In 1997, Balthazar opened its doors on Spring Street. Downstairs in the basement, a corner was set aside for a little bread-making operation. On the first day, every table was decorated with a basket containing house-made breads: a baguette, a whole wheat, a rye, and so on. Fifteen years later, nearly identical loaves are still sold by the Balthazar Bakery, which has grown to be one of the city's biggest and most consistently excellent artisan bakeries.
From the start, the guiding force behind the operation has been head baker Paula Oland. She began her bread career at the now-gone Sign of the Dove restaurant back in the 1980s, when it was a rarity for a restaurant to have its own bread program. She was working as a pastry chef, but when the baker disappeared, she took over his bubbling pots of ferments and soon figured out how to bake acceptable loaves. The Sign of the Dove's bread program eventually morphed into Ecce Panis, now a major commercial bakery, but by that time Paula had moved on to start a family and do consulting work. In 1997, Balthazar's Keith McNally asked Paula to found his bread program, and the rest is New York City baking history.
Balthazar Bakery quickly outgrew its basement space, and in 2000 the operation moved to a much better lit facility in Englewood, New Jersey. When they first arrived they didn't know how they'd fill all the space. But they've been operating at full capacity for years. After locals began knocking at the door looking for loaves, they opened a factory store displaying the bakery's full line of breads and pastries. A visit is highly recommended, because the prices are lower and the selection is better than in the cramped and hectic Spring Street location.
The signature Balthazar bread is its pain de seigle, a big round boule (medium $11.50) with an ornate "B" stenciled on top in flour. It's made from a blend of whole wheat and rye flours, with some beer added for depth of flavor. The dark crust gives a satisfying crunch when chewed and exudes a pleasant, faintly bitter flavor. Its crumb has a pronounced rye aroma that pairs well with cheese.
Balthazar's whole wheat loaf (medium $10.50) comes in a similar boule shape, but its crust isn't quite so dark. Organic whole wheat flour gives the crumb an agreeable wheaty-nutty aroma that goes with everything from butter and jam to charcuterie.
Note to bakers: I'm a sucker for just about any loaf with walnuts. Balthazar's walnut bread ($6.50) has long been one of my favorites. Made from wheat, whole wheat, and rye flours, this loaf is lighter than most of the competition, but it still has a pronounced walnut flavor—thanks, I think, to the addition of walnut oil.
In the city's gourmet food marts, there's now a four-sided fencing match going on for domination of the baguette basket. Balthazar's baguette ($2.50) more than holds its own against the baking prowess of Amy's, Tom Kat, and Eli's. This is a narrow loaf, with a great crispy crust and a beautiful glossy crumb, with a hole structure so pronounced there may be more air than bread here. This is a twelve-hour baguette, so it doesn't have quite the flavor of a four- or six-hour baguette from one of the smaller French bakeries, but it more than makes up in crust and texture.
80 Spring Street, New York, NY 10012 (map)
About the author: Andrew Coe is the only reporter covering the city's bread beat.