At least it's not cupcakes. At the Upper West Side's Levain Bakery, it's the TV-famous hockey-puck-sized cookies that draw the crowds and make the cash registers go ka-ching. As far as this column is concerned, however, Levain's real stars are half-hidden on a shelf behind the counter: moist, dense, and flavorsome breads, made daily so they're always fresh. You sense a trace of fermentation when you bite into them—a welcome reminder that bread is a living thing.
Levain Bakery was started 16 years ago by co-owners Connie McDonald and Pam Weekes. Connie fell in love with bread-making at the old Peter Kump cooking school and honed her skills at Amy's Bread and various restaurants, including One Fifth when Anthony Bourdain was chef. She met Pam Weekes while training for an Ironman competition. Eager to start their own business, they founded Levain in the summer of 1995, using the One Fifth ovens during off hours. By the end of the year, they had moved into their space on West 74th Street. They supplemented the walk-in trade at their storefront bakery with wholesale sales, but profit margins were so low that they soon decided to stick strictly to retail. This also allowed them to control quality.
Customers are never sold stale bread or cookies, because anything that's unsold by the end of the day is donated to the needy. In addition to their Upper West Side store, they have a seasonal outlet in the Hamptons and just opened a second Manhattan bakery up in Harlem.
For Connie, the secret to good, consistent bread is simplicity: good flour, water, salt, and yeast. "The dough has to be given time to sit in a cold place overnight and rise slowly," she says. "A great crust comes from slow, cold fermentation." A good way to savor the outcome of those techniques is with Levain's raisin-walnut whole wheat. It's a heavy oval loaf with big score marks across the top. The crumb is dense, with hints of yeast clinging to the juicy golden raisins. People say that beer is liquid bread; this loaf is the bread version of a Belgian saison.
Another delicious dense bread that comes from the Levain ovens is the turban-shaped whole grain. This isn't roughage but the rare health bread that goes down easily. It's moist and chewy, with a warm, nutty aroma that goes equally well with smoked salmon and cream cheese or jam and butter.
On the lighter side of the Levain bread shelf, my favorite is the ciabatta. Forget about those ubiquitous loaves with the flavorless, cotton-candy-crumb and cardboard crust. The interior of the Levain ciabatta isn't white but slightly tan from the unbleached flour. I know that ciabattas are supposed to be sandwich or dipping breads, but with this one you just want to tear off a hunk, savor its bouquet for a moment, and then stuff it in your mouth. At Levain Bakery, fresh bread makes a difference.
167 West 74th Street, New York NY 10023 (map) 212-874-6080
2167 Frederick Douglas Boulevard, New York NY 10026 (map) 646-455-0952