Nora Allen’s temple to local grains and natural leavening, Mel the Bakery, opened six months deep into Covid-19 shutdowns—and is thriving.
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Mel the Bakery Interior
Credit: Mel the Bakery

The headlines in the past six months have been very bad for restaurants, along with cafes, bars, and bakeries. So it is particularly refreshing that a new bakery has not just managed to open in the midst of the currency pandemic, but thrive. Mel the Bakery, a small, cheery storefront in the Lower East Side of Manhattan selling naturally leavened pastries and bread made with locally milled grain, opened in early September and already has lines around the block every weekend. “Lines in the COVID era can be deceptive,” said Nora Allen, Mel’s head baker and sourdough whisperer. “But we’ve been selling out, so that’s something.”

You might think that since baking at home is on the rise a new bakery might not be as tempting a prospect. But after many months of making my own loaves of sourdough at home, tasting Allen’s bread was a relief. The focaccia she serves by the slice, which she had dappled with the last of the summer’s tiny, juicy Sungold tomatoes, was light and crisp, not dense and weighed down by olive oil as my home versions often turn out. The loaf of “Max’s Bread,” made with Maryland buckwheat porridge and onions named after Allen’s friend and mentor Max Blachman-Gentile, was hearty and tangy, perfect with a smear of the cultured butter Allen also makes in house. The croissants, double-baked and filled with pistachio cream, and already a minor Instagram sensation, reminded me that the joys of baking croissants at home are sometimes dwarfed by being able to just go buy a really, really good one from a professional baker.

“Oh yeah, croissants will make you cry like six times over before you get them right,” Allen said, though she’s clearly long past the crying stage. In the basement of the shop, she churns out kouign ammann (a buttery muffin-shaped pastry that hails form Brittany, France, flakey and sweet and stuffed with, when I visited, blueberry compote and more pistachio cream, though it varies based on seasonality), rye chocolate chip cookies sprinkled with sea salt, and gorgeous laminated cinnamon rolls topped with just enough of a schmear of cream-cheese icing. “The idea is basically taking too much time to do everything,” Allen laughed. She grinds her spices in house, and mills as much flour as she can in the basement. 

At the counter with the pastries and bread, Allen also has a self-described “Micro Grain Market,” where she sells bags of local flour, encouraging customers to experiment with heritage grains at home. To Allen, grains are at the center of the whole operation, and it puzzles her that people haven’t taken more care to learn where their flour comes from. “You’ll see people make a really nice meal, and source the produce from farmers and the meat from a local butcher, but still use a commodity flour,” Allen said. 

Pastries from Mel the Bakery
Credit: Patricia Howard

Part of Allen’s goal with Mel is to spread the word about the riches and wonders of New York State grain, and the range of flavors that local grains can bring to bread and pastry. The day I visited, she had just taken delivery of a giant bag of amaranth, gleaming ruddy pearls in a burlap bag. We started chatting about how to use grains like amaranth at home, and Allen got so enthused about one vision of hers—a project that made Rice Krispies-style treats out of different grains—that she hopped up and down a little to punctuate her sentences. Allen’s enthusiasm isn’t didactic, or snobby—she just loves grains, and she thinks that you can too, if you get to know them.

Perhaps a bakery is an ideal business to open up in 2020, after a period of grocery shortages and intensive home baking. Since standard all-purpose flour was in short supply for so long, Allen hopes that home bakers have become more open to experimenting with whole grains and a wider range of flours. 

There are no seats at Mel, so Allen doesn’t have to worry about dining mandates—customers just pick up from the counter. Right now, she’s only open for retail on the weekends. During the week, she bakes for her wholesale bread customers, though the hope is to eventually open for retail on some weekdays as well. When she’s finished her orders, Allen distributes the rest  of her bread and pastry to people around the neighborhood who’ve also been working through these strange and turbulent times. “We just want to be a really good, thoughtful neighborhood bakery,” Allen said. Whether you’re popping in to chat about hard red wheat or just grabbing a loaf, Mel is a good new neighbor to have.