Manna from Willy Street
Tami Lax, owner of Harvest and The Old Fashioned restaurants, put the question to us recently in a way that left no confusion about her motivation. “Have you been to Batch yet? They’re kind of short on parking, but with that kind of bakery I’m willing to walk.”
Batch is a bakery, and a good one. Parking is a detail attributable to the shop’s location—on Williamson Street, at the corner of Willy and Cantwell to be exact. That’s Williamson Street in the heart of Madison’s near-east side. Willy Street—funky, hip, eclectic, one-of-a-kind Willy Street—and currently, with the recent opening of Batch, and the relocation of Madison Sourdough, the most exciting place in the city to get really good bakery.
Who’da thunk it? Not that Willy Street doesn’t have some bakery roots. Thirty-plus years ago there was the Women’s Exchange Bakery and the venerable Nature’s Bakery, which is still in operation. But we’ve long bemoaned the fact that there were so few places to get a good cup of coffee and good bakery. And that’s not to slight Jane Capito’s place in the heart of the neighborhood and the people who live there, where there was a line out the door the last time we drove by. Lazy Jane’s turns out a morning bun that’s the real deal.
(By the way, we’ve taken note of the re-emergence of the age-old debate about whether or not the iconic morning bun originated at the Ovens of Brittany. For the record: it did. One of us was there, as was Odessa Piper. End of discussion.)
While Capito’s Ovens roots are evident in her version of the breakfast institution, this city needed some real artisan baking. A visit to Willy Street shows it’s arrived.
When Madison Sourdough’s Cameron Ramsay decided to stop baking bread and start writing about it, two of his bakers bought the place and moved it from middle-of-nowhere Mineral Point Road. Andrew Hutchison and David Lohrentz settled in the former Escape Java Joint space at 916 Williamson St., decorated it with comfortable furniture and opened up a back room. The croissants are very good, the brioche is delicate and the country baguette that’s not made from sourdough is a nice change. We liked all of their breads, but to our surprise what we really loved was the buckwheat sesame bread. The flavor is nutty with the sweetness of the grain but with a wonderful chew and no sodden texture. The place is really a nice bakery that fits its location perfectly. One snag: While it may be hip to serve coffee in a Mason jar, aesthetically, it’s unpleasing. It looks like a glass of muddy water.
Batch doesn’t have such concerns, as it’s take-out only. But it, too, has a warm, inviting storefront, cozy in its own right. Ian Garthwait is a baker by training with a resume that includes stops in Iceland, Vancouver, Boulder and Portland, Maine. He and pastry chef (and L’Etoile alum) Lauren Carter have created a store that feels traditional and homey. They make a lovely croissant that WARF director of programming Laura Heisler recommended as on a par with those she had living in Paris.
She’s right. In addition, the blueberry muffin is light with a delicate crumb, and the Epi (a French loaf of bread shaped like wheat sheaf) was very good. The only thing we found lacking was the whole grain bread, which seemed like a better idea than its execution. The vanilla swirl was a bit on the sweet side (one of us loved it), and the lemon currant scone had a delicate crumb and a distinct lemon flavor.
What we really like is that both places have their own style, and rather than the street losing its character to gentrification the proprietors are making the neighborhood even more interesting. The new bakeries are a nice addition, especially given that they’re both genuine article.
Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.