Back of the House: Pain d'Avignon
Pain d'Avignon: From Bakery to Bistro
Toby Hill recently took home Edible Cape Cod’s Local Hero award for Best Chef/Restaurant. Always keeping good company, the other recipients —Susan Knieriem of Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm, Terri Horn of Kayak Cookies and Cape Abilities Farm—all hold court in Pain D’Avignon’s team of preferred suppliers.
A busting kitchen with sizzling foie gras, steak frites, fresher-than-fresh mussels and potatoes à la Joel Robuchon—fronted by a sexy red bar with flat screen TVs—is not what you might expect from an operation that started out as a wholesale bakery.
But that it is. Pain D’Avignon hung its first shingle on a small building off Main Street in Hyannis back in 1992, and when their delivery and wholesale business quickly brought in the 18-wheelers, they expanded to Airport Road. The popular bakery was humming right along with the good economy in 2007, until a fire destroyed the building and lots of business accounts along with it. But ironically, it was that fateful event which may have paved the road for opportunity. I recently got a fortune (the cookie kind) that I just love: “perceived failure is oftentimes success trying to be born in a bigger way.” I think that may be the case with the new and improved version of Pain D’Avignon.
As owner Vojin Vujosevic put it, “We made a dangerous move, but we think it was a smart one.” Rebuilding as quickly as possible, their two-year-new space on Hinckley Road in Hyannis is a whopping 20,000 square feet, housing the wholesale arm of the business and a full service retail operation, corporate offices and a happening restaurant to boot. According to Vojin, it went something like this:
“Let’s add a café. That would be cool.”
“But how can we have a café with no wine? Maybe we should add that. And let’s call it a bistro.”
“But people won’t come at night if we don’t have a bar…”
So the evolution continues, from a wholesale bakery to one of the best dinner spots on the Cape.
A Chef with a Past
Vojin knew that building it was not the only thing that would make them come. With a mighty team of more than 100 employees, there was still one out there that was going to make or break the concept. “We already have the best bread,” he thought. “Now we need the best chef.” Enter Toby Hill.
Toby’s initiation started on May 13, 2009, a mere four days before the restaurant opened. With an impressive resume of high profile gigs including the Renaissance Hotel in NYC and a stint with star chef Michael Schlow, Toby was no stranger to the pressure cooker, so to speak. A very respected chef once suggested that Toby was the most talented chef on the Cape. “Scary talented” was the way I believe he phrased it. So, scary talents in arm, he dove right in, and has consistently churned out locally-inspired, deliciously artful plates since opening day.
A veteran of roadside naps on his previous commute home from Boston (with layovers in Braintree, Marshfield, Plymouth, you name it), working on the Cape is about quality of life for Toby, who lives here with his wife Tracey and their three children. And according to the man himself, “I’m gonna be on the Cape forever… unless they kick me out.” After my foodie fantasy experience at the restaurant this April, I highly doubt that will ever happen.
When asked to describe his cooking style, Toby says it’s about cooking food properly. “I can do almost any food in any concept, but how I really like to consider my food is cooked the way it should be, with the most local ingredients possible.” Favorite foods are whatever is in season. Favorite resources are the farmers themselves, with whom he chats almost daily.
As a local junkie myself, I couldn’t help grinning when Toby gave me examples of his farm-to-table activities, like doing yummy things with garlic scapes, talking with Surrey Farms’ Ron Backer about growing purple Okinawan potatoes, and the “pig project” going on at Miss Scarlett’s Blue Ribbon Farm. Toby is also fanatically committed to capitalizing on the Cape’s prolific produce, including Veronica Worthington’s “amazing lettuces” at Tuckernuck Farm and his exclusive tomato relationship with Cape Abilities Farm. Even when the news is bad, the rapport Toby has with the farmers is familylike. “Jen from Ocean Song Farm texted me when one of her sheep died,” he told me. That was especially sad, considering it was the sheep she was raising for Toby.
Toby’s local philosophy is inspired by some of the global greats, including Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame). But although he is the proud owner of more than 500 cookbooks, Toby will rarely replicate a recipe as listed. Sometimes just one ingredient or the plate presentation itself will spawn a new idea. Those ideas might be as simple as the delicate sprinkling of French sea salt on the butter for bread service, or as decadent as the ever-simmering pot of beurre monté awaiting a fresh lobster’s butter poaching.
From Foie to Fabulous
The scene in the kitchen the night I was invited in was one of professional calmness. The first order of the “foie du jour” came in at about 5 p.m.; tonight it was a perfectly-seared piece accompanied by a buttery (house-made, of course) brioche round, plumped dried cranberries and a dice of butternut squash. Other iterations of this house special are reinvented nightly; the foie might be highlighted by some raspberry shortbread or red onion jam, or paired with a house-made torchon. Toby even makes foie gras “to go”—we remember a campy version with peanut butter and jelly one year for a United Way fundraising event. Now that’s an American in Paris.
Other early arrivals in the kitchen included an order of “Thon Facon Japonaise,” beautiful sliced Ahi tuna flanked by pickled jalapenos, scallions, lemon zest and a soy vinaigrette. We also watched a “Cotelette de Porc” in action: an insanely huge pork chop searing in a hot pan while it was frequently basted with a rich, herby, buttery liquid. We were actually taunted (lovingly) by our server Heather back at the table as she informed us that the chop we saw being prepared was the last one some lucky diner would get to sink his teeth into that evening.
As we took our seats and indulged in some French bubbly that was served with house-made potato chips, we also took in the ambiance of the retail goodies surrounding the table, just begging to be part of a take-out bag later on. The bakery’s signature baguettes and ficelles, imported cheeses, Euro-pleasing fizzy waters and juices and more fill the room and only add to the feeling that you are anywhere but 100 yards from the industrial side of the airport. Heather greeted us warmly and gave us the “du jours,” and also made sure to let us know what a gentleman Toby is. “He’s sooo nice,” she gushed. True from my experience, and I’m sure the fact that the staff is regularly treated to samplings of the evening’s specials doesn’t hurt, either.
Our only problem was deciding what to order. After a couple of palate teasers (huge yet sweet and delicate Chatham mussels in a Riesling broth with marcona almonds, and, of course, the foie gras), the final decisions were a couple more appetizers and four mouthwatering entrees (or “plats” as they are called; “entrees” are actually starters in France). We shared the Salade de Chicorée Rouge Grillée recommended by Heather: grilled radicchio, Great Hill Farms blue cheese dressing, crispy pancetta, roasted tomatoes and a warm panko-encrusted poached egg. A symphony of flavors that Toby calls his take on the predictable wedge salad.
Second courses delivered on all fronts. My parsleyed, garlicky hangar steak was cooked as Toby says most meat should be, which is on the well side of medium. “Raw should be raw, cooked should be cooked. It chews better,” he says. The frites were thin and crispy and the accompanying watercress was peppery and bright to beautifully offset the richness of the dish.
My dining companions delighted in various fruits of the sea. Tuna atop foie gras mashed potatoes (I think I am sensing a theme here…), seared salmon with an almond-studded risotto and Croustillant de Cabillaud—a “chowder” with crispy cod and a finnan haddie “tater tot” where the chowder was more a sauce than a soup—were all stars. Rich food for sure, but the quality of the ingredients and sheer excellence of their preparation left us with room for dessert.
The final hour was one of relaxed conversation as Chef Toby and the restaurant’s tireless general manager, Mario Marini, joined us. We sipped more wine and ordered a cappuccino with foam that resembled whipped cream on a sundae. To satisfy our sweet tooth we shared two of the classic desserts made by Toby and his sous chef Rebecca Arnold: creme brulée and chocolate mousse. Both were sublime. On a future visit perhaps we could indulge in one of pastry chef Else Rhodes’ desserts; in addition to making all the croissants and pastries for the bakery side, she contributes a dessert to the restaurant menu. Her current creation is a blueberry pistachio crumble served with vanilla bean ice cream.
The experience at Pain D’Avignon that Sunday night was a great one, and I know there are many more to be had: breakfast with a flaky almond croissant and strong coffee, a working lunch outside at the bistro table with my good friend MacBook, a Croque Madame and homemade potato chips, or another dinner with one of the many other “plats” I have yet to try.
Until then, I am reminded of such memories in the making with the loaf of bread every guest receives on the way out from dinner. I decided to freeze my crusty-on-the-outside, perfectly chewy-on-the-inside multi-grain one as soon as I got home, in hopes of extending the good eats a little bit longer.
Pain D’Avignon is located at 15 Hinckley Road in Hyannis. Dinner hours are Wednesday-Sunday from 5-10 and expand in the high season. A late night bar menu is also available until midnight. Call 508-778-8588 or visit www.paindavignon.com for more information.
Tracy came to the Cape the way many do, a corporate departure with a plunge into entrepreneurship. In 2002, she opened The Wine List in Hyannis, and continues to serve other businesses as a freelance marketing consultant. Tracy is also an avid home chef and devoted mom to a kid who, ironically, eats not much more than chicken and fries