My little tower of bread arrives on a white tin plate with a voluptuous quenelle of butter on the side. The bread isn’t supposed to be the star of the show, just a supporting player to go with a vibrant salad made with a variety of familiar and unusual grains, roasted Broccolini, a perfect soft-boiled egg, a bunch of pickled vegetables, and some luxurious shavings of Parmesan.
But this is no ordinary slice of bread.
It is a mottled, brown-and-tan sourdough with crispy, burnt edges and insets of tiny orange gems — sweet potato. The butter is a compound of salty preserved lemon and freshly snipped thyme, sprinkled with dried harissa. I spread the sweetly acidic butter on the remarkable sweet-potato levain, push my salad aside, and swoon.
The man responsible for my epiphany in bread is Chris Wilkins, the brainy baker who moved from Charleston, S.C., with his wife, Nicole Lewis, last year to open Root Baking Co. at Ponce City Market.
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With a case full of buttery croissants, cookies, shortbread and coffeecake; pointy French baguettes; and loaves fashioned from heirloom grains milled in-house, Root Baking is the new best reason for a visit to the popular restaurant-and-retail behemoth on Ponce de Leon Avenue. Housed in a quiet, second-floor corner of a market almost never described as tranquil, the boulangerie offers a simple list of breakfast, lunch and dinner offerings, pairing Wilkins’ masterful bread with the seasonal musings of chef Matthew Palmerlee. Palmerlee (late of the late Last Word and Athens’ Branded Butcher) uses Middle Eastern ingredients with subtle intelligence.
Happily, Palmerlee’s labneh, olives and saffron marry well with Wilkins’ rye, grit and sorghum.
One of the best ways to feel the bliss is with the roasted chicken sandwich, at lunch. This is not the blah sliced chicken breast of a thousand pedestrian sandwiches from your past. Rather, it’s a tri-layered affair of chicken salad, tangy harissa-pickled carrots and an abundance of chopped herbs — between sorghum bread. Neatly wrapped in wax paper, Japanese katsu-sando style, it comes with dill spears and perfect potato chips. I adore it.
If you lunch on the aforementioned grain salad, a clever study in textures loaded with crunchy seeds, nuts, radishes, carrots and tender chickpeas, you’ll be delighted, but you won’t experience The Wilkins Touch. So ask for the Daily Bread, a rotating assortment from his soulful repertoire.
Breakfast is the time to try a croissant — plain, chocolate or filled with ham, egg, cheese or veggies. My ham-and-cheese croissant was packed with sorghum-glazed ham and salty cheddar. So good.
Toasts might be spread with seasonal jams, butters, marmalades or soft cheese. Quince butter toast was constructed from a slab of browned and buttered rye piled with a fluffy cloud of Sweet Grass Dairy’s Lil’ Moo cheese and toasted pecans.
Though it does serve dinner, Root Baking Co. can’t claim to be a suppertime destination just yet, though if you happen to be in the market after 4 p.m., it’s a nice opportunity to sample Palmerlee in more ambitious mode.
Lamb terrine with labneh, dates, pistachio, mint and baby endive was pretty to look at, but the pressed meat was a bit on the lean side and not all that flavorful. Also, where’s the bread? Moving along, I loved the way the roasted fingerling sweet potatoes held on to their charry skins; they were tossed with sunchokes, pink grapefruit, pistachio, and arranged on a puddle of labneh whipped with pumpkinseed oil, which turns it green. A lovely wintry meditation, though I’m not sure grapefruit supremes make good sense.
A buttery slice of rye the size of a prayerbook was topped with an escabeche of mussels and clams, dressed with fennel oil, tossed with radishes and herbs — and seriously good.
Za’atar roasted chicken thigh, with chickpea stew, rice and a dollop of walnut salsa, was the most substantial dinner offering, and quite satisfying, too. If there’s a pattern here (and methinks there is), it’s that anything with Wilkins’ bread is memorable.
When we asked for a slice to go with our dinner spread, we got a piece of grit levain, made from two types of heirloom grits, Guinea Flint and an Appalachian variety called Bloody Butcher that gives the bread its reddish-black flecks. It was redolent of brown butter, hazelnuts, coffee. Good lord. Is it possible for bread to be as complex as wine, chocolate or a well-made cocktail?
With a baking nerd like Wilkins minding the hearth, it is. For a multitude of reasons (parking, tourists, price point), I’ve been loath to frequent Ponce City Market. With Root Baking Co. in the house, I may become a stalker.
ROOT BAKING CO.
7 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays; 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays. Ponce City Market, 675 Ponce de Leon Ave., second floor, Atlanta. 470-639-8046, rootbaking.com.
Recommended: Ham-and-cheese croissant. Toast with quince butter and toasted pecans. Daily bread. Grain salad. Roasted chicken sandwich. Mussels and clam escabeche toast. Za’atar roasted chicken thigh. French baguettes, lemon shortbread, ginger-drizzle cookies.