Here’s an indication of how good Bread + Butter is: At noon on a recent weekday almost every seat in the place was filled with attractive twenty to thirty year-old women, lunching in groups of two’s, fours, even eights. I think there was one guy in the place, and he was waiting for a woman who worked there.
When women lunch together, we care about the food. Bread + Butter was packed with young women enjoying each other’s company, and a fabulous lunch that, eyes closed, could be served in the Quartier Latin.
Ignore the perfunctory look of Bread + Butter, located in the old Martignetti building on bustling Cross St. in Boston’s North End. Ignore the plate glass doors, tiled ramp entrance, and easy-to-wipe-down chair and table surfaces, all too reminiscent of a purely functional fast lunch. One look at the pastry case and you will know you’re not in a Subway anymore.
Lee Napoli, a pillar – or Croquembouche - of classic French pastry in Boston, owns Bread + Butter; she rises each morning at 3:00 to make the croissants. Napoli learned her pate feuilletee lessons in the 1980’s as pastry chef at Maison Robert, once Boston’s premier French restaurant. She later created dessert legends at The Lenox Hotel, Grill 23, and The Harvest restaurant. Napoli founded the Professional Pastry Guild of New England, and is current president of the Boston chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier. Along with Bread + Butter, Napoli owns ChocoLee Chocolates in Boston’s South End.
This entire pedigree is told best by the buttery shards of flour and air collapsing in your mouth with the first bite of a Napoli croissant.
The Queen’s Cakes, a humble brown confection – no glamourous dessert curlicues or whirlygigs here - similarly awe the palate, leaving you to ask is this the best breakfast or the best dessert I’ve ever had? Pastry is all about the molecular arrangements of flour, butter, sugar and air; the molecules in Napoli’s queen cakes arrange themselves into a tender, firm, flaky, moist, crisp, sugary, mild, buttery taste with notes of caramel and just a whiff of salt. Word on the North End street is “Queen’s cakes, get ‘em early; they sell out by 10:00.”
Again, ignore exteriors. Bread + Butter may not be brimming with character, but it is clean and cheerful. Take a lesson from the girls: Lunch is great. I had a duck confit sandwich on crackling fresh baguette, and a farro salad with roasted cauliflower in an almost-plump tasting lemony dressing.
Aside from plastic utensils, this was a sophisticated meal.
The fresh peach and frangipane tart, a perfect layering of pate brisee, cool almond cream and ripe peach-ness, of crisp, creamy, and sweet, cancelled out any plastic utensil issues.
Lastly, Bread + Butter’s baguettes are the real thing: I mentioned that crackling crust, but there is also a soft buttery crumb, and a little bit of salt. The New York Times today announced the baguette a suffering cultural totem in France, although the French teenagers I have hosted this year clearly consider it more important than water at a meal. Their mothers warn them to eat their bread, claiming it adds fiber to their diet, slows the meal, and drains the gusto for dessert. The New York Times says that picking up the daily baguette in France is still the equivalent of saying to your family, “I love you;” they just say it now with half a loaf per Parisian man, rather than a whole. (In 1900, it took three baguettes per man a day to say “I love you!”)
Gluten is scarier than fat in America these days; the poor baguette here barely stands a chance.
So, if you work near Cross St. in Boston, or if you’re passing through the North End and want a wonderful lunch minus the red sauce, and if you’re not afraid of gluten, stop in at Bread + Butter where “I love you” tastes like France.