Pain d'Avignon is the great New York City bakery hiding in plain sight. It doesn't advertise or otherwise toot its horn. Yet its delicate, crispy rolls fill the breadbaskets at many of the city's top hotels and white tablecloth restaurants. And for the last dozen years, its consistently excellent—and very reasonably priced—European-style loaves have been a mainstay of the bread counters many gourmet stores and in its retail shops in the Essex Street Market and the Plaza Hotel's Food Hall. Not bad for three guys from Belgrade who arrived here a little over 20 years ago with only a few dollars in their pockets.
Bane Stamenkovic, Uliks Fehmiv, and Tole Zurovac were part of a group of Belgrade high school pals who managed to get out of the former Yugoslavia just as the country was breaking up. They ended up in Cape Cod, where they discovered that Eastern Massachusetts was devoid of the great bread they'd grown up with in Belgrade. "We were young and knew nothing about baking," says Uliks. "But we shared this love for life, for the simple foods and flavors of our childhood." They taught themselves the trade and opened the first Pain d'Avignon bakery in Hyannis, making crusty French and Italian-inspired loaves. Then about a dozen years ago, Bane, Uliks, and Tole decided they were ready for a new challenge: New York City.
It wasn't easy to break into the city's highly competitive bread world, particularly when the trio couldn't afford rent for a retail bakery. They opened a small wholesale operation in Long Island City and got a big break when a chef helped them figure out how to bake perfect, tiny, and always-fresh loaves for the breadbaskets at his white tablecloth restaurant. Since then, Pain d'Avignon has slowly but inexorably grown; last year they moved into a big new baking facility near the East River. They're now thinking about opening one or two more retail outlets, but otherwise plan no big changes, just to continue concentrating on their customers and baking quality bread.
The first time I tasted Pain d'Avignon's bread was about a decade ago. It was a slice of a seven-grain Pullman loaf ($6) at a now-defunct Austrian restaurant in Brooklyn. I don't remember much about the meal, but I do remember savoring the bread, with its nutty aroma and lovely texture. Fast forward to the present: the seven-grain is tastier than ever, to my palate the best of the city's "health"-style loaves. It's made from wholewheat flour, yeast, and salt mixed with wildflower honey, flax, sesame, and sunflower seeds, and sprinkled with oats.
Pain d'Avignon introduces breads only rarely, after much tasting and experimentation. Its dark rye sourdough ($4) is one of the newest, made from 70% dark rye flour, 30% white flour, levain, salt, and water. Like almost all their loaves, it's given a long fermentation, coming out of the oven with a crisp crust and mild rye aroma mingled with sourdough tang. With its moist crumb, it has a longer shelf life and tastes just as good on day three—with a mellower flavor—as day one.
The bakery's whole wheat sourdough ($4) swaps out the rye for New York State whole wheat flour milled by North Country Farms. It has a similar moist texture as the rye, only the flavor tends toward the nutty-hayfield end of the spectrum—a great base for a slab full-flavored cheese or salumi.
The ciabatta (large, $4) is another of the bakery's exemplary loaves. The word means "slipper," but it comes out of the oven looking like an irregular clown shoe. Its crust has a slight crunch, while inside the crumb is a wonderland of Art Deco hole structure, with a wisp of lovely yeast aroma.
You can buy the country loaf in one pound ($3.80) or crowd-pleasing five pound ($16) loaves. It's made from about 85% white flour and 15% dark rye flour and leavened with poolish. In flavor and texture, it reminds me of the great loaves made by Brooklyn's Royal Crown Bakery (particularly those made before it moved to its new, smaller quarters)—a perfect rustic sandwich bread.
In the Essex Street Market
120 Essex Street, New York NY 10002 (map)