For Eli Zabar, the 1970s were the Dark Ages for bread in New York City. In 1973, he opened E.A.T., his gourmet deli and café on Madison Avenue, and he was desperate to find good bread for his smoked salmon sandwiches. "The old bakeries had died out," he says, "and the bakeries that survived were making mass-produced supermarket garbage. There were a few mom and pops around, but most of those weren't any good either." He was getting his bread from an Italian bakery up in Harlem whose owner was often drunk. "One day, the bread came in, and it was so bad that I said, 'Even I can make bread better than this.'"
Eli knew from good bread. He grew up among smoked fish and pickle barrels at his family's "appetizing store" on the Upper West Side, where shelves were always stocked with dense, flavorful, and slightly sour Jewish-style rye. He still dreams about a rye flour "Jewish cornbread" that was about eight inches in diameter and weighed four or five pounds. "It lasted about a week in the house," he says, "and with butter it was absolutely delicious." After college, he was exposed to the Old World baking tradition on trips to Poilane in Paris and to rustic restaurants in the French provinces. The good tastes and textures he found there did not exist in New York.
So Eli Zabar started to make bread. His guides were a recipe for sourdough he found in the New York Times, an 80-year-old professional baking book, and his own instincts. He had a lot of not-always-successful theories about breadmaking, such as to use mostly high-gluten flour, to undermix the dough, and to bake at very high temperatures. His first rolls were almost black: "I thought they were delicious, but I couldn't give them away."
After much trial and error, he achieved the flavor he wanted without carbonizing them. Next, he learned how to turn the same dough into baguette-like loaves. These were the genesis of the ficelles he still sells today: narrow, dense wands with a pronounced sourdough bite. Customers lined up for them, and Eli's bread-making business was off.
In the early 1980s, Eli had the city's artisan bread market to himself. Restaurants like Tavern on the Green and the Oyster Bar would order 200 dozen of his rolls; Eli would say, "How about five dozen?" Then in 1986, his landlord offered him the lease on the store next door. Eli rented it for the basement storage space but also discovered it hid a bricked-up coal oven. He converted it to gas and moved his bread operations from their original cubbyhole to the much larger basement. He ramped up production and began to spend a lot more time playing with bread recipes.
Without a doubt, Eli Zabar's most famous invention is his Health Bread, a heavy loaf made from whole grains mixed with sunflower, sesame, and flax seeds. If there is a quintessential New York City bread right now, the Health Bread is it. To Eli, it's the secret of long life: "Two slices every day for breakfast, toasted dark so the grains in it are toasted."
Another Eli Zabar classic is his raisin pecan bread, an updated version of the raisin breads he knew from his youth. They're probably most popular as rolls, the kind in restaurant bread baskets that tastes a lot better than the main courses.
Eli's bread spread across the city, spawning numerous imitators. Artisan bakeries popped up around Manhattan, some run by ex-employees. You can particularly see the Eli's influence in their restaurant rolls and whole-grain loaves. However, Eli Zabar was too busy expanding to bother. He soon outgrew the basement and moved his ovens into a 15,000 square foot facility on East 91st Street, next to the building that would become his Vinegar Factory store. And in 2006, he opened a little kosher bakery in his Eli's Manhattan market on Third Avenue. That's where he's been doing his most recent bread-making experiments.
Except for the rabbinic seal, most of his kosher loaves aren't that different from the treyf versions. The kosher pecan raisin rolls are thick with fruit and nuts and must weigh twice as much as the original. But then there's his "Jerusalem bread," which doesn't seem to have much to do with the Holy Land except for a certain Old World Righteousness. These wild sourdough-leavened breads are made from organic flour milled Upstate and, according to Eli, come out different every batch. The crust is thick and chewy, while the fragrant crumb, pierced by big holes, has a lovely sour yeasty aroma. In a way, this bread is a lot like Eli himself: He's moved across town, and travelled around the world in search of good food, yet he hasn't strayed that far from his appetizing roots.
1064 Madison Avenue, New York NY 10075 (map) 212-772-0022
Eli's Vinegar Factory
431 East 91st St, New York NY 10128 (map) 212-987-0885
1411 Third Avenue, New York NY 10075 (map) 212-717-8100