Top-shelf bread rises first in U. Holmesburg

Posted: September 09, 2007

In the light of day, on a cafe table at the edge of Rittenhouse Square, the challah roll strikes a pose, clasping in its jaws the 13-ounce Rougeburger, one of the town's undisputed jefes.

And over at the Grill off the rotunda of the Ritz-Carlton, a longer golden roll enfolds the luxe lobster salad, garnished with shaved radish, tomato and pea tendrils.

And here and there - perhaps at Ansill or Marigold or Snackbar or other trendy rooms, or the occasional country club, or catered affair or, on Sunday mornings, the farm market at Head House Square - a cheese plate is finished with tiles of sour-cream crackers, baskets bulge with black-olive flatbreads, or an exotic, soy-seasoned, peanut-crusted focaccia may make a memorable debut.

But they all start out here, in an anonymous and decidedly un-trendy stretch of post-industrial Upper Holmesburg, in a sprawling, white-cinderblock former shopping-cart factory in the 8700 block of Torresdale Avenue.

Their baking space (in Unit 1) is adjoined by a window-washing business and auto body shop and other prosaic neighbors, reminders that artisan bread is not merely born, it's laboriously crafted - and not usually in the most glamorous precincts.

In the case of the Wild Flour Bakery's offerings (among which are the examples above), it's made by hand, with King Arthur Special Spring Patent Flour(which costs roughly double the cheaper stuff), and made to order, in the dark of night, hours before its starring roles on Center City tables, in Manayunk and beyond.

Drop by Unit 1 toward 7 p.m, and the evening's work is just cranking up. Baker Nishon Yaghoobian,once executive pastry chef at Striped Bass, is overseeing the making of the doughs. On a given day, his seven-month-old son (Nishon Jr.), may be strapped to a Snugli on his chest, a kitchen apron over the two of them, awaiting the arrival of his wife, Laura, from her day job in finance.

The Yaghoobians are partners with Melissa Sasinowski, a CIA-trained pastry chef, who worked at the Four Seasons and, eventually, for Nishon at Striped Bass. Before she came aboard, Nishon had been something of a one-man band, making bread dough, doing the baking, cleaning up, and delivering.

Nowadays, there's a team of about 10 workers, spritzing Rouge's (and Good Dog's and Vintage's) unbaked burger rolls with butter-and-egg wash at twilight, rolling out sourdough baguettes on the long wooden workbench, and, on this particular evening, forming custom garlic-rosemary loaves for a new account, Green Apple Bistro in Moorestown.

It is a metallically austere and utilitarian space, tractor-trailer-sized coolers left behind by the previous baker (Creative Cakes & Confections), 1920's-era dough mixers, hearthstone-fitted rack ovens. There's a chocolate shaver for the desserts and the wedding cake business the bakers want to showcase in a new retail shop, possibly near 12th and Spruce. And the prize gadget - a cast-iron mini-pastry-shell-maker, one of few in the city.

There are the obligatory racks for spices. And refrigeration for the Plugra, the extra-rich butter. And of course, stacked sacks of the premium King Arthur Flour that Nishon says he favors for its "earthier" color and taste.

By midnight, most of the baking is well underway. The main-route truck heads out before 3 a.m. Sasinowski drops off fruit-nut rolls at the Huntington Valley Country Club on her way home; Nishon drops off croissants and Danish and braided challah at Thomas' in Manayunk.

The bread is still warm, the sun not up yet. Plenty of time for Wild Flour's handiwork to slip out of its bags from the Northeast; slip into a crisp linen napkin, or $15 burger mode, or that cheese plate headed to your table at Tria.



Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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