By Sarah Karnasiewicz
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 13, 2010; 10:59 AM
Every July, the summer people come to Wellfleet, Mass., out on the sleepy tip of Cape Cod, for baskets of fried clams and buckets of the town's eponymous oysters. They've always come to bodysurf the waves at Newcomb Hollow or to bike along winding paths of beach plums and scrub pines. They haven't come for world-class brioche or superlative steak frites.
A lot has changed in Wellfleet since March 7, when chef Philippe Rispoli, 37, and baker Boris Villatte, 31 - two talented young Frenchmen who made their names in the kitchens of Paul Bocuse, Daniel Boulud, Eric Kayser and Alain Ducasse before making their way to the outer Cape - welcomed their first customers at PB Boulangerie Bistro.
Perched on the south end of town, at the bend of Lecount Hollow Road, inside a pink rambler that last housed a seafood shack, the bakery and cafe has quickly won an enraptured following among locals and tourists alike, thanks to inexpensive pain au chocolat, crisp cranberry bread, lip-puckering lemon tarts and oversize flour-dusted batards and boules so perfect they might have been airlifted straight from the Left Bank.
Villatte, who last oversaw the baking program for the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas, sleeps in a loft above the kitchen and rises before 4 every morning to begin production: typically 600 to 800 hand-shaped loaves and 900 to 1,300 danishes and croissants each day - though those figures are growing constantly, along with the lines outside the shop.
That's because the ingredients are excellent and the approach disarmingly personal: All of Villatte's bread is started with natural yeasts, and pastries are topped with local fruit, such as petite wild blueberries, or served with confitures handmade by Rispoli's mother, Pascalene, on her occasional visits from Lyon.
"You know, people have always been saying you can never make real French bread in the United States because there is not the right water, there is not the right flour," says Rispoli with a shrug and a smile. "But I don't get it. I say, look at Boris's work. Or better, taste it."
Happily for the two partners, that's an invitation that their customers seem more than willing to accept. On a recent morning, in a scene of carb-induced euphoria that seemed cut straight from the movie "Chocolat," the outdoor cafe tables were filled to capacity with families and couples drinking dark coffee, tearing into baguettes and licking pastry cream from their fingers. "It's been a wonderful surprise," says Villatte. "Every morning I come into the shop and someone is pressing their face up against the window to ask when we open."
It's a sight the two men don't take for granted. Just two years ago, Rispoli was working as executive chef at Daniel Boulud Brasserie, also at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort, and had just scored his first Michelin star. But he and Villatte were already nursing a dream to strike out on their own. Their vision: an informal but first-class neighborhood bakery and bistro that they could own and build from the ground up.
In service of that vision, Rispoli and Villatte sold their homes and their cars, packed up their families, recruited friends and took their case to nine banks before finally securing a loan.
That two culinary luminaries would choose to bypass New York and Boston and set up shop on a sleepy strip of sand has come as a pleasant if puzzling surprise to locals, but there is a logic behind the location. Rispoli's wife, Valeria - who also shoulders all front-of-house responsibilities for the restaurant - is a Wellfleet native who had introduced her husband and his friend to the charms of the community over years of vacations.
Rispoli says that once the setting occurred to them, it immediately felt right. "I feel like I am an apprentice again, 16 years old, just starting out," he explains. "Here, we relearn to live."
The excitement has had to be tempered with patience, though. Renovations stretched over a year and a half - much longer than hoped, not least because the men did much of the work themselves. In the project's first week, they sledgehammered walls, pulled down drywall and opened up attics, filling four dumpsters in as many days.
Rispoli's father arrived from France and laid whimsical ocean-motif mosaics on each of the bathroom floors. No detail was overlooked. Even the landscaping is edible: Raised beds of herbs and vegetables dot the yard, ringing tree trunks and meandering along crushed oyster shell pathways, overflowing with basil, green peas, rhubarb, swiss chard and more.
The results are rambling, cheery and bright, with a cozy 50-seat dining room, expansive windows and vaulted ceilings lined in warm pine.
While the boulangerie has been doing brisk business since its spring opening, the launching of the attached bistro on July 15 occupied chef Rispoli's attention through much of the summer. The well-curated wine list and menu of refined classics such as steak frites, lobster salad a la Russe and local cod in a buttery broth of leek and potato is sophisticated but accessible, and priced to keep regulars smiling.
And singing, apparently. Past 10 o'clock on opening night, while the room was packed and Rispoli and Villatte shuttled between the dining room and the open kitchen, a table in the corner broke into a spontaneous chorus of "La Marseillaise" over their crepes suzette. Looking on, local playwright Wendy Kesselman said: "It's incredible. They've inspired the entire town."
Karnasiewicz, a freelance writer and editor based in New York, blogs at www.365-kitchen.com.