The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide.
If you’re looking for ham and butter on a baguette that brings back memories of Paris or a carrot cake that towers above the competition, Bread Furst is the shop in which to drop. As much of a social hub as a reliable source for whole-grain breads and fancy foodstuffs (including preserved lemons), the fragrant, teal-and-white storefront underscores the dedication of owner Mark Furstenberg. My longtime friendship with the baker doesn’t preclude me from pointing out some cracks. Bread Furst’s checkout process still tries my patience, and not all the wares are worth the splurge; salads can go soggy and spreads could use more salt. But I never visit without finding a fresh reason to laud the place — the robust Cubano beats anything I’ve had in Miami — and it’s a treat to see the bakers at work (or is it play?) behind the front glass window.
Bread Furst: 4434 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-966-1300. breadfurst.com .
Prices: Pastries and breakfast items $1-$8.
Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.
Go ahead, raise an eyebrow when I call this the city’s best bakery. The owner, Mark Furstenberg, is a longtime friend. But even if he weren’t, I’d make a habit of baguettes baked several times a day, breads that use ancient grains for character and rummy caneles that represent decades of kneading and research. Calling from the shelves: Geechie Boy Mill grits and True grenadine syrup — staples that let you cook and cocktail like a pro at home. In the cooler: Benton’s bacon, quail eggs and pre-made comfort food (go for chicken pot pie) for when you don’t want to turn on the stove. Not every bite is to my taste, and the ordering process can be as confounding as Metro. The croissants, for example, are darker than optimal. But isn’t it nice to know about a light-filled cafe that makes maple crullers, old-fashioned coconut cake and a vegetable strata that packs a garden into its layers? Not even in New Orleans is there a muffuletta as consequential as the monster here. Just as significant, though, is the 77-year-old’s hope that his life’s work flourishes when he’s gone. An alcove furnished with a low table and children’s books is grooming the next generation of bread fiends.
The following review was originally published May 3, 2015.
For something made with no more than flour, water, yeast and salt, baguettes pack a lot of pleasure. The best loaves send your teeth cascading through a thin crust, where the tongue picks up a subtle milky flavor and the eyes spot irregular holes inside a soft interior.
In Paris, the bakeries that deliver such magic often carry a sign, stamped “Artisan Boulanger,” indicating their bread is made on site, or they emblazon the name of the owner somewhere on the facade. In Washington, Bread Furst announces both its owner, Mark Furstenberg, and his No. 1 priority in just two words.
Longtime residents of the city know Furstenberg as the man who brought good bread to Washington when he opened Marvelous Market in 1990 and, later, exemplary sandwiches and soups to BreadLine near the White House. The former was sold in 1996, expanded, slipped into mediocrity and shuttered last spring; the latter was sold nine years ago. The demise of the projects and the question Furstenberg kept hearing from carb fiends (“Where’s the good bread now?”) inspired him to don his baker’s cap and get back in the game. Approaching his 77th birthday, Furstenberg — one of five nominees in the new national category of Outstanding Baker at the forthcoming James Beard Awards and a friend of mine — also knows there’s no time to waste.
Bakeries aren’t my normal review subjects. Bakeries of the caliber of the 30-seat Bread Furst, introduced last May, come along only rarely, however. Forgive me for wanting to spread the word about a roll model.
A bialy’s toss from the Van Ness Metro stop, the storefront opens with a fragrant call to buy bread and a view of the wares behind glass, then segues to cafe tables opposite display counters. White subway tile, teal wainscoting and milk-colored light fixtures ensure that the space won’t date itself any decade soon.
“How does this work?” a woman behind me asks her companion, a regular who responds with a weary shrug. The reality on weekends, when 800 people shuffle through, is a traffic jam. I’ve never been by when there aren’t knots of congestion or confusion about where to order and where to pay at one of two counters. Efficiency is not a hallmark of Bread Furst. Displeasure with the disorganization is mitigated at the end of whatever line when you spot a flower pot filled with sugar-dusted doughnut holes or retrieve your chewy bagel with house-cured lox (and enough cream cheese for two bagels). Or when you return to home or office to enjoy a flaky empanada stuffed with juicy ground beef and olives, country ham in a biscuit any Southerner would be proud to serve, or a vegetable strata as high as an elephant’s eye and layered with a field of sliced potatoes, carrot and peppers.
Part of the stop-and-start can be attributed to shoppers taking in the sights. On any given day, eight or so breads are available, including baguettes baked several times a day, corn-rye hinting of caraway and coriander, English muffins as thick as the September issue of Vogue and challah on Fridays. The wedge of muffaletta is a showstopper: four Italian meats, cheese and olive relish packed in dark, ciabatta-like bread made exclusively for the New Orleans classic.
When I invited a senior to cut in front of me on a busy Saturday afternoon, she demurred, opting to contemplate the goods for a moment. “Nice landscape, isn’t it?” she stated more than she asked. Indeed. Banana-peanut butter pie under a mound of whipped cream, yellow muffins veined with mango and slender ham sandwiches arranged as if they were flowers invite rubbernecking. The ham comes from the pedigreed Heritage Foods USA in Brooklyn; a slice of Gruyere, a thin application of Dijon mustard and 82 percent butter on the baguette make for a world-class jambon beurre.
The selections — on the counter, behind glass, in the cooler — reflect the owner’s very American tastes with nods to the Middle East and (somewhat) mindful eating. “You’ll never find a fancy fruit tart here,” says Furstenberg. He would rather feed you lime-glazed doughnuts, roasted cauliflower moistened with tangy Greek yogurt, and barbecue chicken.
The last starts with chicken from Virginia-based specialty purveyor Huntsman Game and gets brushed with a gently stinging sauce. The entree is sold as a carry-out dish, along with a winey pork ragu that would taste in place in an actual Italian restaurant, salads that mix artichokes with white beans and sun-dried tomatoes and dips — wonderful companions to the lavash sold here — that would become staples in my house if I wasn’t dining out a dozen meals a week. Beet spread, whipped with tahini and bold with garlic, is a standout, and not just for its crimson hue.
My friendship with the owner doesn’t supersede my duty to share some disappointments. A sight to behold, that high-rise muffaletta is impossible to eat. (Here’s hoping you have a dry-cleaner saved in your contacts.) The croissants, while flaky and buttery, are too tan for my taste. Some of the take-away items are ordinary; steer clear of the dry macaroni and cheese. And for an owner who says he doesn’t like sweet, Furstenberg should revisit some of his bars, foremost the cloying brownies.
Yet the magnets far outnumber the misses. Nowhere else in the city will you find better breads made with ancient grains, or a better use of rum and custard than in the fluted French pastry called canele.
It takes a village to put out this variety and this quality. Furstenberg has the backing of, among others, Robert Dalliah, the former chef at Perry’s in Adams Morgan, and Jack Revelle, who comes to Bread Furst from the White House pastry kitchen.
I seldom hear people complain about the quality of what’s offered at Bread Furst. I occasionally get gripes about the prices. “It costs a lot of money to use good ingredients,” says Furstenberg, who relies on Allan Benton bacon, Rancho Gordo heirloom beans and organic grains to flavor his cooking. The baker adds, “it costs a lot of money to run a small business.” The third explanation for his pricing is linked to the legacy he wants to leave: The only way someone will one day take over the bakery, he says, is if the operation is financially successful.
For a brief period, Furstenberg hosted Bread Feast, a dinner collaboration with former Palena chef Frank Ruta. When Ruta was hired to take over the Grill Room in the Capella hotel in Georgetownthis year, the gatherings ceased. Furstenberg says he wants to revive the notion midsummer with “simple” food all his own, served family style.
A lot of bakeries keep their bakers behind the scenes. Bread Furst, which recently began selling some loaves to Whole Foods, puts its crew in the front window.
The owner says he wants to make a point: “Bread first.”