In the kingdom of pastry, the homely cinnamon roll sits at the royal table like an illegitimate child. Its ungainliness simply cannot compete with the noble lineage of a stately mille-feuille, dainty financiers, or the regal brioche. Not infrequently does the bite down into one recall the required chew on a rectangle of paper during a dental x-ray. The cream cheese frosting is universally misconceived and willfully clogs the windpipe and arteries. And has a spice ever been so routinely mishandled as cinnamon? When Better Call Saul premiered in February, we found our beloved Saul fallen as low as a man can go: in a Cinnabon stand.
Enter Crispian Bakery — open less than a month — to an unassuming brick building on the Belle-Île that is Alameda. Describing its mission as “French-inspired American breads and pastry,” business partners Beth Woulfe (pastry chef) and Christian Fidelis de Goes (bread baker) have clearly been kneading magic into ordinary dough. Their cinnamon roll is a revelation. Instead of smothering the dough with cinnamon, the spice is both present and absent, like a sensual memory that's often longed for but rarely summoned up. The topping is restrained, the color of freshly poured cream. Cutting into the roll is like slicing a cake expressly made for the morning. It's an unlikely star on display in a row of eye-catching confections.
For example, the two types of financiers they made last Sunday: a cheerful strawberry alongside a gluten-free plum. You won't be able to taste the difference. Both had crisped bonnets and buttery insides. The strawberry, in fact, when separated from its pinafore, did not hold its shape. This sudden crumble, however, did not deter the customer from nibbling every morsel up from the wrapper. Will winter bring a quince version, or something citrusy?
The croissant, at first glance, is a shade darker than most, and slightly mottled. The first bite, too, is more flavorful than your average crescent roll. Woulfe and de Goes, when asked, will confirm your suspicion that a small percentage of whole wheat flour is in the starter. This addition “takes out the bitterness” and “softens the germ.” The flaky layers carry a subtle nuttiness that might dissuade you from grabbing a jar of jam. Since the French Constitution states that eating a croissant sans confiture is illegal, perform your civic duty by employing a very large spoon.
The baguette is also baked with whole wheat and offered as an epi as well. It's crunchy, tender, and pointy-ended, enhancing any bland or neutral hunk of butter. Only the pain au chocolat has been conceived with caution. There was a drop of chocolate inside the pastry that felt as isolated as that song by Joy Division. A bold approach might be the answer, erring on the side of chocolat rather than pain. But there are brioches to sample, meringue kisses, the occasional quiche, and yes, another cinnamon roll, bastard child no more.
Crispian Bakery, 1700 Park, Alameda, 510-239-4751.