I can think of several reasons why bakeries have lately become so prominent in the dining landscape. Perhaps they are a sign that the carbophobia of the past decade is waning. Or maybe, as many restaurants have become unaffordable, visiting a bakery is a way to buy into the food culture without spending an arm and a leg. Remember how eating a Cronut became the highest signifier of hipness?
Additionally, many bakeries are luring customers with healthier artisanal breads chock full of grains and seeds. And they’re offering sandwiches, quiches, pizzas, salads, and even full meals in seating areas where you can relax as long as you like. Bakeries are making themselves more comfortable than fast-casual places and potentially replacing some restaurants as cheaper dining venues for all three meals.
Still, the exact reason for the current invasion of bakeries, many of them chains from overseas, is a bit bewildering. In the last few months, downtown Manhattan neighborhoods have seen several major openings: Marie Blachère from France, Ole & Steen from Denmark, Australia’s Bourke Street Bakery, Fabrique from Sweden, and Michaeli Bakery, a spinoff of Israel’s Breads Bakery, itself already a major feature of Union Square dining.
Sure, we’ve had bakery chains from elsewhere before — including Maison Kayser from France, Paris Baguette from Korea, and Le Pain Quotidien, founded in Belgium— that have mainly flourished here. But our five neophyte establishments with foreign origins are adding a touch of glamour and novelty to the New York City bakery scene. They may be also remaking our ideas of where to get a quick cheap meal, adding to the impressive but still modestly sized bread baking scene in New York represented by places such as Sullivan Street, Bien Cuit, and Great Northern Food Hall.
I recently visited all five at least twice each to sample their wares and find out what all the fuss is about. Below, see my first impressions on all — from the French bakery worth trying for bargain baguettes and the Australian import with outsized chocolate croissants.
Best for: Baguettes and low-cost pastries or fruit tarts
With 500 locations in France and now two in the United States, Marie Blachère is a behemoth bakery and produce market founded in 2004 by Bernard Blachère, headquartered near Avignon in Provence, France. When it opened last month in Greenwich Village, many of the employees were French and wore perky brown uniforms, and the range of breads, pastries, sweet rolls, sandwiches, quiches, and pizzas gleaming in the long glass cases was breathtaking.
The bakery and “sandwicherie” occupies three storefronts along Sixth Avenue just north of Carmine, with no-frills seating inside and a plain gray color scheme. A coffee bar enjoys its own window on the street, but the baked goods, rather than sandwiches or coffee, are the star of the show.
The chain promises traditional baguettes, priced at $2.20 each and available in three shades: pale, medium baked, and well done. The bread is crusty with a dense crumb, perfect for buttering. But these are really demi-baguettes, half the size of regular French loaves. Four loaves (or four croissants) are offered for the price of three; Marie Blachère wants to be your discount French bakery.
Many of the products are a shade sweeter than they ought to be. The croissants, for example, have a thin sugar coating that glistens, making them taste almost like dessert. These croissants are split to make a nice egg salad and bacon sandwich garnished with lettuce and tomato ($6.50), though the croissant dominates the sandwich. The same domination applies to a tuna sandwich with chopped veggies ($8.40); it comes on a cheese focaccia and is breadier than it ought to be.
The Danish, where you want a little extra sweetness, is Marie Blachère’s forte. One recommended sweet roll implants chocolate chips in its sugary swirl ($3.30), and the pain au chocolat is spot-on, with a profuse chocolate filling. Many other pastries are available, almost too many to contemplate, including a good apple turnover. Tarts both small and large are showy, but beneath the sometimes canned fruit, the texture of the filling is more cakey than custardy. Neither the pizzas nor the pre-made croque monsieurs had much eye appeal. Go to Marie Blachère if you want pastries that are cheaper and sweeter than usual. 301 Sixth Ave., at Carmine Street, Greenwich Village
Ole & Steen
Best for: Bread loaves, Danishes, and a comfortable hang-out spot
Our first American branch of this Danish bakery opened on Broadway just north of Union Square in January. Founded in Denmark in 1991 by Ole Kristoffersen and Steen Skallebaek, the original name was Lagkagehuset, or “layer cake house,” implying an emphasis that has mainly disappeared from the current location. Now the staff in their starched uniforms and the gray décor reminds one of the dark skies of Scandinavian winter.
That said, the multiple types of bread I’ve tried are some of the best in town. A carrot rye ($8) is moist, and the sweetness of the root vegetable makes the bread taste almost like loaf cake. From a shifting catalog, breads offered daily amount to a dozen or so. Consult the display up high behind the counter, many of which might be termed “health bread.” The traditional rye, with a crust so crisp it crackles like a potato chip, is definitely worth buying for sandwich making and other general uses.
The “Danish” sweet pastries at Ole & Steen can be irresistible, though these pastries originated in Vienna, not Copenhagen, as the name might imply. Indeed, the Viennese pastry tradition is reflected to one degree or another at all of the bakeries reviewed here, but Ole & Steen does them better. Separable sheet pastries called “socials” are the bakery’s signature, in cinnamon or chocolate. But head instead for the individual round Danish, my favorite of which is filled with custard and ringed with thick white frosting.
Seasonality is important here, and in that vein, a rhubarb crescent ($4.50) was another standout. My theory about why the pastries at Ole & Steen are so good is that they’re made with extra amounts of butter. Seasonality is also reflected in an intriguing smørrebrød, piling preserved fish, shaved vegetables, and mayo-heavy salads on slices of dense rye to make an open face sandwich ($8). Instead get a toastie, a pressed focaccia sandwich of meat and cheese, quite delectable with the cheese oozing out the sides.
Ole & Steen has a luxurious ground floor seating area, with coffee tables, plush chairs, and couches, a bit like a cocktail lounge in a boutique hotel. Downstairs, bare bones seating with better lighting is provided; it has become a haven for laptop jockeys. Full course restaurant style meals are provided at dinnertime, and recent choices included herbed salmon, roast chicken, and beef braised in brandy. Red meat in a bakery? Yes indeed. 873 Broadway, near East 18th Street, Gramercy
Bourke Street Bakery
Best for: Meaty meal-sized pastries, tiny tarts, and bread loaves
In fact, adding red meat to the menu of a bakery may be not be a bad idea, drawing more customers in at lunch or dinner. When I talked to my Australian friends about Bourke Street Bakery, the first two things they mentioned were the chorizo and thyme rolls ($4), which are big floppy bread rolls with meat and onions tucked here and there; and the lamb, almond, and harissa rolls ($7), which are pastry tubes filled ground meat something like meatloaf. These pastries make mellow small meals, but both are blander than their names suggest. In Australia, the chain sells sliders, too.
Bourke Street Bakery was opened in Sydney by Paul Allam and David McGuinness in 2004, and it now counts 11 branches in the Sydney area. Our branch, which Allam runs with Jessica Grynberg, lies on East 28th Street in Nomad. It’s across the street from a pair of old commercial hotels, the Prince George and the Latham, giving the neighborhood a pleasant retro feel.
The bakery has a pair of perpendicular counters selling coffee, savory baked goods, small tarts, cookies, bread, and sandwiches. A cheery but spare dining room runs deeper into the premises, with a communal table that looks like something from The Lord of the Rings.
Many of the pastries and other products seem to derive from French baking traditions. There are outsized croissants and chocolate croissants, along with baguette sandwiches of ham and cheese. More unusual are a peanut butter and jam roll (4.50) that looks like a cinnamon Danish, and a chocolate poppy seed twist, both of which might seem crazy coming from anywhere but Australia.
The lemon curd tart ($5) is a favorite, a pool of jiggly and very tart custard in a miniature pastry shell; the chocolate version is more forgettable. Then there are pear and bacon Danish, either of which makes a nice sweet or savory breakfast.
Another neat thing about Bourke is that you can often get a pastry hot out of the even, if you consult the chalk board just inside the front door. It lists a by-the-hour baking schedule, also listing some very ambitious and sometimes unusual breads, such as a turmeric black pepper sourdough. 15 East 28th St., between Fifth and Madison avenues, Nomad
Best for: Babka or rugelach
When Breads Bakery opened near Union Square in 2014, related to a chain of three Tel Aviv bakeries, it was an instant hit with its chocolate babka, banana bread, cheese straws, cookies, and shopper’s sandwiches that ran to goat cheese, egg salad, and eggplant matbucha. Early this month, former Breads baker Adir Michaeli opened his own place, a very, very small bakery on the Lower East Side, the sentimental home of many of the Ashkenazic pastries sold at Breads.
His menu at Michaeli is short, and doesn’t coincide completely with that of its predecessor. For $3 each, there are small, savory, and flaky burekas filled with spinach, potato, or feta and topped with sesame seeds, making Michaeli a good place for snacking; and for two dollars apiece cinnamon rugelach, a wildly popular pastry in Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods, here shaped more like a crescent roll, but arrestingly good. Two or three Danish as well as croissants — plain, chocolate, or almond — are available each day.
And there’s a chocolate babka ($12), perhaps a little lighter and flakier than its Union Square counterpart. Breads are not a focus, though a challah is available every Friday, and the menu fills out with layer cakes and cookies. In the latter category, the bakery recently offered alfajores ($3), jelly filled cookies from Argentina rimmed with shredded coconut. Coffee is available, as are a few interior stools along a shelf, and benches outside that are a nice place to sit on this relaxing corner. 115A Division St., between Allen and Ludlow streets, Lower East Side
Best for: Bread loaves, chocolate brownies, anything with nuts
Founded in 2008 in Stockholm, Fabrique describes itself as a “stenugnsbageri,” or stone oven, referring to its method of baking artisanal breads. There are now some 20 locations in its hometown, plus an additional five branches in London. Our branch in MePa is the first in America and has a deep narrow interior culminating in a picture window that looks into the bakery. The sales counter in the front displays croissants, round raspberry cakes, brownies topped with whole almonds, six types of bread, vegan cookies, yogurt with fruit preserves, and sandwiches on round rolls and baguettes.
Still, the bread is front and center in any discussion of Fabrique. As with Maison Kayser and Bien Cuit, these baked goods are cooked longer than average, so the dense baguette is almost blackened on the bottom. I preferred the round, hazelnut- and almond-studded “luxury apricot loaf” ($9), with an interior of surprisingly light density.
A few novel offerings betoken the bakery’s Swedish origins. A cardamom bun ($5) will remind you of Indian food or maybe of Christmas, while chokladbollar ($4.50) bear a strong resemblance to cookie dough balls, but in a good way. The sandwiches are of the rudimentary sort (ham, cheese, or ham and cheese) on the chain’s bread, while the rest of the inventory shows a diversity that demonstrates the chain’s resolve to keep the place full of customers any time of the day, except perhaps dinnertime.
Though small, the dense brownie ($5) is closer to fudge, which is a good thing in my book, but those that like cakey brownies may be unimpressed. Topped with whole almonds, the thing is calculated to satisfy chocoholics. I’d skip the chia pudding and pick the “yoghurt” topped with preserves instead. At your request, the staff will add a nut heavy granola to the top. They’ll refill your coffee cup at no charge, too — Fabrique may be the city’s most ingratiating bakery. But skip the sandwiches. 348 West 14th St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues