A cavalier attitude pervades Mardi Gras, and on Ash Wednesday many survivors switch to damage control. We play catch-up at work, "un-tag" ill-advised Facebook photos and try to realign our diets.
A bakery might not seem the best choice to begin the latter quest, but Gracious Bakery + Cafe deserves special consideration. It's true the new Mid-City spot traffics heavily in butter and sugar. But its palm-sized cakes, tartlets and two-bite mini-pastries seem more like indulgences that bolster willpower than binges that break it. And for those who emerge from the haze on Ash Wednesday to discover Valentine's Day is on the doorstep, these beautiful and finely crafted sweets can be a quick lifeline for gifts.
There is something almost magnetic about the bakery case at Gracious. The case isn't very big and the presentation is spare, but the items inside combine personality and quality. It's the shiny, chocolate-glossed knob of Black Forest cake, which looks like a jewel box and gem all in one, and the strata of chocolate and peanut butter on the opera cake. There are gourmet moon pies, and odd ends of croissant dough are rolled in cinnamon and molded into cupcake-sized "cruffins" (sometimes called "Kermit Cruffins").
Megan Roen Forman, a former pastry chef at Bayona and Sucre, opened Gracious in September. It looks like the corner bakery everyone says they want in their neighborhood, though it also functions as a sandwich shop and boutique patisserie.
Gracious makes a small clutch of baguettes, which sell out early, and most of the bread is dedicated to the sandwich board. A pistolette is stuffed with smoked ham, torn up for more surface area and texture variation, and dressed with apple and pepper jelly. Slabs of meatloaf with tomato jam and cheddar function like cheeseburgers on ciabatta. Chips or salad are served on the side, and salad is a virtuous and easy choice to make when the greens are this fresh. Similarly verdant vegetables go into the ever-changing and neatly arranged tarts, which are like quiches crossed with salads.
This bakery is fond of mash-ups, and its most remarkable is the pretzel croissant, inspired by the cult product of City Bakery in New York. It's a whole wheat croissant with buttery folds within, but finished like a pretzel, with a crisp, tawny crust and a scattering of salt. There also is a chocolate/caramel pretzel croissant in the works.
"Do you have anything without butter?" a customer once asked Forman. Her half-serious answer was to try the coffee, which is made with excellent beans from local micro-roaster French Truck Coffee. Beware, however, that even an innocent coffee stop at Gracious can turn into an aromatic ambush if a warm batch of cookies appears. What can you do? Even on the heels of Carnival, this is no town for going cold turkey.