This Upstate New York Bakery Makes a Pilgrimage-Worthy Pain au Chocolat
Crumbling, half-empty Utica, New York is these days absent from most traveler to-do lists, but the center of this historically important city, population 60,000, does happen to be a minute or two from the New York State Thruway, a terribly long road linking Buffalo with New York City. The other day, well into the drive, a drive that never seems to get any shorter, no matter how many times you tackle the thing, I stopped in Utica, hoping for a decent cup of coffee. Entirely by accident, I found one of the best chocolate croissants I've eaten since—well, since Paris.
Okay, I'm lying. I found two of them, at Utica Bread, a charmingly unpretentious, thoroughly modern bakery. They were the last two in the shop that day, and I ate them both, one right after the other, because they were honestly that good.
The structure was bang on, precise, absolutely textbook croissant; rich in butter, but just the right amount. The layers—all there. The thing was shaped exactly like a good pain au chocolat should be, a puffy rectangle of bliss, bulging out, but ever so politely, at both ends. The chocolate was smooth as could be, melting on the tongue. There was a slight chew to the whole thing, a tiny bit of pushback, which only made it more exciting. All this, just about a half hour before closing time.
That's correct—a pair of soon to be stale, last of the day croissants in Utica knocked my socks off, and if you don't believe me when I tell you these things transported me over the Atlantic and somewhere far, far away from Upstate New York, feel free to go and examine them yourself. While you're there, do slow down, just a little—turns out, there's a whole lot else going on in Utica right now.
For generations, Utica was the sort of place you left, and the sooner the better—this is a city that now has fewer inhabitants than it did more than a century ago, a city that has shed nearly half of its peak population, recorded in 1950. Let's be fair, though—even in its diminished state, there were still plenty of reasons to appreciate Utica. Leftover from the boom times, you had some pretty stellar architecture, and some great food as well, thanks to the very old—and enduring—Italian and Middle Eastern immigrant communities.
About a decade ago, things began to change. The state stopped resettling large groups of refugees in New York City, opting instead for cheaper cities like Utica, and for the first time in ages, the population here inched upward, just the tiniest little bit. These days, Utica feels remarkably, well, perhaps not entirely alive, not yet, but at least no longer left for dead. In fact, within a stone's throw of the intersection of Genesee and Oriskany Streets, the rather less than grand entrance to downtown, you now have a weekend's worth of eating and drinking to do. There is the Oneida County Public Market, held at Union Station on Saturdays, complimented by the Genesee Street Market on Fridays, in front of the state office building. Nearby, you have the Saranac Brewery, some very good bars, breakfast at Craylee's, Lebanese at Zeina's, and Vietnamese at Pho Mekong.
But right here, right next to you, all conveniently lined up in a row, you have the Utica Coffee Roasting Company, which partnered with a local refugee resource center on their latest roast (the Myanmar Moe Htet), The Tailor and The Cook, an earnest, farm-to-table spot with a list of good New York wines, and then, right next door, there is Utica Bread.
The last two establishments are owned by Tim Hardiman and Chris Talgo, a fiercely pro-Utica duo; the bakery goes back a few years now, to 2015. In the beginning, Utica Bread tried to function like many modern bakeries do, doing sandwiches and the like, but as their wholesale business began to grow—rather significantly—they concluded that the focus should be on the baking. Now, it's been stripped down to become more of an all-bread-all-the-time, no-nonsense operation.
You certainly get the feeling that this place means business, when you walk in—the actual baking bit spills outward, well toward the door; this is the kind of place where you can all but see the flour hanging on the oven-warmed air. Not that you aren't welcome here, far from it—they still have a modest retail operation going, right up front, and anyone can stop by for a slice of quiche, a giant wedge of tomato pie, or perhaps a cookie; you may take home masterfully-done baguettes, brioche, a 48-hour sourdough loaf, some deli rye—there's a lot going on here, and it's all well worth investigating. Finally, there is the selection of proper viennoiserie, of which the pain au chocolat is an absolute star. Buy as many as you can—the odds are good it's a long drive to wherever you're going.