As I continue to write, report, and Zoom from my Hell’s Kitchen apartment — the delta surge has stymied return-to-the-office plans across the country — a COVID-era peculiarity of my diet persists. I eat fewer pastries. It’s not an easy reality to change. I’ve been frequenting full-service restaurants for nearly six months now, sometimes crossing town to meet up with friends I’ve not dined with for a year or more. But still, I’ve been spending considerably less time at bakeries, panaderies, or patisseries, places I’d typically drop by en route to the office. Like so many other folks, I simply get up in the morning, start working from bed, and don’t leave the house much until dinnertime — not exactly a pastry-friendly lifestyle.
I think we could all use a few more sweets these days. And while I’ve long hoped the ideal solution would be for more 24/7 bakeries to open up — probably not something that’s really in the cards — I’ve been forcing myself out of the house more during sunlight hours to eat pastries. The small wave of bakeries that opened during the pandemic has helped with this endeavor. There’s Salento, the Colombian cafe that debuted right before the shutdown in Washington Heights last spring; Frenchette Bakery in Tribeca, located in the old Arcade space; 7 Grain, a gluten-free bakery in Bed-Stuy by the Scratchbread team; Dominique Ansel Workshop, the latest effort from the globally renowned pastry chef; Todo Rico, a late night Mexican panaderia in Jackson Heights; and Marvelous by Fred, an ode to the French meringue-based dessert that is the merveilleux.
Accordingly, here are some of the new Latin and French bakeries I’ve been frequenting, along with one or two items I fancy at each.
Buñelos and aborrajados at Salento
A crowd of young medical students dropped by Salento in Washington Heights on a recent Wednesday, stocking up on excellent empanadas before a long anatomy lecture. Owners Mariella Duque and Mysel Chica performed a true service to the neighborhood by opening this Colombian panaderia last year, just a few days before the first COVID-19 shutdown. My typical order here is a buñelo, a cassava fritter filled with white cheese and a smidge of bocadillo, or guava paste. The sweet-salty flavor profile keeps things out of cloying territory, while the light dough ensures that the treat functions more as a snack than a caloric breakfast replacement.
For something that induces a sturdier sugar rush, however, consider Salento’s aborrajado de platano maduro, a classic treat from Colombia’s Southwestern Valle del Cauca. Cooks take sweet plantains, stuff them with cheese, then fry them. The resulting snack, barely three inches long, conveys a delicate crunch before giving way to the custard-like texture of the maduro. A firm sliver of cheese in the center helps balance out the sweetness, as does some of the more complex caramel overtones of the fruit, but make no mistake, sugar is the name of the game here, especially when a wallop of fragrant guava hits your tongue. Consume with coffee. Open until 8 p.m. 2112 Amsterdam Avenue, at 161st Street, Washington Heights.
Egg tart and vegan Black Forest viennois at Frenchette Bakery
Peter Edris, late of Bourke Street, and Frenchette pastry chef, Michelle Palazzo, set up shop in the old Arcade Bakery space last October, and since then, they’ve been putting out reliably excellent breads and sweets. I could easily spend 500 words or more on their excellent durum wheat margherita pizza, but today, I’m thinking about slightly snackier fare, particularly the egg tart and vegan viennois.
For the tart, the chefs fill a sprouted spelt pastry shell with an egg, a tangle of kale, and some comte. I heard that mortadella sometimes makes an appearance here, but its absence was not missed in my meat-free specimen. The spelt imparts the tart with a gentle sweetness, while the kale exhibits a level of umami-laced roundness so intense it’s as if the kitchen marinated the brassica in a solution of MSG and parmesan. The jammy egg, its yolk as golden as a summer apricot, jacks up the richness factor even further.
For the Black Forest viennois, Frenchette deploys avocado butter and oat milk to keep the bread vegan. The log-shaped pastry is among the least saccharine chocolate confections one might encounter in the city; cocoa gives the milk bread a handsome, pumpernickel-sheen, while bits of candied cherry deliver strategic doses of sugar and acid. Closes at 4 p.m. 220 Church Street, near Worth Street, Tribeca
Ham-and-cheese croissant and brioche bressane at Dominique Ansel Workshop
International celebrity chef Dominique Ansel continues to innovate with this month-old workshop in New York’s Flatiron District. There are pain au chocolats with three bars of chocolate (too much, I’ll argue), brown sugar kouign amanns, three different types of croissants (regular, whole wheat, and olive oil), and a ghastly, giant gougere filled with so much noxious comte cream that Ansel seems to have thought it acceptable to convert this typically restrained Gallic preparation into something resembling a savory Boston cream doughnut from Dunkin.
Ansel’s traditional ham-and-cheese croissant, by contrast, is the best version of this staple I’ve sampled. Elsewhere, the croissant can feel like a greasy paperweight. Here, the exterior is feathery; the laminated dough interior is as soft as poached egg whites, and the ham is distinctly smoky. For something a touch sweeter, try the rarely-seen-in-New York brioche bressane, a pastry typical of France’s Eastern Bresse region. This oversized delicacy, which feeds two, looks like what would happen if a starfish unsuccessfully tried to swallow a smaller pastry. Tear off a chunk of the burnished exterior to reveal a white, pillowy core that emits the intoxicating scent of orange flower water. Then smear the crumb in a hidden pocket of creme fraiche, a tart and savory counterpoint to the brioche’s crunchy sugar crust. Open until 4 p.m. 27 East 27th Street, near Madison Avenue, Flatiron
Arroz con leche hand pie at Todo Rico
Rufino Zapata and the team behind Taqueria Coatzingo opened this little Mexican Bakery last November, selling an almost impossible array of Mexican sweetbreads like hojaldras, conchas, raspberry jam-stuffed churros, and cuernos. I already penned a few words about the excellent, cajeta-laced bigotes rellenos, but I’m also enchanted by the arroz con leche hand pies. Imagine: An empanada-shaped pastry filled with rice pudding. The grains in that milky porridge are firm, faintly sweet, and infused with a clear aroma of cinnamon. After a spicy dinner nearby at Birria-Landia, this treat will help cool one’s insides. Closes at midnight. 76-17 Roosevelt Avenue, near 77th Street, Jackson Heights