I am a creature of habit. Each morning finds me hunched over the same homely but delicious breakfast; each noontime finds me eating a variation on the same formulaic lunch; and each evening brings a cold glass of milk, a couple of graham crackers, and at least a few squares of chocolate. These tidy details are already well documented, but there’s one more that’s long past due for its day in the sun. Nearly every Sunday morning, I climb in the car and trek twenty minutes south to Columbia City Bakery, and to the same loaf of bread: walnut levain, a crisp, craggy-crusted thing boasting more than a handful of big, buttery nuts. It’s the sort of thing I could curl up with and nibble at from now until nightfall—if not, frankly, forever. If I were a walnut, I’d give anything—my shell, even myself—to be associated with a thing of such beauty. It is, I dare say, the best final resting place for a walnut.
Thank goodness for the 2006 Independent Food Festival and Awards, because I now have an excuse to tell you about it.
Columbia City Bakery opened its doors only last October, but its bakers were already veterans. Evan Andres and Andrew Meltzer are alumni of Seattle celebrity chef Tom Douglas’s Dahlia Bakery, and I had heard rumors of their prodigious talent for months prior to the opening, when they sold their wares wholesale and at the Columbia City Farmers’ Market. From the moment that I first peered through the big windows of the bright red storefront on Rainier Avenue, I knew that what I’d find inside would be more than ample proof. It doesn’t hurt, certainly, that the workings of the bakery are on full display only feet behind the counter—bakers flouring couches, giant mixers mixing—but the items for sale speak for themselves. There is a certain something that emanates from good bread, something written in flour and scrawled into the slight sheen of a hard, crackly crust. Columbia City Bakery has that something in spades.
Its breads bear thick, crisp crusts—the kind that, when cut, shoot shards and splinters across the counter—with slashes showing a web of skinny, delicate threads, evidence of the gentle stretching of gluten. Inside waits a moist, chewy crumb, full of evenly spaced air holes that shine ever so slightly at their edges. The first to win my devotion was their pain de campagne, my Platonic ideal of bread: now-crunchy, now-chewy, and rustic, with a faint whisper of sweetness. But what makes this place worth a weekly trip is the walnut levain, a sturdy, flour-dusted torpedo that has lodged itself dangerously close to my heart.
I can think of no better foil for the rugged, lightly sour flavor of levain than a smattering of sweet, still-intact walnut halves. With a crumb tinged pale purple and slices each sporting a toasty walnut or two, this stuff has quickly leapt to the top of my list. Nothing is better next to a good blue cheese, under a sliver of cave-aged something, or smeared with butter, sprinkled with salt, and eaten while sitting on the kitchen counter. For a proper feast, I cap a slice or two with a lightly broiled crottin and a drizzle of honey, and serve it alongside a simple green salad. Every walnut should leave the world this way.
[No recipe today: instead, a very good reason to visit Seattle!]
Columbia City Bakery
4865 Rainier Avenue South
Seattle, WA 98118
Wednesday – Saturday: 7 am – 2 pm
Sunday: 8 am – 2 pm