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May 18, 2008 12:22 PM

Bijan Bakery downtown SJ, the service!

Bijan, a long time bakery at Saratoga and Kiely, has a new branch in downtown SJ, right next to McCormick and Schmick's across from the Fairmont. It's absolutely gorgeous with outdoor seating overlooking a memorial to Ernesto Galarza, and increasing downtown traffic which adds to a pleasant urban feel. The pastries are as pretty as ever, and the breakfast offerings are pretty much what you'd expect, croissants and muffins and coffee.

But the service . . . it's like a bad joke. The person who waited on us couldn't find anything, didn't know what was in the pastry case, and wandered around helplessly trying to figure out what a cafe au lait might be. On top of that, the place was apparently set up so the most seasoned barista would go nuts. Plates on one end, coffee on another, register in a third. I assume our server was a trainee, but nobody was training her. They were too busy trying to keep up with the line in what are obviously poorly organized circumstances, both physical and systems-wise.

At this level, nobody has truly stellar croissants, it's just about reading the paper and not having to do it yourself on a Sunday morning. But that shouldn't take repeating a simple order five times, bringing it back twice, having to personally recruit outside help to get a cup of coffee, and explaining the menu to the help. So we're sticking to Riga, which is under new ownership as of about a year ago, and even Panera, where the counter people know what they're doing. But I hope somebody tells Bijan's because it has everything going for it, now it just needs counter help who can help.

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    1. Yes, Bijan's service is lethally slow, inefficient, and frustrating. They've been open for a few months, time enough to work things out for such a relatively simple operation. Maybe the owner doesn't care, or thinks that a fancy interior will keep customers coming.

      Sandwiches are good (thanks largely to good bread) but take forever to make, and, as you noted, the laterally stretched-out layout behind the counter leads to lots of wasted motion. Also, the convex-curved display case layout produces the least amount of customer circulation space at the front entrance, where it's needed most. I wonder if any professional restaurant/food-service planners were involved (or listened to).

      Last Friday night, four of us bought six desserts to split. Based on that and three previous pastry sampling visits, my conclusion is that most of their desserts are seductive and sophisticated visually, but don't taste as good as they look. The shortbread-based sandwich cookies (apricot or raspberry filled Linzers) are reliable, but the tarts are run of the mill, and the Black Forest, mocha, et al. cake slices lack proper texture and adequate flavor. This business is a product of suburban Cupertino, and I don't think that's the world's most discerning market for European style baked goods.

      We agree about Riga -- it's good and reliable, and may be the best bakery in San Jose. Their selection isn't as overwhelmingly broad as Bijan's, but what they do, they do better. And there's also Flower Flour (or is it Flour Flower?) in Baja Willow Glen -- good baked goods, and a charming atmosphere.

      We also agree about Bijan's contribution to the struggling but improving downtown San Jose urban scene. It attracts people and provides a nice sidewalk-cafe hangout spot -- as does the Illy cafe with red umbrellas, directly across Paseo San Antonio, whose imported-from-Trieste coffees are splendid, even better than Peet's, IMO. That half-block stretch is my favorite downtown zone right now, especially duriong daylight hours.

      I hope that Bijan can pay better attention to their operation. Their seeming nonchalance about service seems surprising in light of the apparent size of their investment in polished stone and brass interior materials. Or did the San Jose Redevelopment Agency give them a subsidy to come downtown?

      1. We are still reeling from the utter lack of civility at Bijan's last Saturday after stopping there at 8:50pm to enjoy a snack following a museum event. It was the third time we had been there. The first time the cheese croissant and cheesecake were both tasty and satisfying, enough so that we left promising ourselves to return very soon. The second time the fruit swirled palmier was dry and tasteless and we left feeling disappointed, but willing to try again. This third and final time, we just left....period.

        After ordering an eclair (*barely* a drizzle of chocolate on top) and apple strudel, we asked for their cold drink offerings and received the reply "sodas and bottled water, that's pretty much it". This was followed by a turn of the back and attention to something else. I spotted a menu, picked it up and lo and behold, found many offerings that went well beyond just soda and water. OK, first clue that the counter staff was indifferent and intolerant of requests, albeit simple ones.

        Annoyance aside, we picked up our order and sat down. By this time it was 8:55pm. After barely eating two bites, one of the same counter staff came over to announce that they "would be closing in a few minutes but we could stay and finish our desserts." The delivery was in a begrudging manner and we definitely got the feeling that we had overstayed our welcome, even though we had only been there for 5 minutes. We wondered why they hadn't told us of their closing when we placed the order. If we had known, we would have gladly taken it "to go" and enjoyed it at home. Annoyance aside again.

        A few more bites of trying to quickly finish and then all of a sudden...the lights were turned off. We were sitting in the dark. Wouldn't locking the door have been enough to keep additional customers from entering after hours? I guess not because their obvious goal was to get us out, not keep others from coming in. We were shocked at the rudeness but stood up, took our coats and proceeded toward the door. We heard no sounds from the staff as we walked goodbyes, no thank you for coming, no have a good nothin'. They were too busy whisking away the dry, stale and tasteless eclair left unfinished on my plate. Needless to say, we were too busy whisking ourselves away...for the final time.

        The motto of the story....never trust a bakery that doesn't coat the top of their eclairs in chocolate.