Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel
Bread & Cie350 University Ave.Hillcrest619-683-9322
Though you can find Bread & Cie's products virtually everywhere, in restaurants or at grocery stores and farmers markets, there are many reasons to seek out the bakery's Hillcrest mothership instead of its many satellites, which are mostly supplied by a wholesale operation near Morena Boulevard. Though the distribution center manages to stay pretty true to its artisan bread-making roots, at the Hillcrest cafe, bakers are still doing their thing in the original, four-tier, stone-hearth oven, the one that owner Charles Kaufman opened with more than 15 years ago after apprenticing with traditional bakers in France, a place where he returns annually for a little brush-up with the old-world masters.
If you arrive early enough, there's a chance you'll get a still-warm loaf, which is hard to beat. And depending on the day, there are different specialty breads available: On Tuesdays and Saturdays, there's fougasse, a seed-encrusted loaf slashed dramatically to resemble a leaf, and Fridays bring burnished, braided loaves of eggy challah. Of the regular lineup, I particularly love the fig and anise with a good cheese, the black-olive bread with a spread of unsalted butter and the multigrain toasted with jam.
The “cie” in Bread & Cie is an abbreviation for the French word for “company,” and in this case, that has two meanings: a successful business venture and the camaraderie among the loyal regulars and the friendly staff, who add little touches such as the shortbread cookie that comes with every coffee and tea.
For breakfast, try the homemade granola with yogurt or a fresh-baked breakfast pastry—a friend of mine is pretty obsessed with the bear claw. If you're a French toast fan, don't miss this version: slices of French white loaf stuffed with chopped nectarines and mascarpone, an Italian cheese similar to cream cheese, but with a dreamy sweet cream flavor. The Fresh toast's eggy texture feels light and ethereal, but it's also deliciously rich.
For lunch, I like the mayo-less tuna Nicoise salad in sandwich form or the smoked-salmon sandwich on lemon pugliese bread. Though, I'd appreciate just one more slice of smoked salmon—the dilled cream cheese and fresh mozzarella add creaminess but are both relatively bland. Another layer of smoked salmon would carry the fish's smoky, salty flavor through.
If you're more about the salmon, like I am, opt instead for the smoked-salmon platter, which holds 2 ounces of fish plus all the requisite garnishes, including red onion and capers. The bread served alongside is the lemon ficelle, a super-skinny version of a baguette, also used for simply filled, snack-sized sandwiches—the one with just ham and butter reminds me of being in France.
At night, the café turns quiet, a fine place to have a snack and share conversation over homemade soup (the creamy tomato is great) or a panini made with sourdough levain and filled with a novel and tasty combo of brie, bacon, honey and walnuts. A sparkling glass of prosecco provides crisp, bubbly counterpoint.
And you've just gotta love a place that's completely devoted to the quality of its product yet doesn't take itself too seriously. Kaufman is a jokester at heart was once a filmmaker and directed several campy movies under the umbrella of cult-tastic Troma Entertainment—which was founded by his brother, Lloyd Kaufman. Charles' off-kilter brand of humor can still be experienced when you dial the café's voicemail service. After an earnestly emphatic woman lists all the traditional options and directions to get to the café, she gives you the opportunity to listen to those same directions again, only this time in “pirate-speak.” Turn portside onto University, arrr!
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