It can seem like Le Pain Quotidien is everywhere. There are actually 27 branches of the café chain in New York and the surrounding region, all with the rustic Belgian look and big communal tables. People go to them for waffles and café au lait, omelets and salads, and the array of fresh pastries, kind of like brunch seven days a week. Customers seem to have forgotten, or perhaps they never knew, that Le Pain Quotidien started out as a bakery, and that those loaves of bread on the wall aren't just part of the décor. That's why it's worth going to the chain's Bleecker Street branch, where they've installed a glassed-in bakery right inside the entrance. Here bread is front and center, and behind the counter are stacks of some of the most interesting loaves in the city.
The Bleecker Street bakery acts as both bread laboratory and teaching facility. The baker in charge, Karen Bornarth, followed the long and twisting career path of many city bakers. After working in publishing, she decided she wanted to be a pastry chef and enrolled at the CIA's Napa Valley campus, where she fell in love with bread making. She returned to New York and spent seven years at Amy's Bread, ending as supervisor of baguette production. But baker's hours and carpal tunnel syndrome took their toll, so Karen decided to switch to teaching. She spent five years teaching in the bread program at the French Culinary Institute before moving to Bleecker Street earlier this year. Now she gives artisan baking classes to the public and oversees bread development for the bakery in New York.
Le Pain Quotidien's two biggest breads, in the literal sense, are its whole wheat and rye. These are big round loaves weighing about five pounds apiece, with a dense crumb and a thick coating of flour on the top. They were developed by Alain Coumont, the café chain's founder, who wanted to recreate the simple, rustic breads of his Belgian childhood. They're made from the chain's special sourdough levain (shared by its bakeries around the world) and organic flour, giving the loaves a distinct hay-like aroma. The whole wheat is more popular, but I prefer the rye, which holds moisture a bit better and has more of a sourdough bite.
The Bleecker Street bakery is the launching pad for the newest Le Pain Quotidien loaf available around the city. Karen Bornarth is a huge fan of whole grain bread, and her sprouted wheat is whole grain from outside in. This is a Pullman loaf made mostly from sprouted whole wheat flour and stuffed with toasted pumpkin seeds that also give it a crust. The seeds give the dense, moist crumb a warm and nutty flavor. It's a perfect bread for soft cheese and juicy charcuterie. In the same vein, Bleecker Street also sells her latest invention, a sunflower rye loaf made with half rye and half wheat flour. It's shaped into a small miche this time crusted with sunflower seeds.
This column generally steers clear of the sweet side of the bakery menu, but I make an exception for her delicious chocolate rolls, which actually aren't that sweet. Their chocolate-y crumb is reinforced with a generous helping of dark chocolate chips. Spread with butter and chased with sips of espresso, they make a perfect, not-too-sinful breakfast. For a more indulgent bite, I'd try the bakery's cinnamon bread, which is a pillow of sweet dough slathered with icing. Every mouthful is a symphony of moist yeastiness--somewhere there must be an edict against it.