Open the door to Bread Furst and you know why you’re there. That deliciously comforting, soul-filling smell of bread baking makes you want to inhale deeply, exhale with audible pleasure and then tear off big pieces of crusty goodness from every loaf in sight.

And that, explains the bakery’s founder and driving force Mark Furstenberg, is by design.

bread-furst-exterior-small“I knew from the beginning I wanted bread in the front. Bread had to come first,” says Furstenberg. ”I also wanted the bakery to be completely open visually for everyone to see.” And as this new bakery proves, Furstenberg knows bread. He is often credited with being the first to bring really good bread back to DC when he opened Marvelous Market in 1990.

Offering some history, Furstenberg explains that until around World War I, “there used to be a lot of good Jewish bakers in urban areas of the US. Then kids didn’t want to follow their parents and be bakers.” We should all be grateful Furstenberg did take to baking, though only after a few other successful careers first.

Walking into Bread Furst, you are drawn to a wall of windows on your left, open at the top to make sure the evocative bread aroma infuses the bakery. Not only can you watch the bakers at work, but there are racks of crusty breads stacked, ready and calling your name.

Two long shelves hold Furstenberg’s trademark Palladin bread named for Washington’s legendary chef/restaurateur, Jean Louis Palladin, who was an early supporter and friend. It’s a favorite of the area restaurants that make daily purchases of loaves by the dozens.

Some of the daily breads with the Palladin bread (top), baked in very large loaves and sold by the pound.

Some of the daily breads, including levain and rye varieties

Round loaves of levain, the rustic French sourdough, sit near the miche, made with the levain dough, but with varying additions of dried fruits, nuts or olives. The New World rye is less dense than traditional rye, while the corn rye incorporates caraway and coriander. Ancient grain breads, increasingly popular, are made from varying combinations of spelt, kamut, amaranth, millet and quinoa. Everyday there’s one kind of whole grain bread and one ancient grain for sale.

The bakery insists that a baguette has to be absolutely fresh, baking them every four hours throughout the day—200 on weekdays, 300 on weekends. “Most bread you wouldn’t cut when it’s warm,” head baker Ben Arnold explains, “but a baguette is best the first few hours out of the oven.”

On Fridays, some 200 loaves of golden challah are baked using Arnold’s recipe because, as Furstenberg says, it’s a “beautiful and consistent one.”

At the counter with friendly staff members and some of the pastries including (from left) canelés, sage cornbread and brownies

At the counter with friendly staff members and some of the pastries including (from left) canelés, sage cornbread and brownies

At the retail counter in the middle of the bakery, a friendly, helpful staff greets you along with all those loaves for sale, pastries (more on those later) and large baskets of homemade English muffins (try one and you’ll never eat mass-produced again), bagels and rolls. Move further down for savory choices at the “deli” counter.

Because it’s not a bagel bakery, Furstenberg says, only plain and sesame are sold. These skinnier bagels with a wonderfully thick crust and less of a doughy interior have become popular quickly. And on weekends there are fragrant onion-filled bialys, not easy to find in this area.

Bread might come first, but the pastries more than hold their own here where you can also watch the pastry chefs at work through large windows at the back of the shop. Head pastry chef Jack Revelle, who spent eight years in the White House pastry kitchen, says that the bakery makes a combination of classic American baked goods with a few French staples.

“The emphasis is on fresh, real ingredients,” he elaborates, “with as little sugar as possible and very limited use of extracts.” That means flavoring with real coffee and lemon zest, for example. Seasonal ingredients and herbs help bring out the flavors of the main ingredients with results like cornbread with sage and cherries made with fresh corn and unlike any other cornbread I’ve ever tasted.

An assortment of the day’s freshly baked sweet treats, with the canelé in the center, entices customers.

An assortment of the day’s freshly baked sweet treats, with the canelé in the center, entices customers.

If I were forced to pick one favorite from among the many sweet riches, it would not be easy but I’d choose the canelé…or, as Furstenberg calls them, “little cups of wonder.” A specialty of France’s Bordeaux region, each is baked for two hours in special copper molds lined with a thin layer of very hot wax to create a dark, crunchy crust surrounding a custard-like interior fragrant with vanilla bean and rum. Don’t plan on sharing these.

Not to be forgotten is the shop’s line of savory foods still being developed. Among the current offerings are a few salads like chickpea, wraps and sandwiches. A wedge of vegetable frittata is more than enough to feed two while the flavorful foriana of walnuts, golden raisins and pine nuts with garlic and oregano is delicious mixed with my home-roasted cauliflower. More savory is coming as it was announced just before this story was completed that starting in mid-September, former Palena chef Frank Ruta will be running a nightly dinner offering, Bread Feast. Definitely something to look forward to.

Don’t let the bakery’s location next to a car wash put you off. Bread Furst delivers some of the best bread in town, baked with passion and knowledge, as well as pastries you can’t pass up and won’t regret, good coffee, a café atmosphere and…oh, did I mention the bread?

Bread Furst, 202-765-1200, 4434 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC (parking lot in rear); Monday—Friday 7 am–8 pm, Saturday 8 am–6 pm, Sunday 8 am–3 pm. Not kosher. 

Top photo: Mark Furstenberg holding a Palladin loaf.
Photos by Dori Phaff.