by Max Hodge, Ellie’s Bakery Manager | Images: JWessel
Ellie’s, as you may know, is a tiny bakery tucked away in downtown Providence, located at 61 Washington Street.
Historically, Washington Street has always been a bustling street of Providence, due to its proximity to City Hall, which was erected in 1878 and brought the focus of Rhode Island to the Downcity part of Providence. As the city grew with the success of the jewelry and textile trade in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Providence saw rapid growth and became recognized for craftsmanship and dedication to artistry. The city experienced many economic rises and falls, and as the global economy grew through the 1970s and 1980s, these skilled jobs were exported overseas and ultimately eliminated most artisan work. The economy of the state was deeply impacted and skilled craft jobs no longer existed.
With the collapse of the jewelry and textile industry, many artisans were left unemployed and without direction for their craft. Providence struggled to change its economy and bring in new business. Over the years, graduates of the many universities settled and stayed in the city, bringing life to a struggling economy. Johnson and Wales trained chefs who had a focus on using the bounty of Rhode Island’s fertile land, and Rhode Island School of Design kept craft alive that was so deeply rooted in the history of the city. The whispers of many artisans, descendants of the craftspeople who once made their livelihood within the city, quietly worked to do their craft, for the love of it, understanding the sacrifice that comes from a very intimate and personal expression of self; an expression that, when portrayed by many inspired individuals, creates community.
These whispers slowly grew louder and more confident, until life came back into a once bustling city, a city whose identity is so deeply rooted in artistic expression that it drifts through the air and is tangible visibly and on the palate, in wares found in shops in the nooks and crannies of the city, in shops opened by passionate individuals who want only to bring hospitality and artistry to the community. Ellie’s was founded on this same principle: to be a place where everyone does their own thing, for the love of it, while cherishing simple pleasures.
This is the true story about our adventure to perfect our croissant. A team of bakers, front of house managers, and Miss Ellen, proprietor of Ellie’s, set out to see how our croissants would compare to some of the best in New York City, as told from the perspective of a caffeine-fueled and hungry bakery manager.
January 31st , 2016 8:46am
We wake up early on a Sunday morning, struggling to pull ourselves out of bed to get on the first train to New York City. We climb on board the train, everyone with their bags packed, shuffling down the train with winter jackets in hand for the unseasonably warm day. We look around and realize that Chef Sara Riley is nowhere to be seen. We begin to look around nervously, partly because our teammate is nowhere to be found, but also because she was in charge of bringing the most important component of the trip with her: the final test batch of our croissant. After 52 test batches, at least 300 pounds of rich Plugra butter, and months of testing, we felt confident that we had made the perfect croissant. And the train was moments away from leaving station without our precious cargo on board. A light freakout is an understatement of what we were all feeling, until Jason Wessel, our in-house photographer, looks out the window and calls out to a flash of long black hair running frantically down the platform with a brown bag in hand. She climbed on board moments before the whistle blew and the train lurched into motion. We were up one pastry chef and three dozen croissants. So far so good.
We sat in the cafe cart and quietly discussed the bakery, our pastry line, and where we would like to go in New York. We charted each hour the different bakeries, coffee shops, and restaurants we had heard about, many of which were being recognized for their pastries. Having the whole team together to discuss the bakery is always a good conversation; a chance for us to throw ideas around and geek out over sweets and coffee. We created a full Google map schedule with pit stops and time goals, with attempts to pace ourselves for a day full of eating and drinking; a happy challenge. Conversation broke as the train came out into the sun, with a full view of Manhattan beyond the window. It is a marvel that such a mega city can have so many little nooks, little bakeries, and coffee shops, each pursuing their craft, for the love of it, and manage to survive in such a hectic community. The anticipation to discover new pasty was ambient and we eagerly waited to exit the train and get to Brooklyn. We set our sights first on Almondine in Brookline, a classic French bakery recognized for their fine viennoiserie.
We dropped our luggage off at our Airbnb (a fabulous flat owned by an equally fabulous Russian model who rented the space out) and made our way to the Brooklyn Bridge. Having not yet eaten, we walked with a purpose, with knowledge of flaky pastry on the other side of the bridge brought out a hunter-gatherer mentality (in me at least) that made for quick walking and minimal photos while dodging tourists with the selfie sticks. After a decent walk, we got to Almondine, on a surprisingly quaint street with a somber interior. The staff seemed overwhelmed by our little group of 7, but it could be the fact that they had only 4 little tables in the whole space, or that we were all pacing up and down eyeing all of the pastries and breakfast sandwiches, fully intending to devour all that was in sight. We ordered just shy of the entire menu and pulled the few round tables together for our first test.
Pastry Chef Melissa Denmark was the first to crack into her croissant. Excellent shaping with a crisp exterior, it was visually perfect and already appealing to many senses. Sara pulls out the bag of our croissant with an eye at the team behind the counter, our contraband pastry ripped into small pieces underneath the table and passed around to try side-by-side that of Almondine’s. The comparison was that of apples to peppers; being vastly different in aroma, texture, and most notably, taste. Almondine prepares a very classic, white flour croissant that acts as an excellent medium for jam and snacking, but on its own is rather plain. Our croissant has a delicate blend of Maine Grain Whole Wheat Flour and a touch of Sourdough (our’s is named Henry; he has been around for six years) that creates a degree of depth not found in the more classic expressions of croissants. Both excellent in their own pursuit, but different.
The rest of the pastry was a hit or miss, nothing overly exciting but of good quality for the most part. Croque Monsieurs are always a favorite of mine, and Ellie’s makes a delicious one at the bakery (slabs of Gruyere, loaded with ham, with a beer cream sauce and dijonaise.. it’s pretty right), so it was exciting to see theirs. They were pre-made on huge slabs of bread with melted gruyere and ham; not the best i’ve ever had, but fit the bill. I ordered a much-needed coffee, a simple hot black, and was reminded of the tragic, yet predictable reality of food service: it is extraordinarily rare to get excellent coffee to go with good pastry. It is so odd to me that bakeries employ skilled artisans to craft fantastic pastry, yet allow for them to be washed down with mediocre coffee; a poor reality that I actively seek to be disproven. The coffee here was of this quality, requiring some help from the condiment bar to be palatable. Overall, a good experience, with a benchmark croissant to use as a jumping off point.
Having been at least modestly satiated by Almondine, we were still lacking a proper meal. Not too far from us was Running Stone, a true testament of artisanal craft in the city, milling their own flour, with a full bar and meal service, along with an array of pastry. We had to go. Packing up and moving on, we hit the streets of Brooklyn again.
Stay connected, to be continued….