Saved by the Belle

New cafe rescues downtowners from prepackaged pastries.

Belle Epicurean is the cafe I want to find when stranded in the downtown core of a strange city, surrounded by businesses whose names end with a ™. In downtown Seattle, the six-month-old cafe is a welcome respite from the ubiquitous hawking of cellophane-wrapped muffins and burnt coffee. It's entered the ranks of my top pastry wonderlands, alongside Ballard's Cafe Besalu and Columbia City Bakery. And, bonus, Belle Epicurean not only has a très bien place in the Fairmont Hotel, but it also sells pastries in the Pike Place Market and at a farmers market near you. Belle's variously dressed brioche buns are the signature items; a bevy of sweet and savory pastries are made with the same extra-rich dough. Sandwiches and salads are served up for lunch, and over 10 different, exactingly beautiful desserts wink at you from the case. In the interest of methodical research (twist my arm), I visited the cafe for breakfast twice, had a quick lunch, and stopped in both the Fairmont and market locations a few more times to collect "specimens" for further study. I just had to start with the unique twice-baked croissant ($3.50), which is baked, sliced, filled and topped with almond frangipane, and baked again. The staff heats all pastries to order—do not skip this step, even if an important meeting is calling you. Before trying it, I thought the croissant might be too dry, but I soon realized it had the right amount of crispy outer crust surrounding a soft, layered inside. The creamy, realistically sweet almond filling feels more like nut pesto than commercial almond paste. As a control subject, the traditional, plain brioche ($3) earns high marks. The light, squishable egg bread is topped with the thinnest glaze, and its taste stands strongly enough on its own; one does not need to smear on the butter and jam provided. At the Pike Place Market outpost, Belle's Buns, chocolate walnut brioche ($3.50) is dished up with its filling oozing. The ground walnut/chocolate mixture hovers somewhere between bitter and semisweet, allowing for full appreciation of its buttery wrap. Nutella pales in comparison. The pear-almond and classic pecan brioche buns (each $3.50) continue this theme of understated sweetness, which serves to highlight the quality of the ingredients. Though Belle Epicurean's pastries seem decadent at first glance (with copious amounts of butter), the components are each so very thoughtful and balanced that the effect is never too much. No wonder it's said that the best pastry chefs possess restraint. Chef Carolyn Ferguson makes everything at her production kitchen in Georgetown, and her impressive résumé embellishes the downtown cafe's wall. She received top honors from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris along with Le Grand Diplôme, a distinction for students who complete both cuisine and patisserie programs at the prestigious school. Her talent also shows in the personal touches that spice up her classic desserts ($5.75). Mini Baba Rhum cakes are accessorized with vibrant black cherries. Chocolate charlotte molded mousse cakes come alive with aromas of ripe orange. Ferguson cleverly deals with the scraps of her praline-layered opera cake by rolling them up and covering them in chocolate and nuts, naming them opera balls. This inventive trick screams of the South, where culinary execution is often playful instead of pristine. Therefore, it's not surprising to hear that Ferguson did time in a New Orleans kitchen before settling in Seattle. For lunch, her savory pastries and sandwiches ($3.50 to $5.75) can be simple: dry salami and cornichon or ham and Gruyère on a soft baguette. But that same ham and Gruyère, when met with provolone and Mornay sauce in brioche, is mind-blowing. The ham feuillette is satisfying on its own, though I paired it with Belle's spring greens dressed in the troika of blue cheese, bacon, and mustard vinaigrette. Belle Epicurean is all about the little touches. There's a ton to take in on your first visit, and, luckily, the staff is very patient and helpful—a crucial element. I saw a few deer-in-the-headlights moments when potential customers seemed so overwhelmed upon entering the shop that they looked ready to bolt. However, the staff answered questions and soothed the worried creatures. The cafe's espresso service also scores huge points with me. When my latte, made with Caffé Vita coffee, arrived in a Wedgwood teacup, I quietly gasped. There are ladies who lunch and ladies who shop, but I am a lady who lollygags over lattes. Now I have a new place for said activity downtown.

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