Mar Vista bread makers go back to basics for improved quality and taste
By Richard Foss (Richard@RichardFoss.com)
There’s a stretch of Washington Boulevard west of Sepulveda that has become the Westside’s hot area for boutique food stores. The area already had a cheese shop, boutique chocolatier, dessert specialist and Indian grocery. Now it can boast a world-class traditional bread bakery.
Lodge Bread is the result of an almost accidental partnership. Founders Alexander Phaneuf and Or Amsalam hadn’t planned on becoming fulltime bakers when they met while cheffing at a hip West Hollywood restaurant.
“We got tired of the bread we were getting and started baking our own, and after a while the bread was going on almost
every dish,” Phaneuf said. “The demand grew so fast, and our customers wanted to order loaves. One night we had a powwow and decided we wanted to focus just on baking.”
Soon afterward, Phaneuf drove by a vacant space on Washington that had previously been an office and decided the location was perfect. As Amsalam said, Phaneuf might have been influenced by the fact that it was two minutes from his home.
While his commute is now shorter, Phaneuf’s days are longer because bakers start the day very early in order to have something hot and fresh from the oven for the first customer.
I caught the partners in early afternoon and interviewed them as they took fat balls of dough that had been rising and shaped them into loaves. The two men answered questions without stopping for even a moment.
How is the bread you make different from the bread I might find at a supermarket bakery?
Phaneuf: We make wholegrain bread in a traditional fashion, which they can’t do — they have to pump out a huge volume of different products and can’t take the time. Our bread tastes like wheat, like the original product. The slower we work the dough, the longer we take on it, the more it returns to its natural setting.
Amsalam: We’re also using wheat flour that’s very different from what you’d get in the market, a fresher product with much more flavor.
Is the shelf life of your bread shorter?
Amsalam: Actually, it’s the opposite. We use about 60% more whole grain than the wheat bread you’d buy in the supermarket, which means we have to add a lot of water to it. That yields a very moist bread that will last for five or six days on a countertop or in a bread cupboard, so it has a much longer shelf life without preservatives. There will be no degradation of the flour or the flavor — it’s actually better the second or third day, and it’s easier to cut.
Is it more difficult to make bread the artisanal way?
Amsalam: We use wild yeast rather than store-bought yeast, and the temperature each day makes the fermentation slightly different. On warm days the yeast is more active. We know by look and feel when it’s ready for each stage of forming the dough and baking. We have to constantly monitor it.
Phaneuf: The dough is like a baby — you have to nurture it and watch it, make sure you don’t leave it too long or it will get out of control.
I see that you sell five breads: country, seeded, whole wheat, olive and something called khorasan. Do you make five doughs every day, and what is khorasan?
Amsalam: We’re making six types of bread out of four different doughs. Some of the country dough is used for the seeded loaf and the olive bread. The khorasan bread is a lot heartier than the other breads — denser, with a nice nutty flavor. It’s a heritage grain, like spelt.
I see that you make bread pudding. In New Orleans they use day-old baguettes. What do you use?
Phaneuf: We’re using our most savory bread in our bread pudding right now, our olive bread, but we sometimes use brioche for a sweeter result. Bread pudding is how bakeries usually use any leftover product, and it’s a very flexible thing. It can be savory or sweet, or have elements of both.
Are there any other types of bread you eventually want to make?
Phaneuf: We’ll soon start doing pizza dough, because we find that fascinating and challenging. We’re not doing crazy specialty loaves or doing anything that’s too out there. We want to make normal bread, just better than anybody has had it before.
Amsalam: My family is from Israel, and we make lots of flatbreads. I want to make the kind called beigeleh, topped with [the spice mix called] zaatar, like we get at roadside stands there. I can find some versions of that here, but none that really give me that sense of nostalgia.
Are specialty bakeries like yours part of a social movement?
Phaneuf: Perhaps we are, as part of a return to neighborhood stores. Chain supermarkets can’t learn the preferences of their customers, interact with them every day. That’s where the neighborhood baker comes in, and the same should be true of the neighborhood butcher or the small grocer who specializes in produce.
Amsalam: I think people are discovering what they lost when they stopped making their own bread and preparing their own food. Little by little we’re building the culture back. Consumers are getting more motivated about buying quality products, so I think we’re headed in the right direction.