It's buttery, flaky, a cavernous treat, the type of thing no one can help but eat when they see the whole tray piled high behind glass, beckoning diners who gather en masse. The puffy, crisp roll has a light outer shell that begs to be sliced to reveal each round cell created by yeast and what must be a ton of butter, at least, in every one. There's an art to the dough, called viennoiserie, but most guests don't care, they need only see the counter abounding with baked goods galore, then they end up ordering quite a bit more than intended. It's all cause their eyes filled with want the moment they locked on the perfect croissant.
The chef made a bold claim long before the bakery even opened its doors, and since then he's dealt with a misquote he hurled: He wants to run the best bakery in the world. Though the jury's still out on the world domination, the new shop has proved to be quite the sensation. From the croissants that make food-lovers swoon to the savory items, it's hard to lampoon chef Shvartzapel's quote now that clearly, hands down, Common Bond is truly the best bakery in town. It opened to fanfare that somehow, magically hasn't died down yet, leaving tragically few chairs on the bright dining floor, not designed for a line that's -- more often than not -- out the door. People don't seem to mind, though, as they converse in line, comparing notes on which dishes are fine, while chef Shvartzapel observes from the kitchen, pleased with his pastries and their knack for bewitching. The same folks come in here day after day, eager to feast on the veritable buffet of croissants, macarons and the best, kouign amann, and Shvartzapel waves to each, the gracious bakery Don. Recently, while waiting in line with the crowd, I heard someone near me wonder aloud, "What should I get? It all sounds so great!" "Excuse me," I said, "I'm sorry, I hate to interrupt you, but here's what to get: A kouign amann, a croissant, some bread...and yet, savory is good, too..." I trailed off while she looked at me slightly distraught. "Sorry," I said. "I eat here a lot." And so it is that I find myself staying up late, computer in lap, scone on plate, enjoying the fruits of Shvartzapel's labor while I virtually put pen to paper in an effort to capture pastry with words. It's no easy task; this one ain't for the birds. But I feel you should know of this food, so sublime. Common Bond is so great, it drives me to rhyme.
Roy Shvartzapel came here by way of New York. He was born in Houston, but he left town to work with some of the greatest chefs in the world, under whose guidance his talent unfurled. After graduating from the CIA (culinary school, not government play), Shvartzapel worked with chefs world class from Thomas Keller to Alain Ducasse. Houston investors took note of his skill and lured him back here for the chance to fulfill the dream of a lifetime, a gourmet bakery to show off the chef's impressive pedigree. Kathy Sanders and her son, Brad, invested in him and the team that he had assembled from years of working in pastry to create something unique and so very tasty. Common Bond is a bakery, first and foremost, but it recently began preparing a whole host of other mouthwateringly great savory dishes from soft scrambled eggs to fried chips and fishes. One of the greatest in Shvartzapel's oeuvre, a divine chicken torta that it would behoove ya to order the next time it's on the lunch menu -- the offerings change day to day at this venue. The chicken torta is a sandwich so grand, it is hard to consume it with just your two hands. You'll need knife and fork in order to eat the smooth guacamole and warm shredded meat. Jalapeños and salsa add extra spice while cotija and crema cool it off nice. It's all stuffed between a telera roll, which soaks up the juices and adds heart and soul to the artisan sandwich that many demand, thanks to the great bread made with love and by hand. In addition to pastry, Common Bond makes some bread that, though pricey, will stop you from heading instead to grocery store aisles that stock cheaper loaves. One bite and you'll understand diners coming in droves. The pear and pecan is best with just butter, while olive with cheese tray sends hearts aflutter. The bread finds its way into brunch dishes, too, like the fish n' chips sandwich or rich pain perdu. 'Course, pain perdu is not bread in the traditional sense; It's croissant dough -- buttery, sweet and dense -- packed into a loaf pan then baked and made sweeter by turning it into french toast that just teeters on the edge of too rich and too much. Served with whipped cream that melts at a touch, it's a decadent breakfast, that is for sure. And still, when I'd finished, I kept craving more. I also lust after a charred romaine salad with dressing so tangy it's worth a whole ballad devoted to lemon and vinegar creamy. Mixed with citrus and onion, that salad is dreamy. Lightly grilling romaine brings out deeper flavor, while pickled red onions are something to savor. There's no protein here on this all-veggie platter, but the taste is so good, it won't even matter. For the more meat-inclined, try the hot mole hash. Octopus and carnitas you might think would clash, but when slathered in subtle but dynamic mole and sprinkled with cheese, the flavors convey a fusion of Latin and Gulf Coast cuisines unique to our local, Houston food scene.
I wish the same could be said for the lunch fish n' chips, but potatoes are dry and the fish filet slips out from between two soft rounds of brioche, and asking for extra aioli seemed gauche. And the whole thing was dry, a fried mess of batter. Between mole and this, stick to the latter. Or you could skip the savory completely in favor of pastries and sweets nearly bursting with flavor. Kouign amann (the first word sounds like "queen," for the record) is my favorite treat and largely unheard of in Houston prior to Common Bond's reign. Shvartzapel says now it's now hard to maintain a stock of the sticky, sweet treats in the shop now that's he's introduced it to this Houston crop. It's much like a croissant only with extra fat and sprinkled with sugar then rolled out till flat. It's cut into squares and pinched at the top, then dredged in more sugar before being dropped in large, rounded molds where it's baked, and the sugar becomes something new. It caramelizes in a hot pas de deux of sucrose and heat that I think might be the best breakfast dish I ever did see. And at this point I feel I must mention the tarts and the black forest mousse and the delicate parts that make up each dainty dessert so composed they're like works of art superimposed on a canvas of goodies already consumed. Don't save room for dessert, and I fear you'll be doomed to return here again and again in your quest to try each new item and see which is best.
When Common Bond opened, I, too, was suspicious of the New York-trained baker and his best-in-class dishes. Who comes to Houston and intends to beat out all our other great bakers without the same clout? But he's proven his worth, as has the café, which wins people over not with pomp or with sway but with simply great food and a mission to please. Still, with such success, Shvartzapel's not at ease. He's constantly working to continue improving, to keep the crowd happy and keep the line moving. Though customer service still has its flaws, like slowness, confusion and order faux pas, the many new servers are learning their trade, getting better at coming to customers' aid. In large part they project the most pleasant of auras (but I must say I hate all their stupid fedoras). I am happy to have a spot like this here, proving we can lure great chefs far and near to oft-changing Houston where now, it sure seems, we're getting the restaurant scene of our dreams. Raising the bar on pastry and bread means commitment to quality surely will spread across town and keep making Houston's light brighter, which really excites this humble food writer.
Common Bond 1706 Westheimer, 713-529-3535, Hours: Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Kitchen closes at 3 p.m. daily.
Kouign amann $4.25 Croissant $4 Pain perdu $8 Charred romaine salad $11 Chicken torta $11 Mole hash $14 Fish n' chips $13 Black forest mousse $6
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