By Michele Mandell
ITS UNASSUMING STOREFRONT and the all-lowercase spelling of the new b. patisserie at 2821 California Street, near Divisadero, might convey a self-effacing vibe, but there is nothing small about Belinda Leong’s tres chic pastry shop, which opened just before Valentine’s Day.
Leong’s impressive pedigree includes stints with Michelin-starred heavyweights Manresa and Gary Danko, where she was pastry chef for nearly a decade. She also spent a year in Paris working with the legendary Pierre Herme, dubbed the “Picasso of Pastry” by French Vogue.
Pastry lovers will be in heaven here. The lengthy marble display counter is not only a showstopper, but a technological marvel. Each section of the single-level surface can be set at a different temperature to keep every item at its best. For instance, lemon tarts are in a chilled section, while croissants are displayed in a room-temperature section. The case was custom-built in Paris and is the only one of its kind in the U.S.
The build-out of the new spot took roughly seven months as the entire space that formerly housed Crepe & Coffee was gutted and revamped. The interior is now bright and cheerful. Yellow bentwood chairs surround marble-topped tables with cast-iron bases, providing seating for 25. The open kitchen features a substantial butcher block prep table and an imposing lineup of floor-to-ceiling refrigeration units.
With Leong and her culinary staff intensely focused and clad in white chef’s coats in their spotless surroundings, the place brings to mind a laboratory. And the laboratory analogy is fitting. Any pastry chef will tell you that pastry is a science, requiring mastery of chemistry and math. With most savory cooking, a recipe is merely a guideline. But pastry requires precise measurements, patience and optimal temperatures for ingredients and prep surfaces.
Raised in the Marina, Leong is one of those rare native San Franciscans. It’s been a lifelong dream to share her pastry passion with her hometown. After returning from Europe, Leong sold her pastries wholesale and at pop-up bake sales while planning her brick-and-mortar space. She built a strong following, as evidenced by the recent surge of visitors to the previously quiet stretch of California Street.
But for all her world-class experience and the enthusiastic reception that has welcomed her, Leong is as humble as those lowercase letters in her logo. Coming out from behind the counter to greet guests and offer samples, she seems gratified by the response, while at the same time somewhat surprised by all the fanfare.
“The neighbors have really welcomed us,” says Leong. “During our soft opening, everyone expressed how excited they were to have us here. And in our first week, many neighbors came in multiple times.”
There’s one problem — albeit a good one: It’s impossible to choose just one item at b. patisserie. Upon entering, you are confronted with an overwhelming array of treats in a variety of shapes, colors and textures. They include both pastries and Viennoiserie — baked goods with a yeasted dough and added ingredients such as eggs, butter, cream and sugar that make them richer and sweeter — that could be loosely defined as a cross between bread and pastry. Examples are croissants ($3.50) and kouign amann ($4).
Leong’s expertly executed kouign amann (pronounced “queen ah-mahn”) has developed a cult following, in part due to the near impossibility of finding this rare treat in the Bay Area. The kouign amann, with its provenance in Brittany, France, is very difficult to master — much trickier than a croissant. Leong’s version is a must-try.
If forced to choose, the item not to miss at b. patisserie is the grande macaron ($6.50). It is hands-down one of the prettiest pastries ever. A rose creme mousseline (rose-infused buttercream lightened with pastry cream) is sandwiched between two dacquoise layers (baked almond meringue). A round of plump raspberries surrounds the center filling. It’s finished with a sprinkle of vanilla bean powder and a gorgeous, edible rose petal.
“It’s something you’d find at any Parisian patisserie,” says Leong of the grande macaron. “I’ll keep the raspberries for as long as possible, and then I’ll change it up seasonally.”
In the afternoon, b. patisserie offers open-faced savory tartines priced at $10 to $12, including a salad. The tartines are served on a levain custom made for b. patisserie by Michel Suas, Leong’s business partner. Suas, widely recognized as an artisan bread expert, founded the San Francisco Baking Institute and Thorough Bread Bakery.
Look for Leong’s take on the traditional flammenkuche (caramelized onions, pickled red onions, fromage blanc, Gruyere and lardons).
But it’s not all serious sophistication at b. patisserie. Leong’s whimsical side shows in her macarons inspired by American sweets (Snickers, Mounds and Oreos) and in a macaron-adorned tree on the wall made with real macarons she promises will change with the seasons.