Give the People Bread

New French Bakery
119 N. Fourth St., Mpls.; (612) 332-4524
Hours: 7:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Not every cordon-bleu trained chef establishes himself as a trendy nouvelle cuisine tastemaker before striking out as the two-dollar gourmet avenger. Then again, Peter Kelsey isn't your run-of-the-mill, foie-gras kind of French chef.

True, he does have a background that fairly shouts pâté au blue stocking, having started his cooking career as a teenager in Bloomington's Hotel Sofitel kitchen, moved on to cooking school in France, cooked at the then-three-Michelin-star Tour d'Argent in Paris, later wielded his skills behind the then-cutting-edge New French Café, and finally vaulted to a top position at the then-avant-garde L.A.-based California Pizza Kitchen.

Michael Dvorak

Uncommonly, though, through it all Kelsey nursed what he calls his "lefty philosophy," and it ultimately drove a wedge between foie gras and him. "I just couldn't stop believing that if you made food the right way it wouldn't have to be expensive," he says. "Not everybody can afford to go to Aquavit, but anybody can afford to buy one of my baguettes or ciabattas at Cub. That's the beauty of doing a staple."

That's the particular beauty of doing the staple Kelsey's New French Bakery turns out--translucent-crumbed breads that are perhaps the only thing besides air and water that the warehouse-style grocery chain and the ethereal power restaurant have in common. Aquavit buys a special-order fennel-golden-raisin bread that sets the stage for the extravagant meal to follow, while Cub purchases baguettes and slightly smaller-than-average loaves of ciabatta to keep prices accessible (baguettes $1.99, ciabatta $2.99). But the breads are alike where it counts: They all have the distinct, chewy crust, resilient middle, and airy bubble structure that reflects a baker's commitment to technique.

What technique? The most ancient one imaginable. Get the best flour you can find; blend with water, starter, and salt; shape, let rise for a long time, and bake. That's the deceptive simplicity behind the baguette that laid the foundation of Kelsey's empire.

Baguettes are notoriously difficult to make: The required contrast between glossy, caramel-toned crust and buoyant, yielding interior can't be adulterated with extra ingredients, can't be rushed, can't even be made with just any flour. Kelsey uses hard South Dakota winter wheat, milled especially for him in Mankato. And if you've noticed (as I did in researching this piece) that New French baguettes seem to have a more biscuity aroma, a lighter interior, and a thinner crust than ever--well, Kelsey says, that's because 1999 was a particularly impressive vintage for South Dakota wheat.

"What you want is high-quality protein," he explains. "To get the dough to ferment well for a long period of time, it's important for there to be longer strands of protein, and that's what you get with winter wheat when it's a good year." Interested in tracking the 2000 crop? Look for the new harvest around late July and early August. Unfortunately, Kelsey notes, right now there isn't enough snow on the ground in South Dakota for a really good grain, so bread lovers may want to start praying for blizzards on the plains.

Whatever the vintage, there's no more pleasant place to sample the Dakotas' best than the new New French storefront that opened recently next to Pizza Lucé in the old Sister Fun space. You could spend weeks in the large, pleasant room--all pale wood, woven-back chairs, and soaring Post-It-yellow walls--testing the New French's fifty-some breads, from the sesame-crusted, golden-hearted semolina to the robust, foamy, slightly sour Rustic Italian loaf. ("The Rustic Italian is really a pain au levain," laughs Kelsey. "But in Minnesota, if it's Italian it sells, so we call it Rustic Italian.")

Of course, it's hard to focus on the loaves while you're actually in the storefront, since the pastry case dazzles like the depths of Tiffany's. These creations are the work of the New French's new French baker, Gilles Desnous, who excels particularly in the fields of opera torte, brioche, and pâte à choux. An opera torte is a complicated stack of several layers of almond sponge cake, mocha buttercream, chocolate ganache, and hard chocolate; this one is particularly noteworthy for the excellent quality of the chocolate and the delectable butter cream ($2.50). Brioche, a tender, eggy yeast pastry, is rarely done well locally, but Desnous's yields like flower petals, and the brioche apricot bow tie--two apricot halves baked on supple wings of brioche and real-vanilla pastry cream--is the tastiest $1.95 treat available downtown. I also liked the strawberry éclairs, their cheery glazed fruit resting on a plump ribbon of sweet whipped cream ($2.50).

Sampling widely from the pastry case, I found mostly triumphs, including moist and crunchy pistachio-lemon cookies (75 cents) and the most overtly chocolatey, bittersweet chocolate cookie ($1.75) I've ever had. The few disappointments included madeleines (50 cents) that seemed dry and a floury, undercooked walnut-cherry tart ($3.25).

Once I was done eating too much pastry, I took home a few New French sandwiches, which when sampled for dinner proved the truism that a sandwich is only as good as the bread it's on. My haul included a gorgeous Italian hero ($4.75) on a ciabatta bun, the loaf split and filled with roasted marinated red peppers, two kinds of ham, Provolone cheese, and hard salami; a perfect mayo-and-Dijon-laced ham and cheese on bubbly sweet white bread ($4.50); and a rich, mild triple-decker turkey-aioli ($4.75) on a nutty multigrain.

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