"Astonish me!" the impresario Diaghilev commanded then-nobody writer Jean Paul Sartre on a Paris street corner back in the Thirties. And soon-to-be-somebody Sartre did just that. But according to my friend Robert, a lifelong Southern Florida native I originally met because he's on the board of my life partner's temple, Diaghilev's classic commandment does not work when it comes to Jewish bakeries.
"Jews having Shabbat dinner are not looking for new taste treats. This is probably true of all ethnic cuisines," Robert theorizes. "You go to the Greek bakery, the Cuban bakery, the Jewish bakery, to get good things like those you grew up on" -- not, in other words, astonishing things. Ideally kosher goods must be "good but not startlingly good."
And just-opened Ruthy's Pastries in mid-Beach, in Robert's judgment, "is good." And I concur, in general. The light, soft challah may not be as interesting as the best homemade challahs I've had (possibly because the bakery has two older locations, so this new branch's stuff is largely delivered, not made on the premises), but it's as good or better than that at the neighborhood's two other kosher bakeries. Ruthy's cookies are also much more buttery than the other establishments' kosher cookie offerings. And Ruthy's servers are far, far friendlier, a delight to deal with.
4041 Royal Palm Ave, Miami Beach
305-673-4921. Open daily 8:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. (until sundown on the Sabbath).
The bakery's croissants may not be as rich as those at French bakery Croissant d'Or a block west, but few are -- even in France -- and Ruthy's are darned good, especially the chocolate-stuffed ones. Also Croissant d'Or closes at an extremely inconvenient 3:00 p.m., while Ruthy's stays open until 11:00 p.m. most nights.
And while Ruthy's "Danishes" are much heavier affairs than the ethereal, authentic 27-layer Wienerbrod in Denmark, they're not the nasty dry lumps of leaden sawdust that pass for Danish pastries in most American bakeries. The icing-drizzled cinnamon/raisin Danish is especially moist and delectable.
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I must reveal, however, that Ruthy's does have some new and startling taste treats. There are, for instance, savory as well as sweet pastries, and these mostly vegetarian boreks (pastelitos in Miamian terms) are tastier than most I've found in Miami Cuban bakeries, owing to spicier filling and flakier crust. A more generous proportion of spinach, eggplant, potato, mushroom, or tuna filling to wrapper would make these world-class snack food.
Or there's Ruthy's black-and-white cookie. I'm usually the best person in the world with whom to share a "half-and-half," since I'm a vanilla person, so the other buyer, who is naturally always a chocolate person, can grab the entire chocolate half. But I even liked the chocolate half of Ruthy's version. I had to wrestle with my conscience to share it with Robert and ended up giving him only a sliver about the size of a sewing needle.
Best of all is Ruthy's deli component, featuring Moroccan salads. While some of these, like too-soft eggplant salad, are just good, madbuka is intense "everything you ever wanted from a tomato" essence; Moroccan olives, which may look like mere pimento-stuffed supermarket olives, have been kicked up countless notches by their concentrated tomato/onion/pepper sauce; and Moroccan fish, a preparation of subtle vinegar-marinated fish pieces served cold like Venetian sweet/sour sole, is not just astonishing. It's addictive. I ate the whole thing. Sorry, Robert; sue me.