When times are tough, fresh new ideas need to rise — like good yeasty dough. It was during the chilly early days of the Great Depression when an executive at Continental Bakeries thought of a way to put the baking pans, typically used for the company's summertime confection of shortbread fingers, back into business. Continental's shrewd exec, Charles Dewar, realized that he could use those pans to bake a spongy little cake filled with a dollop of whipped cream, and they could be packaged and sold two for a nickel. The Twinkie turned out to be America's most iconic snack cake.
Over the last few increasingly difficult months, several popular bakery-bistro operations have gone out of business, including the Artisan Francais Bakery in Overland Park and the Pastry Goddess venues in Briarcliff and Independence. This was bittersweet news to the loyal customers who loved the buttery croissants, flaky pastries and sandwiches served at the little café tables in these places.
But before you fall into a great depression of your own, here's some encouraging news. Pastry chef James Holmes has reopened Napoleon Bakery in Westport, and Ellen Hume has turned a little storefront in Kansas City, Kansas, into a charming European-style lunch spot and bake shop that she named Jay WaLe's Bakery-Bistro.
I'm particularly enamored of Hume's pretty little place, which is next door to one of my favorite diners, the Skillet Licker Café — though it's a universe apart from the Skillet Licker in style and spirit. Hume, born in Brazil and raised in many different places (she spent several years in Israel), named her four-month-old bistro after daughter Jacy, son Wagner and grandson Leonardo: Jay WaLe, get it?
It's the kind of intimate, family-run operation that one rarely sees anymore. Hume bustles around back in the surprisingly large kitchen but occasionally wipes her hands on her apron and comes out to chat with her customers. Gloria Zavala, the waitress-manager and resident maternal spirit, oversees a half-dozen fabric-draped tables and the shiny refrigerated pastry cases stocked with handmade candies, cream puffs, toffees and truffles; beautifully iced layer cakes; and cheesecakes.
Hume's dashingly handsome son, Wagner, a former soldier in the Israeli army, also lends a hand when he's not making deliveries — Hume does a brisk business in box lunches.
The first time I visited, it was a Sunday morning. Bob and Truman and I were on our way to make a long-awaited visit to the nearby Strawberry Hill Museum and Cultural Center (an amazing place, by the way). Truman, who rarely ventures to this other Kansas City, was thrilled with all the things on the breakfast menu. Hume offers breakfast only on Sundays, and the menu changes from week to week; that morning, she was serving a spinach-artichoke frittata, apple-cinnamon pancakes, smoked salmon eggs Benedict, and gravy over Cheddar biscuits.
And an overstuffed Tex-Mex breakfast burrito, with eggs and chorizo, which Truman gushed over. "It's fabulous!" he announced to Gloria. "But can you bring me a couple of those little fruit pastries from that case over there? I need a little sugar with my savory burrito, don't you know."
Bob rolled his eyes and focused on his own breakfast, a decadent tower of toasted English muffin, poached eggs, supple slices of pink smoked salmon and creamy hollandaise. I had wavered over ordering the biscuits and gravy but finally opted for the delicious frittata. Luckily for me, the Italian-style omelet was sided with one puffy little cheesy biscuit splashed with a spoonful of cream gravy.
"It's a really upscale atmosphere," Truman whispered. "Who would have guessed you could find a patisserie near Strawberry Hill?"