In baking there's no margin for error. Even the most perfectionist of restaurant chefs — say, the red-faced blowhard ranting and raving for the reality-TV cameras at some poor line cook who confused the balsamic vinegar for the olive oil — knows that, at the last minute, a dash of salt or a squeeze of lemon can elevate or even save a dish. In the pastry kitchen, the chef works with dread certainty that if the soufflé falls, the game is over.
OK. Maybe I overstate slightly. (I can't bake Jiffy-brand corn muffins without burning a couple.) All cooking is science, of course, precise chemical reactions that anyone from a superstar chef like Grant Achatz to yours truly can understand and at least try to replicate. But within this community of scientists, bakers still stand apart, like theoretical physicists, working with equations that leave the rest of us boggled, chasing after the perfectly moist buttermilk cake that, like the Higgs-Boson particle, must exist, even if no one has actually found the damn thing.
So bakeries often fall outside the purview of restaurant reviews. If one isn't too narrowly focused — on wedding cakes or the final, genetically deformed iteration of the early-aughts cupcake trend — then it's too quaint, with lace doilies and the same plastic sample cakes that it first displayed sometime during the Ford administration.
Which brings us to BitterSweet Bakery, a new Benton Park bakery as intriguing as any restaurant that has opened in town in the past year — and as deserving of our attention.
BitterSweet occupies a large space in a building on Gravois Avenue, just northeast of Jefferson Avenue. The interior both does and doesn't look like a bakery. Your attention is drawn first to the long display counter and refrigerated case stocked with all manner of cookies, cakes and pastries. The surrounding space resembles a contemporary bistro or a particularly hip café: high ceilings, exposed ductwork, a rustic wooden communal table and, for individual seats, a long bar made of blond wood.
Leanna Russo is the owner and executive chef of BitterSweet. In an interview on Gut Check, the Riverfront Times food blog (www.rftfood.com), Russo said she doesn't eat sugar or sweets. I suspect that this is the secret behind the best of BitterSweet's wares: Here sweetness is the signature note of the desserts, but unlike at so many bakeries and restaurants, it isn't the only note, cloying and exhausting.
Even something as simple as a chocolate-chunk cookie rounds out the mild sweetness of the cookie with the complex and, yes, bittersweet flavor of excellent chocolate. The peanut-butter bar brings a shortbread crust topped with a layer of peanut butter and a layer of chocolate. Now, I'm a long-time, unabashed devourer of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, but I'll concede that the milk chocolate is cheap, the peanut butter weirdly grainy. Stripped of these faults, the rich flavors and textures of this perfect fare unencumbered by overwhelming chemical sweetness, BitterSweet's bar is pure indulgence.
The lemon-meringue-and-pine-nut torte is a rare dessert that refreshes the palate. Within a pastry shell that does indeed carry a hint of pine-nut flavor is a lovely, tart lemon curd. Atop the curd sits a cloud of light and lightly sweet Swiss meringue, its peaks torched a gentle brown. Rich without being filling, brightly flavored but with enough body from the pine-nut crust and browned meringue to seem substantial, this was my favorite dish at BitterSweet.
As you might expect, the key-lime cheesecake is also quite tart, though with enough sweetness to balance it out. I did find myself wanting a touch more cheese flavor — a surprise considering how dense the cake is. So dense, in fact, that you won't mind the portion, a miniature cake rather than a slice, its circumference a tad greater than a 50-cent piece and maybe two inches tall.
(Pies, tortes and cakes are available as individual "mini" servings or full-size; prices of the latter range from $25 to $40.)
Not that BitterSweet can't do sheer, sweet decadence. The chocolate buttermilk cake is chocolate cake layered with chocolate mousse and covered with chocolate buttercream. Though the chocolate is certainly more complex than your average supermarket frosting, this isn't a cake you have to think hard about: The cake itself is very moist, with a dusky cocoa-powder flavor, while the mousse and buttercream offer a smoother, richer taste of chocolate.
In terms of simple pleasures, I preferred the roasted-apple crumb galette: The apples have that wonderful, deep sweetness that roasting promotes, while the brown-betty topping adds a buttery sweetness. The galette itself is excellent, the exterior of the crust flaky, the interior just substantial enough to support the apple slices.
The bakery's full menu is considerable (and I haven't even reached the savory options yet): bread pudding and brownies, breakfast breads and truffles. I sampled two different muffins, the blueberry-brown butter and the orange, cranberry and candied walnut. The former was excellent, the blueberries — a blueberry jam, to be precise — a nice balance of tart and sweet. The orange-cranberry-walnut was a dud, though. The ingredients were a sensible combination, but the muffin was dry. Besides that muffin, the only other dud is the coffee, from local roaster Chauvin, which isn't on par with the quality of the baked goods here.
Savory dishes include quiche and a few pastries (bacon and cheese, chèvre and fresh herbs). A few hot savory items are available until 11 a.m. each morning, including freshly made buttermilk biscuits topped with thick, peppery sausage gravy. The biscuits were a touch heavier than I prefer, though the flavor was quite good and the gravy excellent, a satisfying blend of cream and spice.
There is also a daily lunch special. On my visit it was braised beef with mashed potatoes and a side salad: simple comfort food, well prepared and, in a nice, homey touch, served from what looked like a Crock-Pot. The only downside? My lunch was so heavy that I had to wait a few hours to try the pastries I bought to go.
If bakers are half the scientists the rest of us think they are, they would figure out a magic pill to allow us to enjoy their treats after a full meal.