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Give the People Bread

Michael Dvorak
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.

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.

As I munched I got to consider all the other metro-area diners who at that very moment were probably enjoying Kelsey's creations--an audience that had to outnumber any other local chef's by several orders of magnitude. Picture them: The tony folks dipping into their bread baskets at Aquavit and La Belle Vie. The Cub shoppers loading up on ciabatta. And, of course, the Hairy Man--the one we have to thank for Kelsey's decision to quit the world of $40-a-plate dining. "When I was a cook at the New French Café in its glory days in the mid-1970s," remembers Kelsey, "there were a lot of very snotty waiters, a lot of snotty cooks. It was that kind of environment, and I bought into it to some degree. But we could be that way because there were lines out the door.

"Anyway, the story is this: One night this guy came in and he was wearing very, very short shorts and a tank top, and--how to say this?--he was extremely hairy. And he was just sitting there in the middle of our dining room, and everybody was becoming annoyed that this guy would be here, like he was in his own bathtub or something. But he proceeded to order the most sophisticated meal, and I realized the food experience shouldn't have anything to do with what people look like, or where they're eating.

"And you know," he adds, "maybe that guy was right. The air conditioning was never very good back in those days."

 

New French Bakery breads can also be found at the bakery's Seward neighborhood facility, 2609 26th Ave. S., Mpls., (612) 728-0193); most local co-ops; and most Cub Foods stores (though not, ironically, the one in south Minneapolis).

 

TABLEHOPPING

THINGS TO DO FOR MARDI GRAS WHEN YOU'RE SOBER: King cakes are brioche-style yeast cakes with a red bean or a baby-Jesus figurine tucked inside. Zillions of them are consumed in Louisiana during carnival season, and if you land the slice of cake with the baby/bean, you get luck for the year (and the responsibility to supply next year's king cake). So ask yourself: Are you feeling lucky? If so, I've located two king cakes for you. One is in not-so-far-off Red Wing, at the Two Sisters Tearoom and Gift Shoppe, and it will be cut as part of a formal tea service on the afternoon of Saturday, March 4. Two Sisters seatings are at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., and reservations are required; the tearoom is at 204 W. Seventh St., Red Wing, (651) 338-2250.

A slightly tipsier king cake may be partaken of during the Mardi Gras brunch at Jax Cafe Sunday, March 5, from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Guests can gorge themselves on beignets, andouille sausage, Brabant potatoes, blackened redfish, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and more king cake, along with about a million other Cajun things, while listening to the Minnesota Dixie Trio and catching necklaces and trinkets, all for $24.95 (adults) or $8.95 (children under ten). If you're more of a loner, just grab a bean and head for the New French, get your own brioche, then ice it with the traditional Mardi Gras colors: purple (justice!), green (faith!), and gold (power!).

GODDAMMIT! Thank God for press releases, or I might never have known that the beef irradiation people--in this case FOOD TECHnology Service Inc., of Mulberry, Florida--have triumphed over us all. Turns out that the good folks at FOOD TECHnology have gotten the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take their meat and run it past some old nuclear waste, giving Americans "an extra margin of food safety" by eliminating insects and microorganisms. Of course, the main way you'd get bugs on your meat to begin with would be through sloppy handling, but goshdarnit, at FOOD TECHnology they're not about slacking off--they want to nuke the beef just in case. According to FOOD TECHnology we can all be on the lookout for their new brand called, eerily, "New Generation." So, who's with me in launching the rival, "New Degeneration"?


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