by Sara Dickerman

Essential Baking Company
1604 N 34th St, 545-3804
Mon 6 am-6 pm, Tues-Fri 6 am-10 pm, Sat 7 am-10 pm, Sun 8 am-6 pm.

With a few exceptions like animal crackers, I am intensely suspicious of representational food. If someone spends too much time making flowers out of tomato peels, I start to wonder what's wrong with the thing being decorated. It might not be a good sign, then, that just inside Essential Baking Company's door there is a two-foot-tall chocolate goblin nesting on a pile of white chocolate bones.

Or else it might. In this case, I've come to believe, the goblin centerpiece is the goofy symptom of a highly disciplined European style of pastry training, a symptom that is not incompatible with other, more abstract pastry delights: airy puff pastry confections, puckery little lemon tartlets, and intense, perfectly bittersweet bonbons. Someone at Essential Baking Company--namely pastry chef William Leaman--is taking sweets very seriously.

Until a few months ago, I'd pretty much ignored EBC's Fremont cafe. I'd pick up a loaf of their organic bread from time to time, but honestly, there are other breads in town that I crave more, like Tall Grass Bakery's ebony pumpernickel, Sweet Lorraine's eggy onion rolls, and Dahlia Bakery's well-crusted ficelles. Driving by the building's unexceptional brick exterior, I imagined that it supplemented its bread with the Seattle cafe standards: some solid coffee cakes, muffins, and the like. EBC does in fact sell such quick breads (the corn muffins are stellar), but Leaman pushes his team to put on a show of buttery refinement that's rare in Seattle.

There are golden glazed Danishes with sunny eyes of poached apricot ($2), pear halves outlined in puff pastry ($1.75), and tawny brioche boules sprinkled with pearl sugar ($1.60). There are even some Parisian oddities: little soft-centered pastry stovepipes called canellés and wildly bumpy chocolate meringues ($1). My favorite morning bun is a simple thing, the apple brioche ($1.75). It looks like a jelly doughnut topped with an apple slice as thin as a microscope sample. Inside, a chamber of homemade applesauce balances out the sweet, eggy dough.

Despite his Frenchy ways, it turns out Leaman has not so much worked in Paris as he has in Paris, the Las Vegas hotel, where he trained under MOF pastry chef Jean-Claude Canestrier (MOF is an honorific doled out to a very few elite chefs and artisans in France). As evidence of this training, there is a refrigerated case filled with fancier individual desserts, the preening viennoiserie that one might seek out in Paris, Vienna, or the Upper East Side. There's a lemon tartlet with a three-inch beehive of meringue ($4.25), a chocolate créme brólée treat tiled with gold and chocolate Essential Baking logos ($4.75), and a "rustic" apple tartlet with a mirror-smooth apricot glaze ($4.25).

I'm a rustic girl myself and not always a big fan of these slick pieces: Done badly, they value form over flavor, but at EBC the taste remains pure and intense. My only disappointments were desserts that relied too heavily on a gloomy vanilla pastry cream: the dalmatian-spotted Madagascar ($4.25), for example, and the Gateau Basque ($1.75), which comes monogrammed with a big cocoa "E." (Based on its cuteness, I'm convinced it will be better another day.)

And it's good to know that EBC is setting up a chocolate factory in the old Redhook Brewery, where organic chocolate will be made from the bean up. Until then, the cafe has a case full of chocolates to sample at $1 a pop. The hazelnut rocher is as good a bonbon as I've had: a smooth square of relentlessly bittersweet chocolate, with a crunchy hazelnut filling. I also love the pâte de fruit, the high-end gumdrops that distill the essence of a fruit into a single tooth-clinging square.

EBC also offers savory options: veggie-filled buns and croissants, and sandwiches like the sloppy, delicious B.R.A.T., a BLT sexed up with gorgonzola and arugula. There are soups, salads, and, at night, cheese platters, served with a small selection of beer and wine. But in the end, I go to EBC for the sweets. Ever since I first went there, I've been inventing Fremont errands to run. I'll gladly take your stuff to the transfer station, too, if it means another apple brioche for me.