Dostoevsky supposedly remarked that one can judge how civilized a society is by looking at the conditions inside its prisons. Since we don’t have any prisons on the Upper East Side where I live, I prefer to examine its bakeries. By that standard, we are sliding slowly but inexorably toward the precipice. Back in the 70’s, when I was taking out-of-towners on a tour of the city, one of the stops was always Madison Avenue-not to let them press their noses against the windows of stores like Givenchy, Etro and Armani, which is all many of us can afford to do these days, anyway, but to sample the avenue’s baked goods.
The tour started at Rigo, a Hungarian bakery near 70th Street. Rigo sold many fine pastries, but the one that stays in my mind is an oversized petit four that resembled a woman’s breast. It was a cone of whipped marzipan topped with a candied cherry and covered in white icing. Taking a bite of it as one proceeded up Madison Avenue was something best done furtively.
Not eight blocks north and a couple of steps down stood G&M, another Hungarian confectioner that sold the best Florentines I’ve ever tasted-each the size of a Frisbee and coated in your choice of dark or milk chocolate. G&M also had a seven-layer cake that could cure loneliness, and salesgirls who were apparently hired for their sultry good looks rather than their speed at ringing up sales. A couple of them were so fetching that you could almost forgive them when they took your piece of seven-layer cake from the end of the loaf rather than from the center, as you requested. It was always fresher in the center.
If you didn’t happen to be in the mood for marzipan or oceanic quantities of buttercream, there was always William Greenberg Jr. Desserts, up a few more blocks, where the affable Mr. Greenberg himself held court while decorating birthday cakes for the rich and famous, and where the Linzer tortes and sand tarts, not to mention the brownies and jelly thumbprint cookies, seemed to pat you on the back for your good taste every time you popped one in your mouth.
But Madison Avenue’s transformation into an upscale mall has changed all that. Rigo was the first casualty, retreating to its other store on 78th Street between First and Second avenues-where Lily Josephy, its owner, continued to make by far the best rugelach in New York, not to mention my bosom pastry, until she passed away last year, and the business with her. Lily and I had a special relationship. One time I got home with a danish, opened the bag and discovered Lily’s wedding band inside. She was so relieved when I returned it that she gave me a free Sacher torte.
G&M has been replaced by the Better Baker, which specializes in low-fat products, and about which the less said the better. William Greenberg Jr. Desserts continues to serve the community. Unfortunately, it’s missing its most important ingredient-Mr. Greenberg himself-who retired after selling the business for a tidy sum. When you walked into the store and Mr. Greenberg greeted you, it was roughly equivalent to getting one of the front tables at Elaine’s. I shouldn’t boast, but when my first daughter was born, Mr. Greenberg gave me three free brownies.
Some will undoubtedly accuse me of living in the past. When my father reminisces again and again about bakeries in Greenwich Village that went out of business 50 years ago, it drives me crazy. But bakeries, their transporting aromas and pedestrian traffic, are as vital to the life of cities as its bookstores, over whose demise much greater fuss is made. What would Paris and Vienna be without their bakeries? Montreal or Newark, maybe. I recently read a moving obituary in The New York Times about A.M. Selinger, the man who ran the Éclair Bakery shop on West 72nd Street, another Konditorei where I had a special relationship. During the hippie era of the late 60’s, when hysteria gripped some of the parents at my high school who were convinced we were all going to become heroin addicts, my mother calmly opened a charge account for my brothers and me at Éclair.
“I thought since all children love sweet things it might be a deterrent,” she explained recently. “It seemed to have worked in this case.”
The Times obit mentioned that Isaac Bashevis Singer was a regular at Éclair, where the dining room behind the bakery counter was a gathering place for Central European refugees. I don’t recall ever seeing him there. But then again, many of the regulars looked like Singer. I do know, however, that I rose in the management’s estimation and ceased to be just a spoiled kid living off his mother’s charge account the day I arrived for lunch with Louis Koch, the father of the future Mayor, with whom I was campaigning on his son’s behalf. Years later, when I would drop by for a cherry napoleon or a quarter-pound of rainbow cookies, they still asked after “Mr. Koch.”
Éclair, alas, has gone the way of Rigo and G&M. I can’t put it any more poignantly than The Times ‘ obituary did: “The shop is now a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop.”
My feelings of loss and regret aren’t unique. My friend Jennifer recalls the enchanting smells of the long departed Patisserie Dumas wafting into her sixth-grade math class at the Dalton School. One privileged classmate even had a standing daily order for a baguette. “Madame Dumas, who was the essence of middle-class French fortitude, did not encourage children in her shop,” Jennifer remembered. “One time she put out a dish of broken cookies. But the shop got completely swamped with these rampaging students swiping cookie bits. She never made that error again.”
However, there are islands of hope amid the general misery of Manhattan baking. Patisserie Bonté, the venerable French bakery at Third Avenue and 75th Street, continues to make as delightful a petit four or fruit tart as one is likely to find anywhere. The croissant at Le Pain Quotidien, a relatively new arrival on Madison Avenue in the 80’s, rivals the best Parisian breakfast pastries. And biting into the chewier apricot-filled or powdered croissants at Sant Ambroeus triggers memories of summer mornings in Italy-though at $22 a pound for cookies and with the swells hanging out at the espresso bar, I wouldn’t argue with those who consider Sant Ambroeus as much a part of the problem as the solution. The same for the Maison du Chocolat, just off Madison Avenue at 73rd Street. The staff boasts that the baked goods, such as the $4.25 macaroons, are flown in daily from France, which may explain why they taste jet-lagged.
Most disappointing of all is Payard, the new French bakery and brasserie garnering all the rave reviews. The soaring wood-paneled space on Lexington Avenue between 73rd and 74th streets looks stunning. So do the pastries. “But the taste doesn’t live up to the look,” observed a baker from the old school. I agree. He may as well have been speaking about the state of society in general: “What it boils down to is, I think they need a pinch of salt.”