The opening of a great new bakery in town doesn't just give us bread hogs another place to purchase our loaves. It also raises the bar for all the other bakeries, forcing them to work a little harder to make the best product.
On the Upper East Side, the dominant bakery for decades has been Eli's Bread, known best for its sourdough ficelles and health bread. Although it's technically older, Orwasher's is something of an upstart, selling inventive artisan loaves as popular downtown as uptown. Now into this mix comes Maison Kayser, just opened on Third Avenue by master baker Eric Kayser, who is as ambitious and creative in Paris—and Dubai and Singapore—as Eli Zabar is here.
Eric Kayser grew up as the fourth generation of a Strasbourg baking family. He taught bread arts at the prestigious Institut National de la Boulangerie-Pâtisserie, and helped invent the Fermentolevain, a liquid leavening machine used in many European bakeries. In 1996, he opened his first Maison Kayser store on Rue Monge in Paris. Over the last 16 years, that one store has blossomed into a worldwide empire with bakeries from Tokyo to Dakar. The Upper East Side store—number 79—is his first outpost in the New World. To open his new bakeries and train their staffs, Kayser relies on master bakers like Yann Ledoux, who is in charge of the New York operation.
Growing up in Normandy, Yann knew he wanted to work with his hands. His twin brother became a butcher, but Yann didn't like the cold of the meat locker or dipping his hands into mounds of raw meat. Instead, at age 15 he apprenticed to a baker and fell in love with bread making. After becoming a master baker, he moved to Maison Kayser in Paris and rose up the ranks, becoming head baker and then opening stores across the Persian Gulf. For him the challenges at any new Maison Kayser are double: make the baguettes taste exactly like the baguettes back on Rue Monge, and make every bread from scratch in every bakery—no shipping pre-mixed dough in freezer containers from Paris.
Maison Kayser's signature bread is its Baguette Monge ($2.75), the loaf that lifted Eric Kayser into the stratosphere of Paris bakers. Yann Ledoux arrived in New York and gave a sheet listing the baguette's flour requirements to the big purveyors. He rejected one flour, played with another, and within a week had a loaf he considers indistinguishable from the Paris original. Containing just wheat flour, leavening, water, and salt, the New York baguette has a crackly crust enclosing an off-white crumb rich with the heady aroma of the leavening. It's delivered to the shelves repeatedly during the day, ready to be rushed home, split open, and stuffed with a slab of camembert.
Maison Kayser makes sophisticated urban bread; no charred and lumpy rustic loaves here. However, if you want something a bit more hearty, try the Tourte de Meule ($9), a big boule made from stone-ground wheat flour, sea salt, and leavening. It's moist, with a rich but not overpowering wheat flour flavor backed by a bit of sourdough bite.
Each of Kayser's bakeries also develops loaves inspired by the locality. On Third Avenue, they sell the Epi East Side ($3), an epi baguette that families can easily break apart and share. Yann Ledoux has also been experimenting with rye loaves. The first version was dense and full of rye flavor. However, this isn't exactly the most adventurous crowd (despite its roots in the old Germanic East Side), so the current rye loaf ($4.95) is softer, with a delicious nutty aroma that reminds me of the New York corn ryes of yore.
Another venue for the bakery's sense of play is the pain de mie, the rich Pullman-style loaf made with butter, milk, and sugar. Its basic pain de mie is the dense white sandwich bread of the style favored by French-influenced Japanese and Korean bakeries. Kayser's New York bakers are now introducing seasonal styles of pain de mie, including a cinnamon apple loaf ($8.95) made with maple syrup and yellow raisins. They say it's great for French toast, but frankly who needs more butter and maple syrup with bread this rich?
Other loaves on Maison Kayser's shelves reflect the global sensibilities of the bakery's founder, who spends six months of the year traveling. His Curcuma bread ($7) was inspired by a visit to India and the taste and color of the spices there, particularly turmeric ("curcuma" means turmeric in French). It's a dense, yellow-orange tinged loaf dotted with hazelnuts and walnuts and flavored with turmeric and butter—a happy cross between South Asian sweets and great French bread.
Maison Kayser has been open a couple weeks and is still a work in progress. However, it looks like a great addition to the city's bread scene. Over the next six months, the bakery plans to open outlets next to Bryant Park and Madison Square. And it better bring its A game to all its products, because soon Francois Payard is slated to open a new bakery right across the street on Third Avenue.