Dressed all in white, three pastry chefs
are fast at work, kneading, shaping and whisking inside Almondine,
a new bakery opened by Jacques
Torres and pastry chef Herve Poussot across the street from
Torres’ world-famous chocolate factory in DUMBO.
While Kevin Mathieson and Christopher Reinwald have their hands elbow-deep in a chocolate concoction, Muriel Garcia flattens and shapes pieces of dough. The chocolate, to be baked on metal sheets for a moist chocolate sponge cake, is the bottom layer of just one of the elaborate pastries under construction.
Trays of bread, hot from the oven wait to be carried upstairs, while bowls of cinnamon and brown sugar add the only other color. Flour covers the floor. Circular dough patterns await ham, cheese and other ingredients for fancy quiches. The smell of fresh baked goods lingers in every corner and enticingly wafts its way to the cafe upstairs.
Almondine is the highly anticipated partnership between long-time friends Poussot, formerly of Payard and Le Bernardin in Manhattan, and Torres, who, before he became known for chocolate, was executive pastry chef at Le Cirque, with a little help from their friend and landlord David Walentas.
"All three of us share the same dream, a nice bakery with a European feel in Brooklyn," Poussot told GO Brooklyn.
At Almondine, located at 85 Water St. near Main Street, that’s exactly what you get. Although humble in its appearance, Almondine provides a field day for the senses. Brightly colored pastries fill one of the display cases, so beautiful that it seems a sin to touch them. The only sounds heard are the hiss of the espresso machine and the exchange of money - perfect for reading or quiet conversations. The scents are breathtaking and the tastes are out of this world.
The light and fluffy individual cheesecake, sitting atop a thin cookie crisp and decorated with fresh fruit, is smooth and creamy, as is their version of a macaroon, layers of chocolate sponge cake, chocolate mousse, creme brulee, and coconut covered in a soft, rich chocolate shell. Both were equally sinful, yet most enjoyable with a hot cup of the African autumn tea.
Although a few cards dot the display cases, Poussot prefers not to name his pastries, leaving it to the customer’s imagination.
"A pastry is not only a recipe or a name, it’s a little bit of savoir-faire and a lot of love," said Poussot.
Named after the a recipe for a traditional French tart shared in the classic tale "Cyrano de Bergerac," Almondine proudly boasts that all of its baking is done on the premises. Bread is baked three times daily, and according to Poussot, no molds are used to bake it.
"We want the bread to have direct contact with the stone of the oven," he explained.
The result is a crispy crust with a soft, porous center that is heavenly with a smear of butter.
At Almondine, the bread is stored in fabric-covered wooden baskets instead of plastic so the bread can breathe and the crust does not get too hard. Having worked for a year baking bread in Nice and Paris, baker Roger Gural is responsible for the bread. Poussot also bakes and puts the finishing touches on the pastries.
Poussot’s shop offers cakes for special occasions to be made upon order.
"People ask why I don’t have cakes on display, and I tell them I don’t want to sell anything that is three to four days old," Poussot said. "I have to know my market first."
Only open since Oct. 6, the market already looks promising. At noon on a recent Monday there were more than two dozen sandwiches on display. An hour or so later, only two remained.
It wasn’t always like this on Water Street. Before Walentas, the building across the street from Torres’ chocolate factory was vacant and covered in graffiti amid looming brick facades. In recent years, developers like Walentas purchased these waterfront properties directly across from lower Manhattan and beneath the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. Since then, restaurants, galleries and apartments are popping up all over.
"This is my excuse for a walk," said one woman from Brooklyn Heights, raisin hazelnut loaf in tow. "The more street life, the better."
In fact, the building that houses Almondine used to be an old pepper factory that Walentas converted with help from TV home improvement guru Bob Vila, who filmed the conversion process.
Exactly as Poussot dreamed, customers passing through for an evening meal stop in for dessert while others pop in for a bite to eat as a break from their daily routines.
He hopes to build a place with a strong foundation that will last for years to come. Poussot looks to Torres, host of the Food Network’s "Passion for Dessert" and "Chocolate" shows and author of the "Dessert Circus" cookbook series, for his advice and ideas, and of course, his chocolate. But this time, although Torres is involved in the bakery, he won’t be running the show.
"We are partners, but here, Herve is the boss," Torres said. "Herve is the reigning operator."
Torres, who arrived back from a trip to France, however, was able to offer suggestions in terms of style and presentation. He rearranged baskets of breads and organized trays of pastries while greeting and chatting with customers.
"While I was in France, I went to all the bakeries to see how they decorate," Torres said. "Here, we try to create ambiance of European bakery, a friendly neighborhood place where people can come and socialize, or eat and dream."
On this particular day some Almondine patrons enjoyed sandwiches of prosciutto, mozzarella and roasted peppers or apples and brie on baguettes. Some picked up loaves of bread and others nibbled a pastry while sipping on coffee or tea. Children spent the day off from school munching on soft peanut butter cookies and other sweet delights. Everyone ogled the colorful display of treats.
"Thanks for ruining my whole postpartum plan," said one DUMBO mother with her 5-month-old daughter, Harriet, secured tightly to her chest, and a chocolate eclair in her hand.
"We do neighborhood things here," Torres replied with a wink and a smile. "We help each other. Bon appetit!"
Almondine, 85 Water St. at Main Street in DUMBO, accepts cash only. Pastries: $1.50-$4. Sandwiches: $5.50. Closed Tuesdays. For more information, call (718) 797-5026.