It's a Thursday afternoon in early November, and a cold front has triggered swells off South Pointe Drive. Two tanned teenagers, wearing black wetsuits and carrying bulky surfboards, saunter across the tony street, past the bustling F1RST Surf Shop, and to the breezy shore. The air smells like sunblock and the ocean.
This is the scene outside Lee & Marie's Cakery Company. Inside are mismatched wooden chairs, dainty armoires with ceramic plates, and bountiful bins of oatmeal cookies and blueberry muffins. Displays showcase petite key lime tarts and decadent devil's food cakes. The 700-square-foot setting bespeaks comfort, warmth, rusticity, and charm.
Miami has never been a bakery city. Though Cuban bread and pastelitos abound here, good sourdoughs and croissants are few and far between.
So it was encouraging this past September when the area saw the simultaneous launch of two like-minded, independently owned bakeries. In addition to South Pointe's Lee & Marie's, Acme Bakery & Coffee opened in the burgeoning midtown district. Both offer a menu of American-style baked goods, sandwiches, and salads. Foods feature farm-fresh ingredients, and items are sold at similar prices.
But what first seemed like a surge in Miami's bakery scene turned out to be something quite different. After operating for three months, both spots lack a steady clientele, particularly during weekdays, and both struggle with a haphazard inventory of baked goods. There are no long lines waiting for fresh loaves of bread, crowds stopping by for coffee, or aromas that captivate with notes of warm butter and sugar. In other words, the places are often empty.
On a recent Friday afternoon at Acme Bakery & Coffee, about six of 35 seats are occupied. The décor has a vintage feel: Bottles of soda line refrigerators, black-and-white '50s-style posters adorn the walls, and loaves of bread fill the bakery's many wooden bins.
Its "all-American" brand was developed by the Pious Pig Restaurant Group, the three-person team of Alejandro Ortiz, Aniece Meinhold, and Cesar Zapata. They also operate and own the Federal Food, Drink & Provisions on Biscayne Boulevard and sponsored the pop-up Phuc Yeah! (which closed last year but will reopen for Art Basel at midtown's Scope Art Fair).
But the trio's impressive success with those other ventures does not ensure a flawless meal at Acme. For one thing, if you grab a table at the bakery's outdoor seating area, you will likely wait ten minutes for service. On one occasion when I visited, a waitress wearing horn-rimmed glasses stopped by to take our order. "Sorry for the wait. We were doing counter service until the afternoon shift came in," she explained. The bakery seems to randomly alternate between ordering methods, which can make for a very slow and confusing meal.
Still, the greatest problem at Acme is freshness. Pastries are prepared under Ortiz's supervision, while the baking of bread is led by Daniel Liu, previously of MJ Bread in Phoenix, Arizona.
Liu, who functions like a fourth partner at the bakery, begins preparing baguettes (which Acme calls "flutes"), sourdough loaves, and sandwich bread as early as 4 a.m. There is only one oven, and because bread-baking requires temperatures of about 500 degrees, pastries must be baked at a separate time of day. Liu finishes his breads around 8 a.m. It's only then that the pastry-baking begins.
This schedule has a predictably disappointing conclusion. Morning customers are rewarded with crusty, fresh baguettes. But by 5 p.m., when most patrons are leaving work, those loaves have become chewy and tough or limp.
There are also plastic bags, scattered across the bakery, loaded with croutons for sale. It's a clever way of repurposing leftover bread. It also suggests that Acme is coping with an abundance of unsold product.
Pastries likewise underwhelm when it comes to freshness. Exceptions are pumpkin cheesecake, topped with nutmeg-spiced whipped cream, and carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Both of those fall treats ($2 to $4) are fresh, moist, and tender.
Despite all the flops, the bakery has its share of successes. Breakfast is one of them. Eggs are trucked from Lake Meadow Naturals in Ocoee three times a week. A menu option includes two eggs any style with home fries and slices of red pepper and caramelized onions for $8. Cinnamon French toast is battered and browned, infused with flavors of the aromatic spice, and topped with scattered blackberries for $7.
Lunch can be overwhelming, particularly with excessively greasy options such as a buttered-up grilled cheese on brioche (known as a Hot & Melty) and a dense meatloaf sandwich. A refreshing tomato and bread salad, prepared with heirloom tomatoes from local farm Teena's Pride, was a triumph — especially when paired with the bakery's daily soups. I sampled lentil and split pea and ham. Both were fresh and delicious.
Lee & Marie's Cakery Company is situated in a lovely setting, but it lacks an obvious essential: a large-scale oven. The locale relies on an off-site production facility in Wynwood that sends foods to South Beach twice a day.
But a sampling of pastries on two occasions revealed a lack of freshness: Baked doughnuts were dry, crumbles atop blueberry muffins were soggy, and the crust of a New York-style cheesecake was so tough it nearly broke a plastic fork.
The eatery is owned and funded by Andy Travaglia, an affluent relocated New Yorker who spearheads businesses with a charitable aim. Her ventures employ adults diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Other locations include a second bakery set to open in New York in 2013 and a raw fish place called Bar Crudo, located next to the South Pointe bakery and scheduled to also open next year.
At Lee & Marie's, the pastry kitchen is headed by Yannis Janssens, previously executive pastry chef at the Fontainebleau, the Viceroy, and the Setai.
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Perhaps it was Janssens's idea to install a small toaster oven in the storefront. To crisp flaccid croissants, Lee & Marie's reheats its pastries in this petite box. The experiment yields flaky almond croissants, which are filled with a delicate, aromatic frangipane cream. However, the coconut rendition is greasy and tough.
The best desserts are those that traditionally hold up well in storage. Oatmeal cookies combined a crunchy exterior and chewy interior. The "Almost Oreos" were endearing, with a classic pairing of deep-chocolate wafers and creamy vanilla filling.
As at Acme, savory café items are more consistent than the sweets. Salads at Lee & Marie's are dressed delicately and priced around $8.75. They feature greens from Paradise Farms and cheese from Hani's Mediterranean Organics. Sandwiches — prepared with bread by an independent local baker — include a pricey BLT&A, made with country bread, thick slices of roast pork belly, and avocado ($11.50).
All leftover baked goods are donated daily to the Miami Rescue Mission. However, I spotted the same sliced devil's food cake on two consecutive visits. Day-old cake wouldn't normally be an issue, but at this bakery, freshness is the biggest problem.