Pastries and bread evidently have a power beyond mere calories. At least that's the impression I got while hanging around Maple Street Patisserie. Under some evocative, aromatic influence, customers often start gushing to the counter help about amber braids of challah bread from their youth, the mystifyingly light croissants from their Paris honeymoon or the cake they sampled on vacation in Greece and are desperate to find somewhere back home.
Sometimes the trigger is what they find in the case or baskets at this Uptown bakery, where an impressively diverse range of European-style pastries is always offered. At other times, people implore the baker to sate some craving with a special order. They've come to the right place.
The maestro here is master baker Ziggy Cichowski, a native of Poland whose multi-ethnic prowess in the baking arts owes something to Cold War geopolitics. Growing up in the then-communist country, he was allowed to work in Russia, Germany, France and elsewhere as a baker's apprentice. Had he lived in a more open society, he says now, he might have elected to stay longer, perhaps permanently, in one these countries. But he was always required to return home to Poland, where he'd again apply to travel and work somewhere else.
Over time, these trips amounted to a journeyman's tour of European baking traditions. Later, his family emigrated to the U.S., and eventually he made it to New Orleans. He was bringing samples of his pastries to potential clients when he met Patricia Ann Donohue, a chef and New Jersey native who knew baking talent when she tasted it. They teamed up to start Maple Street Patisserie in 2010.
You don't need any deep-seated taste memories to appreciate their patisserie's work. Take the bear claw, which has scant resemblance to the doughy sugar bomb more typically sold by the name. This one is not just about flavor but texture and form, too. Bite in and your teeth sink easily through layers of pastry, reaching an airy hollow lined with raspberry. Along the way, you get the crunch of sugar grains and warm, toasted almond slivers. This is pastry that works with your mouth rather than just filling it.
Cichowski's breads have been turning up in restaurants around town, and at lunchtime at Maple Street Patisserie they're the building blocks for sandwiches. This is a rather small part of the business here, and though the simple chalkboard menu has just four options, you can mix things up by choosing your bread. I prefer the prosciutto sandwich on airy, crusty ciabatta, which soaks up a layer of bright, tangy pesto and holds in soft, plump wads of fresh mozzarella. Dense, chewy baguettes are my choice for a French-style sandwich of thin-sliced ham and thick planks of Brie.
Pastry can get highly personal, too. Just watch the guy trying to choose from a platter of ostensibly identical blueberry muffins, like a kid picking his goldfish from the aquarium's multitudes. For people attached to their baked goods, Maple Street Patisserie proves a great place to go fish.