was more triangular but not a fussy isosceles or equilateral triangle. This was a scalene triangle, nearly as big as my hand, and its odd angles created varying thickness and textures.

I pinched off a piece in the bag and took a bite. The flavors shocked me. There was the crisp, sugary texture and taste of the exterior, followed immediately by the rich, nutty flavor embedded in the softer interior. The slight crunch of pecans alternated with tart bits of dried apricot. I was back in Sonoma County 20 years ago, eating scones at a bakery in Healdsburg. I took the scone out of the bag and went to work.

Jonathan St. Hilaire, who owns Bakeshop with the Concentrics Restaurant people, is without question one of our city's best pastry chefs. He has been in charge of the desserts at all of the Concentrics restaurants for some time. This new venue, designed by ai3, reminds me of the downstairs market of Parish, where I've stopped now and then to sample Hilaire's pastries and breads. The look, according to press material, is "industrial farmhouse," with a completely open kitchen, and bakery supplies piled around the dining area along with multiple racks filled with bread for sale.

I ended up eating the entire scone before my sandwich arrived. A woman sitting nearby, who ate her triple-decker smoked turkey sandwich with a fork and knife, smiled and said, "You seem to like that."

I did, and I also liked a pistachio and apricot tart I'd tried earlier, along with an amazing almond croissant, probably my second-most-favorite pastry. St. Hilaire's is huge and rather free-form, like the scone, and crunchy and sweet, with sliced almonds on the exterior. The usual almond paste, however, was minimal – virtually nonexistent. Whether that's customary for St. Hilaire, I don't know. The pastry itself was so good, I didn't much care.

Things at the new bakery got more problematic when it came to the lunchtime menu of soups, sandwiches and salads. The first problem was the service itself. The staff is every bit as sweet and attractive as the pastries on display but seemed remarkably disorganized. During my first visit with Wayne, when the bakery was virtually empty, there was a long wait for our food and the cashier seemed completely confused by the cash register. After lunch, we bought more food to eat later and, even though everything was pre-made and from the front case, we had another long delay. I had no trouble paying during my second visit, but the wait then was, as I said, also protracted.

The menu itself is also a bit problematic. The bakery is open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily except Monday. It serves breakfast 7-11 a.m., followed by lunch until 3 p.m. So don't go there outside those times if you want a sandwich made to order or one of the breakfast dishes such as fried eggs and barbecued pork.

I've tried four sandwiches – the smoked turkey with blue cheese and bacon, the baguette with prosciutto, a muffuletta, and a ham and cheese croissant. Prices are not low – the prosciutto was $9 – and the kitchen is not generous with fillings. My largest problem was that most of these sandwiches were heavily doused with Dijon mustard. It was completely overwhelming in the case of the prosciutto; I literally could not taste the meat. Why put olive oil on a sandwich and then slather it with mustard?

The muffuletta, the New Orleans specialty also available at Parish, was the worst of the lot. It was made earlier, wrapped in plastic and put in the pastry case. The bread had turned to absolute mush. Had I tried to eat this on the premises, I would have demanded a replacement.

I've tried both soups – a tomato bisque and a "pulled chicken" chili. The bisque gets an A but the chili gets a C. It isn't chili at all. It's a rather thin soup with chili seasonings, afloat with some chicken and white beans. And it too is rather pricey – about $5 for a small cup.

I tried one salad – the panzanella. The kitchen needs to take a trip to La Pietra Cucina to experience a real salad of this type. At Bakeshop, it's an arugula salad topped with some pickled red onions, goat cheese, beets and huge cubes of bread placed on the margins of the bowl. The cubes are too big to be tossed with the salad, as they should be, so you end up effectively eating an arugula salad with gigantic croutons.

A final taste was a pissaladière, the little French-style pizza. It was fine, but lacked the usual anchovies. That didn't surprise me, but it did disappoint me.

I really wish I felt better about Bakeshop. St. Hilaire is a brilliant chef. He's received numerous awards for his literally mood-altering pastries. I'm not sure why the rest of the operation here isn't up to par. Hopefully, it will improve with time.

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