image courtesy of Mango and Tomato

It is a warm spring night. I’m kneading bread dough in a gorgeous white and blue-tiled bakery with three charming Frenchmen. I squeeze the pliant dough with my fingers while pushing it together with the heels of both palms, then flip and slap it back down onto the floured workspace. I am gently teased about my “technique” which is a little bit backward from the norm and occasionally results in flecks of dough arcing through the air. I am a rank amateur.  Thirty minutes later, we nibble macaroons (pistachio and coconut are the best) and oozy millefeuilles while bread bakes in the oven.

Cubicle-dweller daydream? Not quite.  I’m in the windowed kitchen of Paul, the new French bakery by the Navy Memorial Archives. In what may have been my favorite food event to date, several DC area food bloggers were invited to a bread baking lesson in the kitchen just days before the bakery opened.

I have long lamented the lack of the perfect bakery in DC. A  space with an eye toward atmosphere and quality goods. Somewhere the bread is made on site, filling the air with dancing visions of golden crusts and yeasty middles. Where you can stroll in armed with a Kindle and need nothing more but a strong cup of coffee and warm baguette to spend precious spare time in the most delicious leisure possible. Have I finally found it?

Details on Paul after the jump.

image courtesy of Mango and Tomato

Paul bakery, France’s latest export to the U.S., may finally breathe life into the dream. The space is large but warm. Checkered floors and detailed display cases give the space a permanent feel with little to betray that the restaurant is spanking new. Long curtains drape to the floor and the dining space is dotted with cozy chairs that beg for a low fire and old dog at your feet. Cocktail tables with tall chairs also dot the area, useful for those looking to grab a quick sandwich or salad on the go. Best of all, nearly all bread is baked on site. Is there anything better than the smell of bread in the oven? I think evolution programmed it into our brains to communicate love and home in one whiff.

Paul is a family-run behemoth in France with a history dating back to 1889. Their hope is to export an experience. It begins with exquisite attention to detail: flours are rigorously tested in each new country to prove they are up to standards. The majority of international Paul bakeries import flour directly from France. The only exceptions are Spain and the U.S., whose wheat “get the right amount of sun,” shared Paul CEO Maxime Holder. The goal is to reproduce the traditional French Paul experience as precisely as possible.

So precise in fact that the quintessential French pastry, the croissant, is the only item not baked on premises. They are brought in from France to for quality assurances. To be honest, I found this surprising. Frozen croissants? Really? Mr. Holder assured me this was absolutely for the best due both space challenges inherent in any kitchen and the delicate task of building each layer of buttery croissant. Has anyone had a Paul croissant yet? Could you tell it was not baked on site? Reviews are welcome.

As our bread finished, Paul’s representatives – Mr. Holder along with David Dequeker, Chief Baker & Pastry Chef for Groupe PAUL and Philippe Sanchez, President and CEO, PAUL USA – spoke to the group about spotting a properly risen loaf of bread (tip: look for plenty of holes in the center, indicating air escaping) and encourage us to take home as many loaves as we can carry. Luckily they’ve found a willing crowd. With a space convenient to DC tourists, residents, and workers alike, I suspect that willing crowd will be lining up every day for their own chance to load up on France’s latest exports.

801 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004
Paul Bakery Cafe on Urbanspoon