The yeasty heart of the Daniel Boulud empire is hidden at the end of an East Village alley, through an unmarked door, and down a long, brightly-lit corridor. There, amid a phalanx of stainless steel ovens, mixers, and other machines, genial master baker Mark Fiorentino and his team of assistants turn out a dizzying array of breads for Boulud's half dozen restaurants. Luckily for us, you don't need a reservation and a fat wallet to try them. Stacks of delicious bread now decorate the wall behind the counter of Epicerie Boulud, the chef's new coffee shop up by Lincoln Center.
For Mark Fiorentino, the roomy new East Village bakery represents the culmination of a journey that began 13 years ago in a shoebox-sized workspace in the basement of the Boulud flagship, Restaurant Daniel. After culinary school, Mark started making pastry at the now-defunct Sign of the Dove before moving into bread at the Ecce Panis bakery. In 1998, Daniel Boulud hired him to make rolls and sliced bread for the Daniel breadbaskets. As the Boulud empire grew, Fiorentino was gradually given more and more space to make room for his expanded production needs. Today his bakers turn out 11 different breads for Daniel, as well numerous signature loaves for the other restaurants, including excellent burger buns and pretzel rolls for DB Bistro and DBGB. All of them reveal the skill and love of bread of Mark Fiorentino, who's certainly one of the top three bakers in the city.
Most of the loaves sold at Epicerie Boulud are formed from the exact same dough as the offerings in the Restaurant Daniel breadbasket, only in larger sizes. I'd start with the pain campagne, which is shaped like a pointy football with a couple of dramatic slash marks down its crusty back. It's made from a levain starter and mostly white flour with a bit pumpernickel and whole wheat flours mixed in. Its slightly darker twin is the whole wheat levain, which is made from whole wheat flour with some added wheat germ and bran, pumpernickel flour, and rolled oats.
The doughs for both the white and wheat loaves are mixed the day before and then allowed to ferment almost 24 hours before baking. The long ferment is the secret technique of the master baker, giving the loaves a fine, deep flavor. Both are encased in an excellent chewy crust. The pain campagne acquires a slight sourdough bite, while the whole wheat levain has a gently nutty flavor from the combination of flours, wheat germ, and oats.
Fiorentino also uses the slow ferment to produce his excellent baguettes, which are made from white flour with a dash of pumpernickel flour for flavor. After an overnight ferment, the loaves are shaped in the morning and then baked three times a day. Epicerie Boulud gets its baguette deliveries at 8 am, 11:30 am, and 4:30 pm, so you can make sure that you always have a fresh baguette.
For a smaller bite, the Boulud rolls--both sourdough and whole wheat--are an amazing combination of substance and airy delight. About the size of a flattened spaldeen, the sourdough roll can be devoured in two or three bites, with the accompaniment of a liberal smear of butter. At first taste, the roll seems like a puff of air encased in a delicate crust. On the second or third chew, you realize that the roll has backbone, flavored with a delicate sour tang.
Finally, you have to try Mark's roasted garlic focaccia. There are a lot of mistakes you can make with focaccia--too dry, too oily, too thick, too wet, and so on. The Boulud version avoids all of them by using a light touch. The hole-y crumb of this focaccia is delicate, gaining substance from a faint infusion of olive oil. The top is lightly sprinkled with chips of roasted garlic, grated Parmesan cheese, and sea salt. The result isn't a meal in itself but an aperitif meant to stimulate appetite. No wonder that, at Restaurant Daniel, this focaccia is compulsory in every breadbasket.