The CIA’s new Bakery Café at the Pearl had its soft opening recently and will hold its grand opening Saturday. But a lot of hard work was apparent from the get-go. The place looked good, the staff (mostly graduates) appeared already to be on its game; the bread display was impressive, and the pastry case gleamed like a Tiffany’s window … all we needed was Audrey Hepburn, cigarette holder in hand, and the image of petit dejeuner de luxe would have been complete. Even the espresso, though it’s served only in paper, is exemplary. (The hot chocolate is merely good, however, and there is a cinnamon-spiked café de olla.)
That’s the image: bristly epis emulating heads of wheat, glistening domes of ganache-skinned XS cake calling out like a seduction of sirens … but is it all surface sheen? Sadly, yes. And happily, no.
Bread — of the French, not the sandwich sort — is a problem in San Antonio. There is no good baguette at any of the usual retail sources, and only the thinner ficelle at Whole Foods is worth taking home. (This is uttered as fact because years spent living in France turned me into a baguette bore; others without this affliction should feel free to disagree.) CIA’s baguettes are larger than many (a baguette also translates as stick or wand in French), but they have been slashed and baked to visual, work-of-artisanal-art perfection. The crust crackles when cut, and the texture is almost too classically open. It’s about the taste: there isn’t much. If it hadn’t been for the caramelized onion in a larger loaf, there would have been little there, also. (There’s more flavor in the peek-a-boo fougasse due to cured black olives and sea salt, more in the epi because of the higher crust ratio.)
This can’t all be about the wheat and the water; I routinely make both a no-knead French boule (dome-shaped) and a stecca (the Italian equivalent of a baguette), which are composed solely of flour, water, a tiny amount of yeast, and salt. Though I haven’t yet mastered the look of the sticks (they’re pretty crude, in fact), the taste, perhaps due to the 12-18 hours spent rising unattended, is full and, well, bready.
The pastries, on the other hand, over-deliver. A personal bellwether, the chocolate chunk cookie, is a paragon of type, its closest competition the chocolate oatmeal variant at Daily Bread. The Argentine classic alfajores, dissolve-on-the-tongue butter cookies sandwiching gooey dulce de leche, are ethereal. (These I’ve also made, and mine were nowhere near as good.) A mango mousse cake, lighter than an Ashton Kutcher movie but infinitely more satisfying, inspired sighs. And even the less-posh banana muffins — moist and dense with caramelized nuts providing explosive crunch — are amazing. Contrary to expectations, these, along with the breads, are made by CIA grads, not current students; for the moment, the pastry guys — said to be of much different temperament than bread bakers, by the way — seem to be stealing the show.
In its café mode, the facility also offers a daily sandwich or two and soup, along with aguas as a gesture toward the school’s eventual Latin American sub-specialty. Tamarindo, Jamaica, and lemon were recently available, but less-familiar flavors such as cucumber should put in an appearance once the advertising begins and traffic increases. (Traffic is already impressive on Pearl’s farmers market Saturdays.) I would have preferred, though, that the gateway drug be bread, not the almost-illicit pastries. Perhaps a fermenting biga needs some age, the ovens need to cure … and perhaps, in slow-rise fashion, we just need to wait until they get it right.
CIA Bakery Café
312 Pearl Parkway
THE SKINNY: Mostly-French breads and pastries, plus sandwiches, soups, and coffee.
BEST BETS: Anything hyper-caloric — namely pastries.
HOURS: 7am-5pm Monday-Saturday; 8am-5pm Sunday
PRICES: Range: $2 cookies to $24 cakes