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Musings & Observations / Barry Halpin

Published 12:45 pm, Thursday, June 23, 2011
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If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens. -- Robert Browning

I've been a hardcore bread junkie ever since I was a kid growing up in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. It was in my DNA; my parents were bread lovers from childhood and there was always lots of bread in our apartment.

Many nights, my dad would arrive home from work with bounty from Pakula's, our neighborhood bakery -- rye bread fresh out of the oven, crying out for butter to be slathered on it, bagels and my personal favorite: salt sticks. To this day, I haven't had a salt stick -- they're increasingly difficult if not impossible to find -- that rivaled Pakula's. The staff of life; it was the perfect compliment to my mother's home-cooked dinner, even though many an evening I would load up on the bakery goodies, and not have much room for dinner.

I looked forward to our Sunday family drives with great anticipation, especially when I knew we would we going to Patricia Murphy's restaurant in Yonkers. The fresh popovers were stellar. A cart would arrive at your table, filled with popovers and other tasty treats; they kept coming back and the temptation to eat more popovers was hard to resist. Last summer, I had a popover at Popovers on the Square, in Portsmouth, N.H., and it immediately brought back great memories of Sunday drives, and the eventual pit stop at Patricia Murphy's.

No matter where I lived -- Amsterdam or Venice Beach, Calif., the island of Ibiza or Pittsburgh, Pa., Paris or Boston, London or Fairfield -- I always managed to find a bakery, or if I was lucky, two, that I could count on to satisfy my bread jones.

The Rose Cafe on Rose Avenue in Venice Beach, is one of my favorite hangouts of all time. The bakery, which was located right across the street, was famous for its flaky, melt-in-your-mouth, sublime croissants. When someone in the cafe would see the trays of croissants coming across the street, they would yell out, "Here come the croissants," and everyone would make a mad dash to the counter. The imperative was to get them while they're steaming hot.

One day, I ended up on line sandwiched between Arnold Schwarzenegger and the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno. As we chatted about the Rose Cafe's incredible croissants, I couldn't help feeling like the 120 lb. weakling, who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach.

An early morning bakery run, along with buying The New York Times and working on the crossword puzzle, has been a Sunday ritual for as long as I can remember. Over the years, the breads and spreads may have changed, but I still look forward to the bakery run. Coming home and applying the spread to the bread, often while still hot, is always a moment to savor; culinary nirvana when it's 62 percent brie, chaumes or talleggio cheese.

There are Sunday mornings when I forego the bread run; it's when my wife makes her off-the-charts, hearty and flavorful Irish brown bread. It's a versatile bread that goes well with an Irish breakfast -- fried egg, Irish sausages, Irish bacon, black pudding, white pudding, grilled tomato, mushrooms and Batchelors' baked beans , Irish stew or even on it's own with butter and marmalade, or smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon. I would heartily recommend a cup of Barry's Irish tea along with the Irish breakfast.

I'll never forget the first time I tasted brown bread. We were visiting with my wife's parents in Arklow, a lovely town south of Dublin, when their next door neighbor, Nancy Louth, came by with a freshly baked loaf. I take my first bite; it's a fait accompli, I'm hooked.

For the past three years, my bakery of choice has been Isabelle et Vincent a French patisserie in Fairfield. On my first visit, I open the wooden doors, see a three-tiered chocolate waterfall, reminiscent of a scene right out of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," and am hit with the aroma of baking bread -- one of my favorite smells. Now I've found a bakery that sells both bread and chocolate; my taste buds are dancing the tarantella!

For 18 years, Isabelle and Vincent Koenig ran KOENIG, a very successful and award winning bakery and chocolate shop, in Strasbourg, France. Nevertheless, during the last two years, the idea of opening their own bakery, not tied to the distinguished reputation of seven generations of Koenig family bakers, was percolating.

"It was easy to take the name for our shop from my parents. However, we wanted to prove ourselves and open our own bakery, just for us, Isabelle and Vincent," said Vincent, who holds a master's diploma as a patissier, confiseur and glacier, with more than 27 years of professional experience.

He grew up in his father's bakery and in 1986, received the very prestigious Prix de Vocation as patissier and confiseur from the Ministry of Education, Academy of Strasbourg, which is awarded to only a handful of people in France.

The Koenigs were looking for a new challenge and visited Dubai, South Africa and the United States in their search for the ideal location to open a French bakery. They wanted to check out all the possibilities before making the big decision to pick up everything and leave Strasbourg; equally important was the impact the move would have on their children, Caroline, 11, and Philippe, 9.

"People need to have a challenge and go with their dream," Isabelle said. "Every adventure must begin with a dream to change a reality and that is what we wanted to do. All is possible," Vincent said.

In July 2007, after having fallen in love with Connecticut on their first visit, they arrive in Westport with their children, 12 pieces of luggage and a dream to re-create their very popular Strasbourg patisserie here in America. They had sold everything and there was no looking back; it was the beginning of a new adventure and they were prepared for the challenge.

It took a little longer than expected, but in April, Isabelle et Vincent, a French bakery with a truly authentic feel -- design and decor created by Isabelle, offering artisan breads, pastries, cakes, quiches, ice cream and handmade chocolates, was born at 1903 Post Road in Fairfield.

It is readily apparent how passionate the Koenigs are about French baking and chocolate making, as well as making the patisserie a place where people will feel welcome.

"The bakery is my second home and I want to create that special ambience, so my customers feel like they would if they came to visit us in our own home. It's very important for me to get to know my customers and what they want," says Isabelle, who always has a fabulously engaging smile.

Vincent arrives at 2:30 a.m. every morning to start the preparation for the day and typically spends 17 to 20 hours in the bakery. Everything is prepared in the traditional manner using simple, fresh, natural ingredients and is always created from scratch without artificial flavorings or colorings. First and foremost, the Koenigs stress quality.

"Over the years, the technology has improved to the point where I can make fresher baked goods in less time. But, you still need to use high quality ingredients," Vincent said.

They purchase only the very best ingredients from France, getting the finest grade chocolate from Valrhona, one of the leading producers of chocolate in the world. Vincent is a seventh-generation (father-to-son) master chocolatier; his repertoire includes truffles, rochers, nougatine, azurs and pralines.

Whenever I walk into Isabelle et Vincent, which is quite often, I hear echoes of all the bakeries I've known and loved over the years, beginning with my neighborhood bakery, Pakula's.

Isabelle et Vincent makes food for the soul and provides a treat for the senses. Zagat.com says, "The best French bakery in Connecticut, period." Their pastries and chocolates are a combination of beauty and taste.

"You eat with your eyes," stresses Isabelle.

The bakery is on European time, which moves at a slower pace than American time, offering customers a haven from the hectic. While enjoying a croissant, brioche or pastry and a steaming cup of cafe au lait, you just might find yourself transported to a patisserie in the Montmartre section of Paris.

On Sunday, Kelly and I head over to Isabelle et Vincent for a baquette and a few brioches. Before we have a chance to place our order, Isabelle sees us and reaches for a pistachio and chocolate brioche, Kelly's favorite.

Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the countywide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. Email him at barryhalpin@aol.com.