You could get fat and go broke eating at the Black Rooster Bakery with any frequency. Which is all the more reason to stop by during this time of New Year's resolutions. Why not kill two birds with one scone? After one bite of Marche Ann Mann's spectacular pastries, sandwiches and soups, you'll quickly forget your so-called eating better in 2012 plan (as I called it), or your "no more $12 lunches financial plan."
The year-old Forest Park-area bakery already operates like a mainstay, with devoted customers who devour anything Mann puts in the bakery case. Recently, I stopped in to pick up lunch and was hardly let down by anything I tried. The sandwiches ($6.95) are served on luscious baguettes. The day's selections -- brie and roasted apples and French ham and butter with sea salt -- sounded deceptively simple and weren't overwhelming in appearance, but there's something about using the freshest and best ingredients that usually renders a dish noteworthy.
After one bite of the ham and butter, I felt like I was transported to a sidewalk cafe in Europe. The tender ham melts into a swath of unsalted butter, and a touch of salt ratchets up the flavors nicely. It's the best four-ingredient sandwich (including the bread) I've ever tasted.
With its slightly caramelized apples and hearty chunk of brie, the other sandwich also left its mark (let's hope not on my waistline), registering mild and sweet notes, as well as crispy ones from the crunch of the baguette.
The soup of the day, a creamy potato ($5.50), came served with a cheesy crisp, ideal for dunking in a concoction that I can only describe as mashed potatoes and gravy that went for a brief ride in a blender. But the soup has a nice texture -- not too thin -- and is a winsome, albeit decadent antidote to the chilly weather outside.
A trip to the Black Rooster is not complete unless you bow to at least one pastry. For purely research purposes, I tried a few. A slice of the strawberry shortcake cake ($3 a slice) looked ripe for the picking, as did the apple cinnamon scone ($3) and the almond tart ($5). The cake oozed creamy frosting as well as a liberal amount of strawberries. Perfectly baked with a slightly crispy crust, the inside was moist and stood up well to the insane frosting. The scone scored as well with chunks of apple and flecks of cinnamon, also exploiting the crispy exterior/pillowy interior dynamic for all it's worth. Even the tart (the one pastry I can usually resist) called my name; I'll be calling his in the future. Dear Mr. Almond Tart, you are outrageously delicious with your flaky crust and custardy filling. Sincerely, Formerly Thin Anna
And speaking of crusts, I spoke with Mann on the eve of a Chicken Pot Pie Wednesday, as she was rolling out dough. The Culinary Institute of New York grad has a clear affinity for European-style breads and baked goods, and she appreciates the hard work it takes to execute them well. As the only bread baker, she's up at 4 a.m. during the week to make 120 loaves a day. Saturday mornings, she's there at 2 a.m. to ready 180 loaves.
Each day, she rotates her fresh breads, from pain de mie ($4.50, a traditional French soft-baked bread) to the sourdough rye and walnut ($6), a German bread. The latter, fresh out of the oven, is a tangy taste sensation, studded with walnuts.
There's a small eat-in bar where customers can wash down the treats with fair-trade coffee. But no matter where you eat the food, the Black Rooster Bakery proves it can hold its own amid the city's notable bakeries, and has, after just one year, improved on almost all of them. Now that's a resolution worth noting.