Before finding his muse, flour, Roger Gural moonlighted as a television producer. But all along his penchant for perfect pain ("bread" in French) was rising and now, years later he operates Arcade Bakery, an onsite bakery and retail window vending excellent French breads and yeasted pastries in the arcade of a 1920s-era Tribeca office building.
Though Arcade Bakery has a built-in audience with the businesses that inhabit 220 Church Street, Gural knew his challenge would be to entice pedestrians to walk the extra 300 feet into a building and down a hall for coffee, bread and pastries. He figured if his product was good enough, people would come. And since Arcade Bakery's inception last May, in which Gural did not alert any press, sales have been stronger than he expected. Word of his ethereal, fluffy slices of babka — made with a laminated dough (if you're a Breads Bakery fan, these specimens are not to be missed), in flavors like chocolate, whiskey-pecan, and poppy seed — has spread mostly by mouth.
But long before all that, the story of Arcade Bakery begins with pizza. Gural has always had an affinity for the stuff, and he used to pick up dough from Gourmet Garage then bake pies at home. One day when the market was out of dough, he attempted to make his own. That proved to be a failure, but the defeat pushed him to hone his homemade pizza dough, which eventually lead to experimenting with sourdough bread. Working nights in television, Gural attended the The Art of International Bread Baking at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Institute) during the day, an experience he describes as "paradise on earth" thanks to all the food from different culinary classes flowing through the halls.
Toward the end of the program, chef David Bouley came in to the school for a kitchen tour and announced he was looking for bakers at Bouley Bakery. Gural ended up scoring a job there as a bread shaper for a year before working at Amy's Bread and then decamping to France. Most of his time there was spent in Nice, at Le Fournil Borriglione, a boulangerie/patisserie where he fired about 800 baguettes a day. After about a year he returned to Bouley, then Amy's again in New York, and went on to serve as head baker for Almondine Bakery in Brooklyn. Then he served as head baker at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery in Napa for two years, and finally, for the last five years, he taught the art of bread at the FCI. All along though, the idea of opening his own bakery was on the back burner.
Gural learned the French style of bread baking from the FCI, his mentors at Bouley, and in France. Thus he mostly sells baked goods one would find in a French boulangerie or patisserie, though some have his own spin. On any given weekday, expect beautifully scored rustic baguettes with snowy dusts of flour, pain au levain, and whole wheat loaves. Sweet and savory croissants are carefully displayed like treasures in a glass case alongside danishes and an outstanding sticky, flaky caramel apple brioche. But out of all the items on offer at Arcade, Gural is most proud of his humble plain sourdough loaf and his vanilla pear and buckwheat baguette.
The latter is a savory bread studded with slightly sweet dried pears and scented lightly with vanilla. The vanilla flavor is just barely present without tasting overwhelmingly floral and beautifully contrasts the pear, taking on an almost nutty, almond-esqe flavor. Though now retired from bread competitions, Gural was chosen by Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud to represent the US at world bread competition the Mondial du Pain and also tried out twice for international baking competition the Coupe du Monde de la Boulanderie's US team. He made the final three each time but wasn't selected. While practicing for one of those competitions and making vanilla cookies with his son one day, the recipe came together. Vanilla plus bread in a not so sweet context. The idea to add pears followed.
Gural sifts through roughly 700 pounds of flour a week, a mix of King Arthur all purpose flour, a whole grain wheat from Central Milling in California, and an organic rye by Giusto's, also in California. All breads incorporate one of two types of yeast. Breads like baguettes use commercial yeast, while the miche calls for a sourdough starter which ferments for four to six hours. Gural or one of this four employees then divides and shapes the dough, and refrigerates it for 12 hours so that it's ready to be fired the following day. Baguettes ferment 14 to 18 hours. Gural bakes his breads and pastries every thirty minutes to an hour, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with the goal of selling small batch baked goods as fresh as possible, straight out of the oven, just like in France. "It's hard to be excited about something if you're never tasting it at its best," Gural explains, which is why he isn't especially keen on wholesaling his product (though he does sell to nearby Brandy Library and Copper & Oak in the Lower East Side). There's also no refrigerated case at Arcade, just pastries behind glass and on baking sheets hot out of the oven. And don't come here looking for cookies. Remember, all baked goods are yeasted, which limits what Gural puts forth.
But, one will find pizzas and sandwiches. To fit the American diet and to offer a lunch option, Gural sells individual pies topped with tomato, mozzarella, and basil (only between noon and 2 p.m.), and sandwiches that change seasonally. Right now there's a French construct of ham, Comté, and salted butter on a baguette, plus a turkey, mozzarella, roasted pepper scenario on focaccia, and a vegetarian nod to the Mediterranean with roasted carrots, chickpeas, eggplant, and caramelized onions on sourdough.
In addition to the outstanding baked goods, Arcade's allure partially lies in its location. Though there's a small plaque attached to the facade of 220 Church Street that carries the bakery's name, it would be impossibly easy to pass right by and never notice. The building, also known as Merchants Square Building, dates back almost 100 years, and Gural's family (which is in the real estate business) manages the building, so he was familiar with the space. In fact, years ago, Gural lived in the building for two years, occupying the superintendent's quarters. A deli previously inhabited the almost 1,000 square foot space that is now home to Arcade, and Gural knew there there was infrastructure for a kitchen. He wanted a small space, and figured that his bakery would add value to the building. He was partially inspired by cities like Japan where one can find fantastic food in subway and train stations, and attracted to the idea of commuters and those in transit gabbing a pastry and Counter Culture coffee.
Peer down the hall of 220 Church Street and you won't see Arcade Bakery. The bakery window itself is built into a far wall, and as you walk over for a slice of whiskey-pecan babka, note the miles of honied wood, beautiful bread displays, and the tables that fall out of the walls. This is the handiwork of Workstead (responsible for elements of the Wythe Hotel), which emerged out of necessity. The arcade's floor is sloped, so traditional seating was out of the question. Instead, Workstead removed glass from pre-existing display cases, refinished them with wood, then added those smart tables. Bakery customers have the option to stand and sip/eat or jump into one of the wall pockets beside each table.
And so there came to be a sort of deliciously secret bakery in the arcade of a nearly 100 year old building in Tribeca. So far Arcade Bakery is just a weekday operation (maybe at some point in the future days of service will expand) selling brilliant French breads and pastries baked fresh until it closes at 4 p.m. Gural does't go far out of his comfort zone. Instead he bakes what he knows how to bake. And since May, New Yorkers have been walking the extra 300 feet.