To say Chaya Conrad knows her way around cakes is an understatement. For several years, the owner of the new Bywater Bakery worked as the bakery director for Rouses, overseeing 45 stores and the production of inumerable king cakes.
It should come as no surprise, then, that her new operation is smooth and polished. On several visits for lunch, a pastry or just a cup of coffee, service was friendly and swift, and once, as an apology for a longer wait during a busy lunch hour, I was given a sweet almond cake petit four.
Despite Conrad's wealth of experience in the corporate sector, the little red house on the corner of Dauphine and Independence streets is a calculated turn in a casual and homespun direction. Part bakery, part lunch spot, the cafe is a community hub, where patrons gather around coffee tables and laptops. There's a stand-up piano, and some type of music almost always is playing.
A full-scale breakfast operation includes a selection of creamy grit go-cups, and a pastry case full of sweet and savory confections, such as fluffy coconut and mango muffins and almond-scented breakfast cookies studded with dried fruit and walnuts.
The cafe's approach to lunch at times bears a hint of West Coast wholesome, and in other moments feels like pure New Orleans indulgence.
There's decadent cheesy crawfish bread and a cauliflower version with a mildly curried medley and knobs of goat cheese tucked into a soft and doughy bread loaf. Mason jar salads — which at first glance come off as a precious concept — offer great bang for the buck. At $9, a nicoise salad was enough to feed two people and was chock-full of greens, topped with roasted potatoes, crisp green beans, hearty tuna salad, green olives and a hard-boiled egg.
Open-face sandwiches are best to eat with a fork, as the thick slices of bread arrive loaded with ingredients and get messy fast. Juicy pieces of roast beef top creamy horseradish aioli with spinach, vinegary fennel slaw and shredded cheddar cheese. A turkey version served on Asiago bread is piled high with roasted turkey breast, spinach, tomatoes and bacon bits. Velvety Mornay sauce covers the sandwich and is a decadent touch. The black-eyed pea fritter offers a vegetarian respite, and the citrusy, toothsome cakes are topped with carrot and fennel slaw and an Eastern European-inspired red pepper ajvar spread on multigrain bread.
Sides are available on their own and with sandwiches and salads. Curried chicken is delicious and a surprisingly light take on the dish, with soft chicken, celery nibs and a mild curry tinge. A chickpea salad with shredded carrots and notes of citrus was bitter.
King cakes are not in season, but Conrad bakes what she calls an "ooey gooey butter smear" into their fluffy brioche layers, and the cakes are among the best I've tasted.
Sweet tooths will have to settle for the bakery's mouth-watering layer cakes, featuring berry Chantilly cream, chocolate-butter-pecan or coconut cream until Carnival rolls around next year.