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Sugar, Sugar at Oakland’s Firebrand Artisan Breads 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2015
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The first bite I tasted of a pain au chocolat was a revelation to my sullen adolescent soul. My stepmother brought them home one day out of the blue, as if she knew instinctively what could cure my teenaged ills. Ever since then, bakeries have been a salve, healing my every wound, the one place in this lonely world that can lift, unfailingly, a pessimistic mood into the beatific. It is, therefore, unnerving to have already lost my enthusiasm for the arrival of a new bakery in downtown Oakland.

After several visits to Firebrand Artisan Breads' new location onBroadway, the thought of returning again has lost its luster. Everyone working there is polite, kind, and helpful. The space is open, and there's comfortable seating inside and out. The artisanal coffee is strong and hand-brewed, as is de rigeur, and acres of glistening pastries sit behind lovely glass vitrines like shiny edible presents. So what's the problem if everything looks appetizing?

It's simply a matter of taste and preference. The challah, for example, was golden on the outside, but crumbly and dry on the inside. (By contrast, the challah from Berkeley's now-defunct Nabalom was routinely chewy and tender.) The challah from Alameda's Feel Good Bakery is a close, delicious cousin, as istheloaf in Oakland's Market Hall Bakery. In fairness, making French toast out of the Firebrand challah was tasty, but that's not the place to start with a fresh baked loaf. But the olive fougasse was gritty and sour.Perhaps aplain baguette would have been the way to go.

As for the pastries,there was stack upon stack of krullers, Danish, bearclaws,bomboloni, eclairs, financiers, cookies, andcream puffs. Surely there laysomething to please the palate, right? But that was the crux of the problem: The sugar level overwhelmed every bite. It's not unusual for me to order and devour a couple of pastries on a weekend morning and shortly thereafter be thinking about breakfast or lunch. (Gluttony, thy face is revealed.) But after a single bite of jam-filled, sugar dusted bomboloni, it was too much to finish. Only a passion fruit Danish offered some hint of flavor other than a glaze of sugars.

In the center of the store is Pal's Sandwiches, which used to live on24th Street in the Mission.The salmon and the vegetarian sandwiches were fine andgood, but ultimatelyforgettable.They did nothing to erase the almostdaily cravings that Bette's-To-Go on Fourth Street in Berkeley elicits.

It's not that anything at Firebrand is sub-par. The owners have paid attention to the right details. Every item on the menu photographs well and looksappealingonline. But in person, those intangible qualities that arouse an intense feeling of loyalty are missing. None of this is to say that a cult of devoted admirers isn't already on the rise. There's simply an aspect in certain rounds of dough that you come, ineffably, to love, that in others you don't.

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