It turns out that a trip to France and pastry classes at Le Cordon Bleu had changed not only my life, but also that of Maury Rubin, the two-time Emmy Award-winner who switched professions to become a restaurateur. I stumbled upon Birdbath Neighborhood Bakery, owned by Rubin’s City Bakery, one afternoon as I started walking down Broadway on a whim after class.
There was something inviting about this store in the West 80s that made me stop, peek in, and wait in line while examining its small but overwhelmingly fantastic collection of pastries and salads in awe. The terrific thing about all the pastries in this store was that you could smell them before you ate them. It really testifies to the quality of the ingredients when the flavor invades your sense of smell before it crosses over into taste—since so much of taste is smell, the “prep work” for a great meal was in place.
I had the radicchio snack pizza, which is everything but what it sounds like. I’ve always known radicchio as the “lame vegetable for lame salads,” and I was happy to be proven wrong. The “crust” was actually an index-card-sized sheet of puff pastry that was incredibly crunchy, oily, and soft at the center, but not in the soggy way. Some tomato sauce and ricotta cheese formed the bottom layer of the toppings, but both were portioned so that the flavors did not overpower the mix of perfectly seasoned, roughly chopped parsley, radicchio, and olive oil.
You always look for balance, and the texture of the different types of crunch and bite provided by the radicchio, parsley, and puff pastry as well as the cut of the olive oil against the richness of the butter and that of the fresh radicchio against the soft cheese and tomato sauce all provided the perfect equilibrium of flavors in this one pastry. I have not had such good puff pastry since I left Paris. When I was discussing this particular pastry with the lady at the front, she giggled and whispered mock-confidentially that she ate one every day: “It’s really bad.” Indeed, for your waistline, but certainly not for your taste buds.
Their salads definitely make good use of all the seasonal ingredients that can be found at the green market. With some Thai basil, vinegar, olive oil, grilled mushrooms, and butterfly pasta cooked al dente, as well as kale tossed with parmesan flakes, sliced onions, and toasted hazelnuts, Birdbath’s individually portioned salads taste fresh, with particular attention to how to best dress each ingredient.
The croissant-pretzel is a serious contestant to the cronut—it’s a much better fusion of the two main components of each of the two types of bread. After it is turned with salted butter, whole-wheat pretzel dough is rolled from a triangle into the traditional crescent shape and braided at the center as a pretzel would be. Sprinkled with sesame and generously brushed again with butter, each shiny, salty bite of the croissant-pretzel contained a myriad of nutty and buttery flavors to be combined with the interesting texture of multiple thin layers of pretzel dough. Slightly dry on the inside as a pretzel should be and yet still flaky and crunchy on the outside, the croissant-pretzel is a bit oversalted, but it is still a combination worth trying and definitely not as overrated as is the cronut.
The maple bacon biscuit was one of the best pastries that I have ever eaten. This biscuit just melts in your mouth—the texture is crumbly in the finest way. The pieces of dry, smoky bacon jerky alongside the caramelized maple sugar deposits created this incredible balance in terms of texture and flavor harmony that just prompted me to take bite after bite. Food is a strange kind of pleasure, where you become more and more aware of the end with each bite that you take, but still continue eating because that’s also what gives you the greatest sense of happiness—to be consuming something so delicious—and I had never been sadder to reach the end.
One of the things I like most about Birdbath is that it is flexible and willing to regulate each of the chain’s stores to its particular dining audience’s needs. Each store has a different personality, adapting to fit the part of the city it inhabits. It’s the highest form of respect to the customer when a restaurant takes feedback seriously, and one of the things that impressed me most about Birdbath was how, within five days of operating around the Upper West Side, despite the shop’s innovative knack for pastries, it has already fulfilled the demand for pain au chocolat and looks to do the same for customer’s requests for chai. It’s like modern French cuisine in Jean-Georges, except applied to pastries on a boulangerie-café level.
In line with that philosophy of flexibility, it’s also interesting how it serves Toby’s Estate coffee here, whereas in the other locations it also serves Stumptown, Oren’s, and Irving Farm—and Irving Farm, located on 79th, is now actually one of its competitors in the neighborhood. Good for students who need WiFi to study, moms who want to bring their kids in for an afternoon snack, or businessmen who walk in and out for coffee, Birdbath certainly serves a variety of needs.
Birdbath Neighborhood Bakery is located at 2551 Broadway, between 80th and 81st streets.