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As a lifetime lover of carbohydrates -- complex or otherwise -- the house-afire success of the Atkins, South Beach and other low-carb diets has always been a mystery to me. And now, with the advent of Rustica, the exemplary south Minneapolis bakery, these carb-clipping regimens seem downright tortuous.
Rustica exemplifies the super premium-quality mentality that Gourmet, Food & Wine, Saveur and other glossies are talking about when they brandish the foodie word of moment: artisanal. With their passionate dedication to scholarship, craftsmanship and ingenuity, owner Steve Horton and baking cohort Tammy Hoyt-Simonds have created that rare place where integrity of purpose, skill of execution and lack of pretension are inextricably bound. Their baking honors time-tested European principles -- from applying long fermentation periods to using top-flight ingredients -- rather than the kind of American assembly-line short cuts that led to Wonder Bread. The results are extraordinary.
Each Rustica bread -- hand formed, hearth baked -- is better than the last; some varieties are always available, others are daily specials. "Rustic," the bakery's signature loaf, is a marvelous ciabatta-striata hybrid, a free-form, low-rise beauty with a chewy crust and a light, low-crumb body. Its diametric opposite is miche, a wickedly dense, darkly alluring whole wheat-rye blend that flexes a muscular tanginess. Levain, a scored-topped oval, has a softer -- and to me far more attractive -- kick than conventional sourdoughs.
Baguette, classic in both texture and demeanor, might be the best in town. Caraway rye is a brick, in the very best sense of that expression; buy it on Thursdays, when the added attraction of brandy-soaked currants is available.
The long, rectangular sandwich loaves (in white or nutty wheat) are ideal peanut-butter-and-jelly foundations. Multigrain is a mouthful, loaded with cornmeal, oats, pumpkin seeds and flax. A surprisingly light foccacia, sold in 6-inch squares, is garnished with rosemary sprigs and sea salt. Canadas de Azucar, an airy olive-oil flat bread dressed with sugar sprinkles,
has a fetching elasticity and a tantalizing sweetness.
Wild as I am about the breads, my sweet tooth is even more impressed. The cookies are dangerously alluring, particularly the bittersweet chocolates, which possess such mood-altering powers that they flirt with controlled-substance status. They're everything a cookie should aspire to be. The crinkled surface, darker than a French-roast coffee bean, glistens with sugar and has a gutsy snap; inside is a profoundly decadent fudgy center. If there's a better cookie in the Twin Cities, I haven't eaten it.
Hush-puppy brown and thin as a socialite, the sugar cookie is a beaut, too, its top crusted with bubbled ultrafine sugar and lemon zest, each taste blasting a tart citrus kick. The knobbly sbrisolona, a blend of corn flour, almond flour and Grand Marnier, is a dry, crumbly, not-so-sweet distant cousin to biscotti. Horton joked that the chocolate-chip cookies look like a mistake, but their accidental appearance is entirely intentional, their over-the-top butter content causing them to spread far and wide.
They stay parked in the oven until they take on the bewitching hue of dark brown sugar, and their texture tiptoes between brittle and chewy. The ones with pecans? Even more fabulous.
The rustic cakes and tarts are models of unassuming goodness. I can picture them growing into their natural beauty as they finish in the oven, rather than relying upon the nip/tuck tricks of a pastry pro. A round shortbread tart, with traces of vanilla sneaking in and out of every bite, was trimmed with overlapping layers of paper-thin Braeburn apple slices, fired until their edges were slightly caramelized. Underneath its deceptively uncomplicated appearance, an ultra-moist tart teased with unfolding tastes of almond, then lemon, then apple.
A caramel, so insanely buttery it made me drowsy, held together a melange of almonds, pecans and walnuts scattered across a textbook-perfect crust; was it a tart, or the world's most deliriously delicious candy bar? The flourless chocolate cake was so daringly rich that it took my breath away. And another memorably folded an opposites-attract pair of mellow Bosc pears and tangy cranberries into a lemony batter that baked golden brown outside and beaming sunshine inside.
The Danish are a joy, spirals of flaky, golden laminated dough, glistening in the pastry case like baubles at Tiffany. I'm not sure which I prefer most: the perkily sweet raisin, the spicy cinnamon or the ones lavished with either apricots or raspberry preserves.
(If Rustica has an Achilles heel, it's in the wallflower-esque croissants.)
This is a place that knows scones, and their embellishments are
first-rate: Currants have a wonderfully musty taste note, and a cherry-chocolate combo confidently balances puckery-sour fruit against seductive, dark-as-night chocolate. The biggest seller is bostok, and it's easy to understand why it's the belle of the bakery case. Thick brioche slices are soaked in orange blossom syrup, spread with almond cream, topped with almond slices and powdered sugar and then hit the oven, that labor-intensive process culminating in a twisted-sister cross between bread and pound cake, so rich that the Protestant in me was consumed with guilt after devouring every last crumb. But trust me, I got over it.
The cramped, under-construction surroundings, shared with the smartly renovated Java Jacks coffeehouse, should be finalized in a few weeks. Once the contractor leaves, Horton promises an expanded product line, including forays into lavash and puff pastry.
Christmas cookies too. I'll be the first in line. That diet can start after New Year's.