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Sugar Whore

What a way to go: The takeout and pastry displays make a strong case for Emogene.
Mark Manger

At Emogene Patisserie et Cafe, it was the bakery cases that hooked me -- a glossy, sluttish, sugar-coated come-on speaking straight to my baser instincts and addictive personality. Biscotti and miniature cheesecakes, chocolate muffins glazed in shiny black icing, airy cream puffs, dense meringues and thick slices of almond cake and chocolate cake and carrot cake. Petit fours -- the shameless flirts of the pastry world -- were stacked on trays beside the artisan chocolates and all kinds of cookies laid out like offerings, like manna from the food gods, like temptation embodied in flour and butter and eggs and cream and sugar.

Hate the place, love the stuff: a classic critical conundrum. In the year since Emogene opened, I've never grown to like the space, have never felt anything but cramped or abandoned or overwhelmed in its small, slick, shiny, vaguely European, urban-modern dining room. Waiting for coffee, a snack or another expensive sugar high, I've watched manager Kim Stutsman stalk the narrow trench behind the counter like Rommel in the desert, watching her crew with one eye, the door with the other. She's got a pit-boss stare, that woman. She's fierce. Any hour I've come in -- and Emogene has expansive hours -- she's always been there, and frankly, I'm a little scared of her. I'd be more scared if she weren't there, though, because sometimes she seems like the only one in the front of the house who has any idea what she's doing. When I stop by a cafe looking for a fancy-pants three-dollar coffee, I don't want to have to explain to the barista what goes in a cafe au lait. Twice now, I've seen the manager step up and remind someone how to work the register. Had Stutsman been otherwise engaged, I'm pretty sure the cashier would've simply walked out or stood there and cried.

And if there are problems at the counter, Emogene fails completely as the wine bar that it was partly styled to be, since it looks exactly like a big-city cafe and bakery with an excellent wine and champagne list thrown in as an afterthought of licensing. And as a place to dine? Forget it. At lunch, Emogene is mobbed. Late at night, it can be spooky-quiet and awkward, because Cherry Creek rolls up the sidewalks early, and I know the staff just wants to close and go home. When the weather is nice, the sidewalk seating is a who's who of socialites and the leisure class, all sipping sparkling water, picking at their scones and jockeying their jogging strollers like a toddler demolition derby. And on Saturday and Sunday mornings, the place is a yuppie riot, with real estate in the dining room as valuable as...well, as valuable as Cherry Creek real estate, something with which developer/restaurateur Jim Sullivan (who also owns about-to-open Ocean next door, along with a slew of other concepts both working and planned) is intimately familiar.

But when the kitchen is working well and the menu -- an abbreviated breakfast, sandwich and salad lineup -- tight, the fight to get food can be worth it. Once I came in for the cinnamon French toast (baked, covered with poached peaches and lavender-scented syrup), which I ate with my elbows tucked in, squeezed between a group of sweaty, muffin-eating mountain bikers on one side and three men who managed to spend 45 minutes comparing watches on the other. After I finished my uncomfortable (but delicious) breakfast, as a reward for my grinning tolerance I loaded up on fruit tarts and fruit Napoleons and a peanut-butter-and-jelly mousse bomb inside a polished chocolate shell, but made it only as far as the sidewalk before I'd opened the little white takeout boxes and started eating again.

Other mornings, I've ordered the breakfast sandwich -- scrambled eggs and muenster cheese with frisee and fleur de sel and thick-cut bacon on toasted brioche -- which fluctuates between just good and occasionally sublime. But later in the day, I've always gotten excellent versions of my favorite sandwiches: the croque monsieur with Black Forest ham and gruyere doused in bechamel, and the roast beef sandwich with Irish cheddar, horseradish mayo and sweet caramelized onions cooked down gently until they're nearly a marmalade.

Still, this is not the place to relax over a leisurely lunch. And on a busy day, there's no room to relax, anyway. The prices are too high to inspire additional rounds of ordering, the crowds are often intolerable, and the service oscillates wildly between poor and so bad that I've sometimes wondered where Alan Funt hid the camera. One Sunday afternoon, I watched the entire crew self-destruct over a missing ham sandwich -- a simple misplaced order that quickly devolved into a back-room squabble between servers and the manager over whose fault it was (the customer's, they finally decided) and how to fix it. Meanwhile, the croque monsieur in question was sitting forgotten on the counter. On a busy weekend morning, I watched one of the waitresses -- dressed like all the others, in black-on-black house livery -- get the cuff of her enormous hipster bellbottoms caught in the swinging door to the kitchen, and listened while another waitress yelled at an old woman for bringing the wrong glass to the counter for hot water for her tea.

On days when I walk down Second Avenue and see people spilling out of Emogene's front door, I sometimes marvel that I bother to come here at all. But then I step inside and see the bakery cases, the croissants and cinnamon-sugar muffins, the custom cakes lurking behind the counter like a tease, just waiting for me to find an occasion worthy of having one made just for me, and I remember why it's worth it. Those bakery cases are irresistible.

I've always had a weakness for sweet things and for patissiers -- the process as well as the product. A perfect tart, an architecture of spun sugar, a quick bread laced with veins of raspberry jam, the tidy ranks of truffles lined up in their trays: They all turn me into a wide-eyed six-year-old, return me to my mother's tiny, warm and claustrophobic kitchen, pressing sugar cookies on Christmas Eve and pouring sprinkles out of the jar straight onto my tongue. Long before sex or drugs or cars or really, really big TVs, my first memories of desire -- of weak-kneed, fixated, howling need -- were shaped at the Fanny Farmer shop or standing stunned before the glass at Midtown Plaza, watching some geekish, gum-popping teenage girl with a paper hat and terrible acne push stacks of candied fruit slices off a sheet of wax paper and onto the trays. And I learned satiety only on Easter mornings, lying sick and bloated in the middle of the living room floor, decapitated chocolate bunny in one hand, curled protectively and near-comatose around a ravaged basket of sticky jelly beans and half-eaten marshmallow eggs.

Most people grow out of this, go junkie for different kicks, replace the primal hunger for sugar and the comfort of sweetness with other things. But not me. When I was working my first few kitchen jobs in Rochester and thinking that maybe I'd become a patissier or a chocolatier someday, I would haunt this store called Parkleigh -- one of those nouvelle boutiques that sold hand-painted greeting cards, retro novelty toys, little Crabtree & Evelyn soaps and Hacky Sacks, but also gigantic handcrafted truffles and impossibly beautiful petit fours and tiny pastries from a square of glass cases arranged like a perimeter in the center of the floor, holding back the siege of Park Avenue moms, pasty goth girls cutting class at the School of the Arts, and me. I can still be crippled mid-stride if I walk past a bakery with a display window. The smell of hot sugar and dusty marzipan will take me down like a submarine tackle. And you know that line about the kid in the candy store? Well, I'm the kid who never left.

That's all about product -- and Emogene definitely has the product. The counter is maybe four square feet with two registers crammed in between the espresso machines, but the gleaming bakery cases run on for twenty feet -- long enough that they require browsing and carefully considered decision-making, maybe a list. Early in the morning, the cases are packed front to back with product, are fat with product. By afternoon, sell-outs and 86's have thinned the offerings considerably, but never so much that I can leave before spending thirty bucks and then crowding my counters at home with boxes full of unconscionably decadent eclairs brushed with gleaming black chocolate, buttery croissants, square Key lime tarts (which have never been as good as I want them to be, but which I buy anyway because they're still good enough) and muffins that are always a surprise because the staff seems incapable of coming to any agreement on what variety is available. I have asked for Napoleons -- flaky mille-feuille layered with pastry cream or almond paste or fruit or all three at the same time -- that I can see behind the glass, and been looked at as though I were asking for a short French general. Transactions across the top of the cases generally involve a lot of "No, not that one. Two down. Now left. No, my left, your right. The one with the peaches on top."

Emogene just can't get the front of the house right, but somehow the pastry process keeps working. A parade of patissiers have come and gone through the back of its house -- starting with Syd Berkowitz, who was succeeded by Ian Kleinman, who was followed by Deana Lezcano -- but the product has always been solid, almost unwavering. That's the miracle of process.

Although a few chefs can also do pastry, they're rare freaks of nature, and I've always wondered exactly what they had to give up in their deals with the devil in order to gain such double-edged facility. Otherwise, pastry chefs are to regular chefs like Einstein is to Joey Ramone -- totally different animals with totally different skill sets. They get up very early to go to work. They know chemistry and math more complicated than that required to evenly split a dime bag three ways. Relying on the transubstantiation of flour and piping bags and butter and measuring cups, they make the most beautiful food in the world every day for a public that many of them never even see. Pastry chefs work from recipes that can actually be written down and codified and followed, guaranteeing a consistency that a hot-line crew will never know. Ten different sauciers making a simple beurre blanc will come up with ten beurre blancs, subtle changes having been worked even in the way they move their pans. But ten different patissiers working from the same recipe for a crème caramel should come up with ten crème caramels identical almost to the molecular level, because that's what their trade demands. At Emogene, the great stuff is great every day no matter whose hands made it, and even the not-so-great stuff (like that Key lime tart) is not-so-great without fail.

Obviously, I never became a patissier myself -- though not for lack of trying. I was actually hired by two pastry departments over the years, fired from the first after four hours and the second after three days. I just never had the head or the temperament for it. So I'll go through a lot, put up with a lot, to experience the miraculous alchemy of the very good patissiers. Short of an earthquake or a court order, there's not much that can get me up and out of the house at eight in the morning -- but the promise of a well-stocked bakery case can. Which is why I keep finding myself back at Emogene, hungry for the chance to be six again and experience the thrill of wonder and joy as I smudge the glass with my nose, pressing close to a fantastic bounty of sugar that can all be mine. For that, I will do almost anything.

Even set my alarm.


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