Watching bread rise

Fairmount St. Cafe capitalizes on the bakery craze

You'd think it was Six Flags in summer--the line snakes through the tables and right out the door at noon.

Fairmount St. Bakery Cafe is a lunchtime phenomenon. And the question for me--as always--is why? Why is this place making it when so many restaurants are not?

These days it seems that image is more important than language, but words are still important, and right now, "bakery" is the big buzzword in the restaurant business.

"Bakery" is a nostalgic word; it connotes basic needs, a simpler civilization. Baking is something mothers and grandmothers do (or did) at home; it's warm, it's nurturing, it's time-consuming (and therefore the ultimate indulgence), and it's nearly extinct.

The incredibly evocative smell of baking yeast (one good reason to live near Mrs. Baird's bakery--a factory-sized plant as far from Granny's bread as you could get--is that wonderful yeasty aroma that floats out over the neighborhood every afternoon) works magic on the imagination. It conjures up memories you never had.

I remember being told in a college advertising class that some bread company had managed to put that odor in the ink used to print the bread wrapper, so shoppers would get a whiff of baking bread as they pushed their carts down the aisle. True? I don't know. But smart? Definitely--that aroma is irresistible.

The word isn't as powerful as the smell, but "bakery" gets a positive Pavlovian response from diners, and it's smart to call your cafe a bakery. Fairmount isn't Empire or La Spiga or La Madeleine--it's more cafe than bakery--but it does have a cozy feel, and hey, they do make all their desserts.

In fact, Fairmount St. is a little microcosm of Nineties trends in dining: it's unpretentious (read inexpensive); it's homey (actually in an old house); it's self-serve (I still don't understand why this is an attraction, but evidently it is); the food is both approachable and pronounceable.

Actually, the food has a comfortingly unprofessional quality. This isn't home-cooking like Gennie's used to do--no grits and greens. It's home-cooking from a different neighborhood. That's all.

The attempts at elegance have a junior-league cookbook feel about them. Shrimp and crabmeat crepes in cream sauce, for instance, seems like a dish adapted from the French by a cook more experienced with enchiladas than crepes. It's the sort of thing a wife used to make for a company dinner or to impress the boss (not her boss, her husband's). The only thing is, some of our crab seemed like krab, which is even more modern and lamentable than women without bosses.

Most dishes we ordered had a similarly appealing home-kitchen touch. The little crock of beef pot pie was draped with a gorgeous golden blanket of puff pastry; underneath was a wonderfully thin-sauced stew of (perhaps leftover) tender brown beef slices and vegetables.

But sometimes the dishes were disconcertingly homey--you wish the kitchen tried a little harder to impress. My bachelor friend ate the shrimp pasta in tomato sauce and remarked as he cleaned his plate, "I have the feeling I could make this." Aaah--but you don't have to.

There were some things that were simply great. A slice of pizza had a thick tender bread crust and was piled with vegetables and cheese; a plain chicken salad sandwich was inches thick with white meat, celery, and nuts bound with good mayonnaise. No tricks, no gimmicks, no fruit, no pickles, just chicken salad.

Actually, all the sandwiches were remarkably good, relying simply on simple ingredients, and Fairmount Street would be a great place to pick up a lunch to take out.

Desserts--the bakery part of the cafe--were not as good. An enormous slab of seemingly deep, dark chocolate cake had shockingly little chocolate flavor. White chocolate chip bread pudding, a house (or home) specialty, was a sodden slab, dense as concrete. It could have been helped immensely by warming it, but it was served cold, though with a good caramel sauce. Chocolate chunk cookies were delicious, but chocolate praline cake with fudge pecan icing had a sugary praline coating that made my teeth ache.

My favorite dessert was the pecan tart--a cross between a pecan bar and pecan pie, a thin wedge of crunchy nuts connected by a barely chewy butterscotchy filling in a beautiful buttery crust.

There are some service problems, most of them because Fairmount Street is self-serve, and there are always problems when amateurs do what professionals should.

Here's how it works: you get a tray, then order from the blackboard, where the prices aren't listed. There is a stack of paper menus, but you can't read one very well while balancing your tray on the single rail in front of the counter. (The first time I visited, the counter people were remarkably unhelpful, all standing there in a deer-in-the-headlights paralysis while I asked questions. On the second visit--a late lunch--everyone had woken up.) You can't let go of your tray at all, even to grab the food you're served. And everything is served on nice white china, but if you want a salad, a main dish, a dessert, and a piece of bread, you'll have to go vertical--there just isn't room on the tray for it all.

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