Studio, the new all-day cafe on the second floor of the Freehand Hotel, has already proven to be a breakfast powerhouse, popping up on some of New York City’s most fashionable Instagram feeds. Among the most worthy attractions are the pastries by head baker Zoe Kanan, whose unique flavor combinations and textural expressions remind me of what pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz has been doing for over a year at Flora Bar on the Upper East Side — and stand in contrast to the flashy confections at upstarts like Flour Shop and Supermoon Bakehouse.
Kanan’s resume includes French pastry studies and a stint with Milk Bar maestro Christina Tosi. At her new post, she pulls inspiration from her Jewish roots to create baked goods that complement a savory menu which marries North African and Middle Eastern influences. Inside a pastry case in a corner of a dining room that looks like the apartment of an anthropology professor — sheepskin pelts drape over driftwood and distressed leather, vines try to climb the windows, and succulents spill out of unglazed clay pots — Kanan’s buttery sweets shine like rough-hewn jewels.
The restaurant’s menu features lots of herbaceous spices, nutty seeds, and full-fat yogurt — and, after a couple of early visits, it’s clear that Kanan embraces all of it. Her Turkish-style Simit bagels are covered in a heady mix of sesame, poppy, and caraway, her chocolate chip cookie is made from whole grains, and an almond cake is spiked with the floral flavors of ancient Persia.
Studio is open all day, but go before noon for the best pastry selection and sit at the bar for the best people watching. Though the cookies vary by day, and Kanan is always experimenting with new sweets, here are a few recommendations on what to order at one of the East Side’s most promising new pastry dens.
Chocolate chip cookie
There’s usually a chocolate chip cookie ($3) on offer. Made with whole grains and seeds, it achieves multitudes with an interior that’s layered with dark chocolate, and a center that remains soft and chewy while its edges get crisp with the flavor of toasted nuts and brown sugar. Have it with a cup of the cafe’s strong coffee.
Chebakia ($3), a traditional Moroccan cookie, looks like an ornate bronze brooch embellished with sesame seeds and flaky salt. Kanan’s version stays true to the classic: Made from sesame flour, a simple dough is twisted and fried into a curly fritter before taking a dip in a rosewater-honey bath.
The croissant ($6) is described as sourdough, but it doesn’t smell like San Francisco sourdough. That might be by design: It tastes more like the croissants in France, many of which are made using a naturally fermented starter. Called a levain, it is not meant to achieve the pungency of what Americans call sourdough, but adds complexity to the final product in the form of a more milky richness that enhances the butter that’s been folded into each layer.
Kanan’s chocolate babka ($5) reminded me of the only babka I’ve ever really loved, a version made by pastry chef Melissa Weller when she was at Sadelle’s in Soho. (She’s now at Walnut Street Cafe in Philadelphia.) So, I was delighted to find out that Kanan was a student of Weller’s. And thus Kanan’s babka is a cousin of that one I loved at Sadelle’s, an ideal marriage of pastry and bread, where the chocolate swirl — here enhanced with a touch of coffee — is fully enveloped by the dough so that it doesn’t burn in the oven. The end result is pillowy and flaky with a deep chocolate base note in every bite.
Persian love cake
The Persian love cake ($6), a centerpiece of Kanan’s pastry case, is a moist, single-layer almond number scented with cardamom, rose, and pistachios. No Iranian has ever heard of such a cake — it’s an entirely western creation, according to award-winning cookbook author Yasmin Khan, who’s created her own version — but the homage to some of ancient Persia’s most romantic ingredients is nonetheless charming. Kanan tops her version with a seasonal jam; one day it was blood orange, another morning, rhubarb.