Photo Credit: Gabe Vodicka
FLOUR CHILD: The first thing you notice upon walking in the door of Thom Leonard’s Independent Baking Co. (1625 S. Lumpkin St., 706-850-3550) is not the smell of butter or baking bread or coffee. It is the smell of flour. I can think of nothing that better encapsulates Leonard’s laser-eyed focus on perfection and simplicity. Butter is wonderful, but you can make fine bread with nothing more than yeast, flour, salt and water and consume it plain with utter happiness.
This is such bread. The first time I tried a baguette from Independent Baking Co., my neighbors brought it to me. I ate the whole thing but for a section of about six inches in one night, and yet I retained some skepticism. I’d had a (slightly) better baguette in my life. When I actually made my way into the store, I bought a plain croissant; couldn’t wait to get out of my car to take a bite and was so transported I damn near forgot to step on the gas when the light changed. I have uttered profanities in delight at the scones. I have all but sunk to my knees in appreciation of the pastry.
The bakery is all the more special for its lack of pretense. The selection is small each day. There are no sandwiches cluttering things up or seating to speak of (a few stools by the window). The cash register is run by Square, and the interior is sleek and transparent, with all the baking happening right in front of you. The staff is cheerful and helpful, packaging your pastries carefully to avoid squashing and disappointment.
The product is phenomenally good. From a sourdough rye loaf (pitched just right in its level of tang) to a Kalamata olive bread (not shy with its olives but not letting them overwhelm the surroundings), the naturally leavened breads that make up most of the offerings are made with a natural wild-yeast starter the bakery cultures itself, and the sense of wildness is perceptible on the taste buds, like eating sourgrass off the ground or wild mulberries from a tree. The pastry is about as good as I have ever had, full of gentle crackle and give. And those scones. Prior to tasting one, I would have classified the scone as among the most boring bread products in existence, but these would change anyone’s mind.
There is, in the end, no food that surpasses bread for being essential, delicious and sufficient for basic nutrition and comfort, and you cannot do better in Athens than this stuff. Independent Baking Co. is open Tuesday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; it takes credit cards.
DETAILS!: Mimi Maumus, who runs home.made catering (1072 Baxter St., 706-206-9216), is about as much of a perfectionist as Leonard. Her darling space, next to Athens Floral Boutique, is a respite from the architectural mishmash that is Baxter Street, and although she still offers delivery through Bulldawg Food, it is a great happiness that she has been able to work out the parking issues with her neighbors and do dine-in again. The only thing she can’t quite control is the view out the window, where the sign of Little Caesar’s is set off by wildflowers, picturesquely rustic food photographs and handmade flags.
The atmosphere is a real pleasure, and the staff has a great touch, staying out of one’s personal space (it’s a small room) but always ready when needed. The menu has changed from summer to fall, which means the salad of arugula, excellent feta, pecans, charred vidalias and roasted peaches is no longer available. Whatever has replaced it is probably just as good. Maumus knows her stuff.
The “crackers” that come with the pimento cheese are a particular highlight, served slightly warm, crisp but tough enough to stand up to the thick spread, delicately cheesy and with great mouthfeel. Tiny radishes are an unexpected but great addition to the plate. The carrots are cut into perfect squared-off logs. The pickled deviled eggs, a beautiful yellow on the outside, are a nice blend of sweet, salty and sour. A combination of quinoa, kale, nasturtiums, beets and onions is a bowl of color and flavor that could convince any committed meat-eaters to go veggie.
Both the swanee bites (two cheese straws squooshed around a layer of pimento cheese, rolled in pecans) and the housemade pickles offer big, bold flavors that have lots of side roads. The pecan chicken salad is good stuff, too, although the croissant it comes on could be swapped for a better and more substantial bread. Adorable desserts include squares of chess pie, chocolate chip cookies that do not skimp on chocolate and salted caramel bars that need a boost in their salt content.
home.made is open for lunch weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., plus the monthly supper club. You can get the pimento cheese, the chicken salad, the vidalia onion dip and other items in bulk. Please be careful where you park, lest the dine-in option go away again.