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Quality SF breads

[The Chowhound Team split this bread discussion from its original location in a post titled "2nd Best Restaurant in Berkeley" located here:
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DH laments the quality of West Coast bread? This is deeply, bewilderingly mysterious to me. I grew up in Berkeley--born in the same year the Cheeseboard collective opened, raised on its baguettes and on Acme Levain--and I went to college in New York state in the 1980s. I've been back to NY (city) many times since. The notion that NY city had better bread than Berkeley, in decades past ... I don't know. Really? I guess I'm begging an explanation. Perhaps this is like the bagel question? More about a native NYer's love of a certain regional character in their bread, less about actual quality? Because to genuinely make an argument in favor of New York loaves over Berkeley ... especially in the 1980s and early 90s ... ((I mean, this is the same NY city that actually benefited from the arrival of Starbucks, right?)

Help me out. Educate me. Does somebody really feel that there were NYC bakeries beating the Cheeseboard and Acme in decades past?

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  1. And if so, which ones?

    Not that I put the Cheese Board's hippy-dippy loaves in the same league with Acme's.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Robert Lauriston

      not even the sour baguettes? I'm with you on the other stuff.

      also, what's your take on the Tartine country loaf?

      1. re: Daniel Duane

        Tartine and Della Fattoria are the only two bakeries I know of in the area that I consider to be making bread on more or less the same level as Acme.

        I hope that Tartine's expansion means they can bring back the wider variety they used to make at Bay Village.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Acme's bread pales in comparison to Tartine's.

          Did you say Tartine is expanding? I had not heard? What's the scoop?

    2. Don't you know, everything is better in NY, especially when a ex-pat NY'er living on the West Coast is explaning it. :)

        1. I think it's more of a style thing than a quality thing.

          Some people don't like sourdough and/or the "Bay Area" style of bread (I guess you could call it another tentacle of Chez Panisse influence, since Chez Panisse spawned Acme, and Acme influenced everyone else). I know NYers who bemoan the lack of good rye bread (although I'm not sure exactly what it is they find lacking in local rye breads).

          In the East Bay, you might want to try Feel Good Bakery in Alameda for bread that's a bit more French-influenced (the baker trained in Paris).

          20 Replies
          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Lots of geographic factors impact bread flavor from the composition of the water to the bacteria in the air. NYers are seeking a bread that simply cannot be replicated here, regardless of technique. Same goes for bagels and pizza.

            1. re: Morton the Mousse

              But as I said, something not being what one is looking for is a style thing, not a quality thing (the bread that is, not the bagels and pizza). The original poster said her DH bemoaned the QUALITY of Bay Area bread, and from everything I've heard, that's a ridiculous complaint.

            2. re: Ruth Lafler

              Good rye bread is lacking. We've found three or four over the years but they all went out of business.

              Pure Grain German Bakery in Vacaville is good but I have yet to find a local retail outlet.


              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                Agreed: I feel that ACME and Feel Good make the closest baguettes I've had to French baguettes, and I lived in Paris for a year and gorged on Eric Kayser bread.

                I went to Tartine today but they were out of their country loaves. It's been awhile since I've had them, but I thought they were excellent and held up well even after a few days.

                Bouchon doesn't even come close in terms of flavor.

                I don't consider Cheeseboard sourdough baguettes as real baguettes, but that doesn't mean they aren't good- they're just a different kind of bread.

                I was in New York in July and didn't find good bread, not even at the Le Pain Quotidien stores (which are popular in Paris). The Bouchon out there also seemed to sell only pastries, not bread.

                1. re: chezchristine

                  That's one of the downsides of Keller opening his own bakery. The bread served at the French Laundry used to be Della Fattoria, which is a great bread baker.

                  1. re: chezchristine

                    Yep. ACME baguette's are excellent. They're even better if you pop them in to the oven for 30-60 seconds to crisp up the outside. It comes really really really close baguettes in France when you do that (texture-wise, taste-wise, there's still a noticable difference as ACME has a distinctive taste).

                    As for breads in NYC. I think Tartine's bread is every bit as good as Balthazar's and Pastis'. I like Tartine's better because it's softer on the inside but if someone likes their bread a little chewier and denser, it may be exactly why someone else likes the Balthazar version better.

                    As for bagels and pizza crust though, I agree with Morton the Mousse that be it the water composition, humidity, bacteria/yeast in the air, etc...it's hard to replicate/beat NYC bagels and pizza crust.

                    1. re: chezchristine

                      Feel Good is a pretty good bakery, but not up there with Acme.

                      Bakers of Paris (not as widely distributed as they once were) comes the closest in these parts to your average everyday French baguette.

                      Acme's artisanal style is as rare in France as it is here. Personally I prefer the pain d'epis, same dough as the rustic sweet baguette but more crust per pound.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        How many of Feel Good's breads have you tried recently? They've continued to improve over the couple of years they've been open.

                        I think their French baguette is the closest to what you would get in France I've had: a little lighter, crisper and less chewy than Acme, which has been influenced by the local heavy-crusted chewy sourdough style. As I mentioned a thread a while back, I served the epi at a wine tasting and several people commented that they thought it was better than Acme. Feel Good's wholey moley (unseeded) is the best whole wheat bread I've ever had, and again, has gotten raves when I've served it to fellow chowhounds.

                        Don't get me wrong: I love Acme. I think from top to bottom their product line ranges from very good to superb. But I think Feel Good's best is right there with it.

                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                          I've had their sweet and sour baguettes, epi, and a couple of other loaves in the past two months. Re the baguettes, on a scale of 1 to 10 with Semifreddi being a 3, Acme rustic an 8, and Poujauran a 10, I'd give Feel Good a 6.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            replying to Robert Lauriston ....

                            I'm still not sure which baguette you had -- they don't make a baguette designated as "sweet" and "sour."

                            They also bake throughout the day -- the best baguette is always the one that's still warm from the oven <vbg>.

                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                              They had two different plain baguettes that day, so I got one of each. One was sweet, one was sour. Dunno what they call them.

                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                I think Feel Good's walnut levain is the best around. I wont compare any other Feel Good loaf to Acme, but FG's walnut levain is superb. I hate to get in the middle of "this is the best" arguments, though. We all have different tastes. I'll try to get an Acme walnut levain and an FG walnut levain on the same day and then I can tell specifically why *I* think FG's is better.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  Well, I agree Molly -- I'm not saying Feel Good is the best, I'm just disagreeing with Robert's assertion that Feel Good shouldn't be considered in comparison with Acme.

                                  Feel Good actually makes three different baguettes: French, "rustic" and "triple levain."

                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    I don't have an opinion about walnut and other flavored breads since I rarely buy them. Except that Phoenix Pastificio's olive bread is foodie crack.

                                    1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      I hear you, Ruth.

                                      And, I'll still do a comparison, Robert. It gives me an excuse to eat lots of walnut bread.

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        I like Acme's breads a lot, but I agree that their baguetes are denser and chewier than what one gets in Paris. The closest thing I've found to Parisian "baguette tradition" is the rustic baguette at La Farine. As for Acme, my favorite shape for the rustic sweet baguette dough is the ciabatta.

                                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        I totally disagree that the Bakers of Paris baguettes are like those you find in France. I don't think there is anything comparable to what you find in France in either croissants or baguettes in this area.

                                        I have visited France over 20 times in the last 20 years so I do have experience. My partner is French and he has yet to find anything comparable.

                                        Instead of trying to replicate tastes I would enjoy abroad, I have found it more satisfying to approach Bay Area bread simply for what it is: its own thing, its own style, its own strengths.

                                        My personal favourite bread is Acme's Epi. My SO's favourite is their Levain. They are both very good.

                                        Needless I do sometimes miss the granary, crusty bloomers and split tins from my own home country (England). No one makes anything like those here.

                                        1. re: Sixy

                                          Bakers of Paris baguettes are the closest thing I've found around here to the flavor and texture of average, everyday French baguettes--not the best artisanal baguettes, but what you get at the supermarket or an average cafe. That's not a high compliment on the bread, just a comment on a different flavor and texture that nobody else around here even tries to create.

                                          Usually I'd prefer Acme, but BofP is nice for certain purposes, such as dunking in fondue.

                                          1. re: Sixy

                                            I guess I must have been lucky in that all the many Parisienne baguettes I have ever tasted were mostly exceptional then. Its true I have never bought them in a French supermarket though - so maybe that is what you are referring to as average.

                                            It is important to note that the French boulangerie - bakes twice a day - for your breakfast and for your evening meal which would give them the edge, especially for bread consumed in the evening.

                                            1. re: Sixy

                                              The Acme on San Pablo bakes *all* day.

                                              In one of Adam Gopnik's New Yorker pieces on Paris, he said he asked someone there where to find good bread, and he answered, "Berkeley." And in fact Acme's levain long ago surpassed its Poilane model.

                                      3. Even when it comes to rye bread, L.A. beats NYC. According to Mimi Sheraton (late food critic of the NYT) anyway.

                                        I've recently gotten back to really liking Acme's Upstairs Bread. A hint of rye, wheat and crusty and soft.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: oakjoan

                                          I agree completely about NY vs LA on rye bread. I go for a pastrami or corned beef sandwich at Fine & Shapiro or Katz's and think I'd rather have Acme NY Rye or a good LA corn rye than the vsey soft rye they put it on.

                                          I'm also a fan of Olivia. Though I haven't been to Oliveto in years.

                                        2. While I'm inclined to agree with the person who said to an expat NY, nothing is as good as NY, in reality, it's a style thing. I love Acme breads, I do, but I've never had bread here that achieves the soft, pillowy, light texture of Italian bread back East. I grew up on Mancini's bread in Pittsburgh, and it's still the best Italian bread I've had (and I'm not one to be married to nostalgia when it comes to food). I haven't found that anywhere in SF, although there are a few bakeries in North Beach that do lovely Italian breads.

                                          And, yeah. Good bagels are expensive and difficult to locate around here. And the pizza, well, it does the job for an utterly different style, but you can't get true coal-fired NYC pizza anywhere outside of NYC.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: MuppetGrrl

                                            You are right about the Italian bread. Even the best of the Italian bakeries in North Beach don't do the same job as the Italian loaves on the East Coast.

                                            Daniel, did (does) NY or the East Coast make better bread than the Bay Area?

                                            Yes and no.

                                            I grew up in Connecticut nearby New York. You know what reminds me the most of East Coast bread ... The Bread Garden. It is your average East Coast neighborhood bakery type of joint, not exactly, but close.

                                            You can talk about water and yeast and air and smoke and magic but IMO, what makes East Coast bread so good is it is made by people whose grandfathers and great grandfathers were making the same loaf.

                                            Sure, Acme and Cheeseboard and the rest are great, but they have ... what ... at most 30 years in back of them?

                                            On the Chowtour there's this NJ pizza joint that's mentioned. I looked at the report, but it must be on some podcast, Anyway according to the report no single thing on that pizza is that great, but these guys have been doing the same thing for a gazillion years and they just have it down. They do it right.

                                            Sorry for the probably bad paraphrasing, but don't have time to listen to the podcast again to get it more accurate. Good stuff though, you should listen to it.

                                            Anyway, that's the thing about East Coast bread. It is more about people getting it right because their father got it right because their grandfather ... it goes on.

                                            A lot of these joints had to be great. They had to do better than what the working class mama could make in her kitchen. That hot Italian loaf delivered to the nothing corner store still remains in my memory.

                                            I remember a place in my home town that made the best dark pumpernickel I've ever had in my life. Black as night, deeply, richly flavored, both soft and chewy. A solid loaf. There wasn't even a store. You just walked in the kitchen (or whatever) and pulled a loaf off of a shelf.

                                            At the Temescal farmers market there's a San Jose bakery that is famous for its cinnamon bread. They have been doing this loaf for a gazillion years. I tried it and thought, eh. I didn't say that on the board. I said there were samples and try for yourself.

                                            One poster did and loved it. A lot of people do. Is it great bread? IMO, no, but they got it right. There's a there there.

                                            Neldham's is another example. That's East Coast bread for you ... also 75 years in business. Does it beat Acme? It's not the same thing. But Chowhounds go out of their way for some of the dinner rolls because they do it as they always did it ... right ... with sincerity and integrity if not greatness.

                                            One of the closest things to that in San Francisco is Linguiria's foccacia. It has the same vibe going. A family that's been doing the same thing for generations. If you understand and appreciate Linguiria, you have an insight into East Coast bread.

                                          2. ...and Kaiser rolls. Fifteen years here and I have yet to find a credible Kaiser roll.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: tranewreck

                                              Acme does a decent Kaiser roll. Have you tried it? Some of the Eastern European stores in the area sell it, like The Junket.

                                              When I first tried it I was impressed and I didn't even know it was Acme at that time ... just an unlabeled basket of Kaiser rolls.

                                            2. Semifreddi's make a challah that is great toasted, it stays soft inside a 1/2 inch slice. It also makes good french toast and bread pudding.

                                              Of course it's not from the east coast...

                                              Grace makes a Rustic Sourdough that is one of the softest sourdoughs around and is worth trying with crab and homemade cocktail sauce when that season returns.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: Neilo

                                                Semifreddi's challah is great for a soft, sweet bread.

                                                I've seen similar breads at Filipino stores.

                                              2. If you get a tenor of this discussion...French style breads are what is mostly being touted as "best bread..." New York has had great ..Italian/French style bread for decades, in all its permutations, sesame, semolina, lard bread, with sausage,etc... add to that Afghan bread with nigella seeds, pita bread that is NOT cardboard thin, rolls with seeds, onions etc of all descriptions, rye, pumpernickel, jewish corn, with /without seeds..crackly glaze, moist interior, bagels, bialy's, REAL challah..and ofcourse the ubiquitous pizza...and now with the addition of many more immigrant ethnic groups bringing their new breads of which I know nothing.(YET!)...Yes, New York has more and better over a wider variety of breads...definitely...
                                                That said, I still love Tartines bread, and Acme, and Arizmendi's...FRENCH style bread........but people...there is more(!) The Bay Area can be so provincial....charming but definitely provincial!

                                                10 Replies
                                                1. re: ChowFun_derek

                                                  Nobody's more provincial and narrowminded than New Yorkers.

                                                  It's easy to say that New York has had great breads for decades, but when I was there in the mid-80s, the only really great bread I found was Eastern European.

                                                  I found good artisanal Italian and French pastries, but not bread, and believe me I searched. I went to Italian and French restaurants where everything else was spot on but the bread was mediocre compared with Acme. Same went for coffee in those days.

                                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                    That's because you looked in restaurants....you need to go to bakeries...to more ethnic areas..(although many places in Manhattan have a good selection from various bakeries.)and they are available...perhaps a subway ride away...but I travel longer distances here to get something decent.....and it doesn't always happen..Burmese lunch yesterday a good example. When I was in NY a few weeks ago the higher end Northern Italian restaurants had quality food including bread...and middle range restaurans had better bread than here which they heated so that the crust crisped and the butter melted.
                                                    And New Yorkers are opinionated, (very similar to YOU Robert)! but definitely not provincial, or narrowminded...they have lived in a multi ethnic environement far longer than San Franciscans, and since they are closer to Europe (where bread is the staple rather than rice, (for example) they travel there more often more, easily, and more cheaply).
                                                    When you go to NY on your next trip...travel the same distances there that you travel here...and you will find what you are looking for.

                                                    1. re: ChowFun_derek

                                                      I looked in all sorts of places, and many great artisanal products that were carrying on what appeared to be 19th century or early 20th century traditions. Just no good Italian or French bread. I think the industrial bakeries had put the artisans (who were still making pastries) out of the bread business.

                                                      Of course in recent years a new generation of bakers came along to remedy that.

                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        Oh Robert. if using the word artisanal with East Coast bread, you aren't eating East Coast bread. They would think you were asking about a well.

                                                        These little bakeries have bakers not craftspeople.

                                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                          Call it whatever you like, it still tastes better than the industrial alternatives.

                                                      2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        "Nobody's more provincial and narrowminded than New Yorkers."

                                                        That's just an absurd statement. Again, how can you be so opinionated and argue so passionately against New York bread when you haven't had any in 20 years?!?!? It's absurd. It's like claiming how NY doesn't have any good italian food when you haven't tried NY italian food in 20 years.

                                                        To compare ACME's bread to average bread in NY is silly. I agree with ChowFun-D that if you want to compare, compare top tier to top tier. Yes, SF's best beats NY's worse. Great. Now let's compare top tier to top tier. ACME and Tartine hold their own. Aside from that, NY definitely has more variety in breads and cuisines than SF. It doesn't come down to 2 companies. There's a multitude of patisseries making european style bread, little bakeries making american style bread...all baked on premises...once or twice a day (not unlike what you'd find in Europe). There are lots of great artisanal bread and cheese makers in NY. It's an older city, with a more diverse immigrant populations, etc.

                                                        1. re: Porthos

                                                          I didn't say I hadn't had any New York bread in 20 years. The discussion was about what New York bread was like 20 years ago.

                                                      3. re: ChowFun_derek

                                                        Even if I agreed with your point, lack of variety is not the same as lack of quality.

                                                        But also, I think you're overstating the case. Sure those breads are available, but how widely and how pervasively? Of course, in a metro area of 10 million people there are great breads, and as chowhounds, you know where they are. As rworange pointed out, one difference between the East Coast and the West is that those communities have been established for a long time -- you know where they are and the bakeries are known, because they've been there for generations. You didn't have to search them out, because there's an exisiting body of knowledge of where the "good stuff" is.

                                                        But have you done an equivalent survey of all the breads available in the Bay Area metro region? Does the area with the largest Afghan population in the US really not have good Afghan bread, or have you just not found it yet?

                                                        In addition, does the fact that you can get great Italian bread if you know the right bakery in Little Italy mean that the average bread that you get served in a restaurant or buy in a store in NY is great? From what I've heard, these days the average bagel in NY is no better than the average bagel in SF.

                                                        1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                          Absolutely. Average bagel to average bagel, every city is about the same. That's probably the same for every cuisine/food item there is. Hence, average.

                                                          But here on Chowhound, no one asks for average food. If you want a top notch bagel, you'd still have to go to NY. Try as you may, you're not going to find that in LA or SF...

                                                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                            No, not true. Average bagel in SF is NOT as good as average bagel in NYC. I know this because when I first moved here, I spent a great deal of time looking for one. It's all bad here. The stuff at the Bagelry isn't too bad, but if you just go to a Katz Bagels or wherever, it is MANY TIMES WORSE than a random corner bakery NY bagel.

                                                            On the other hand, as a food industry acquaintance of mine once noted, "It's just a bagel, who friggin' cares."

                                                        2. The breads I mentioned were of high quality, even if they existed here....and the Afghan bread came from a neighborhood store in Mahhattan which had Semolina bread, rye bread etc as well.
                                                          ...I travel here for the best ...and I would travel there as well.
                                                          Do you believe that ALL restaurants in the Bay Area serve Acme, or Tartines bread? Do the middle eastern restaurants have good pita here...no...there, many of them bake their own. (In Manhattan) and you CAN get great pizza, AND bagels in Manhattan as well...you don't have to leave the Boro...and yes you do have to know where to go...and they are not ALWAYS old established places...that is why the largest board on this site is the NY Metro area. Things change...
                                                          And a much larger variety of quality breads is just the kind of education the OP'er was asking for, when he first posed his question.
                                                          and I say again there is MORE out there.....NYers may be opinionated, but I'd rather have an opinion (even one I disagreed with) than the Bay Area smugness....!
                                                          and PS..I don't want average bagels there (and I don't have to accept them),,but that's all I could get here...so who's being smug now!!!

                                                          3 Replies
                                                          1. re: ChowFun_derek

                                                            The remark that sparked the discussion is in the other topic this was split off from:

                                                            "Oliveto has become so strong recently ... The service, the wine & the food are outstanding. I also have to give a special nod to their bread. DH is a native New Yorker and has bemoaned the quality of West Coast breads for almost 20 years. Only Oliveto has perfected that crunchy/chewy dense-but-not-hard texture in a loaf that is not sourdough. We will go back for that bread alone."

                                                            The bread in question is Acme's levain. Nobody was making bread of that quality in New York in the mid-1980s.


                                                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                              I am referring to the Original Poster of THIS page...Daniel Duane.
                                                              and if you look at my original post..I certainly enjoy Acme, Tartine et al........ I point out tht NY has great bread in ADDITION to the French/Italian model...
                                                              You need to go to the Italian sections of Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Arthur Avenue in the Bronx...if you don't find anythiong that meets your standards in Manhattan.

                                                              1. re: ChowFun_derek

                                                                The original post on this page was originally a response to the post I just quoted. Note the past tense in the final sentence: "Does somebody really feel that there were NYC bakeries beating the Cheeseboard and Acme in decades past?"

                                                                There's no question that New York has all kinds of great bread these days.

                                                          2. Whew! You guys sure feel strongly about bread!

                                                            Bay Bread used to have a booth at our farmer's market and they had a lemon-basil bread that I loved. Does it still exist? Is lemon-basil bread available anywhere near San Mateo?

                                                            Back when I used to make my own bread, I discovered that my mood made a difference in how the bread came out -- I assume it was the chemicals in my hands were different depending on how happy I was (the happier, the better the bread came out.)

                                                            the Dutch have a saying:
                                                            Bread's bread:
                                                            The issue's dead.

                                                            I always think that's funny, especially when i see these discussions....

                                                            5 Replies
                                                            1. re: Kim Cooper

                                                              Perhaps that's why one rarely hears of "Dutch Cuisine"!

                                                              1. re: ChowFun_derek

                                                                That's true. However, the Schat family that owns bread bakeries in various parts of the state makes very good bread and came from Holland.

                                                                1. re: Melanie Wong

                                                                  So, I guess he doesn't believe in Dutch proverbs....anyway the issues dead!

                                                                1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                                  Thanks for the link. From what I can tell from the website, they are nowhere out of SF, and they no longer make the lemon-basil bread.
                                                                  I guess I'll have to make it myself....
                                                                  Any recommendations?