Ancient Ways – Altadena’s Seed is more than just a bakery
Baker Joseph Abrakjian and his wife, Pam, owners of Seed Bakery, have gained fame for their outstanding freshly milled, organic, whole grain breads. But Seed offers so much more than loaves to take home. Despite its location off the beaten path and its lack of clear signage, for Altadenans and others in the know, it has become the go-to place on weekend mornings for amazing breakfast plates. Their lunch items are no slouches either.
I love the current culinary trend of getting back to basics. People are harnessing ancient techniques, particularly those involving fermentation and doing their own cheese-making, ale making, bread-making, kimchi-making, pickle-making, kefir-making, you name it. The impulse is primitive, and seems to me, an instinctual way to balance our technology-heavy lives. My husband, for instance, makes his living creating computer-generated graphics but looks forward to smearing his bristly, wooden-handled brush in globs of real paint. I like the scratch of graphite pencil on pulpy paper when doing the crossword after typing on the computer all day. Satisfies the need to balance the virtual with the substantive.
You can tell Abrakjian takes pleasure and meaning from baking bread the ancient way, and we get to benefit. At Seed, they buy organic grain berries (such as Sonora wheat, farro, kamut and einkorn) from farms around the West, then mill them in-store a few hours before baking. They add water, salt and natural levain, a French term for a mixture of flour and water that has been colonized by yeasts and bacteria (kind of a wild yeast sourdough starter), and the slow fermentation begins. The multi-hour process makes for bread with more fiber, balanced nutrients and vitamins, less gluten, good probiotic organisms and a taste far better than any store-bought bread. You’ll sense the earthiness of the oven, the nuttiness of the grains and the heady, satisfying aroma of fermentation brought about by magical bread pixies.
Abrakjian’s skills and passion don’t seem to end at baking either. In the sandwiches and bowls available at Seed, there are unique and satisfying flavor combinations. Many seem to be inspired by Middle Eastern flavors. For instance the Lentil-Kale Breakfast Bowl ($9) includes za’atar, that delicious combo of sesame seed, thyme and other herbs that you often find on Lebanese mana’ish. The warm bowl has lentils, slow-stewed with onions and lots of yummy dark green kale (or “wet ivy” as my husband calls it). It’s topped with a gently cooked, bright yellow egg. Under the lentils are not one, but two different slices of toast — a glorious sour wheat and a Greek olive with lots of beautiful kalamatas throughout. The toast is crispy on the edges, warm and yielding within, especially where the tasty lentil broth hits it.
My husband may not have liked the kale, but he gave the spinach frittata breakfast sandwich a solid 10. This is a man who has had probably 500 breakfast sandwiches in his lifetime. When I was able to steal a bite, I agreed. The brioche bun was light and delicate (not something you expect from a stone-mill bakery), the frittata inside was fluffy, the bacon thick and smoky, the cheddar sharp. It had just enough mayo and baby greens to make it not at all dry.
As far as lunch goes, I’m not exaggerating when I say I would put the grilled eggplant sandwich on my list of all-time favorite sandwiches. A bit spicy, a bit sweet, warm, and oh so tasty, it features thick grilled slices of eggplant, tender even at the skin, a fantastic pomegranate-walnut relish similar to muhammara, sliced apples, red cabbage, cilantro, and the “rug that pulls the room together,” house-made pickle discs. Of course, the bread is delicious but that goes without saying. My only complaint is things squeezed out the sides, but I just grabbed a fork and continued.
We also tried the pulled pork sandwich on ciabatta with apple coleslaw, house pickles, cilantro and aioli. Nothing to complain about here, but nothing to write home about either. Both sandwiches come with a sprightly baby spinach-cucumber-radish salad with a whisper light vinaigrette and both cost $11. The menu can only be found on the chalkboard in the store so let me share a few other options: salmon gravlax, tarragon chicken, short rib melt and homemade meatloaf. Breakfast includes brioche French toast, ham, cheddar and leek Panini, and avocado toast with pomegranates and za’atar. I grabbed a bag of granola to go. It tastes like a wonderful crushed up cookie yet has all kinds of healthy grains and seeds.
They serve Kickapoo coffee and various teas with refills if you ask. They’re open 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. on most days (3 p.m. on Sunday; closed Monday). Lunch stops being served at 3:30 p.m., but it’s still a nice time to come in for a latte and pastry, such as one of their outstanding croissants. They have the classic rolled croissants (chocolate-filled are delicious) and flat square ones with fruit. The rhubarb croissant kind of blew my mind with its sweet-sour fruit preserve, its flaky, crispy crunch and a buttery taste that left no grease on my fingers. I wasn’t so enamored of the flourless chocolate loaf cake, but the tea cake was quite good with tea (surprise), and the curry hand pie was a satisfying savory option.
French vanilla paint colors the walls of the cute corner cafe, high windows let in views of palm trees and mountains. A dozen or so small tables and wire chairs tuck into corners and spill out on to a small back patio. Despite the huge four deck oven, it can be chilly in the restaurant so bring a sweater. Their check-out system seems like it wouldn’t work but it does. Customers approach the display cases from all sides. Calm, friendly helpers attend to each, typing orders and processing credit cards on a shared iPad. You take a number to your table or leave with your boxes and bags. Cutlery and condiments are on a help yourself table. All employees, front of the house and kitchen, seem to help in any way possible. There’s a sense of familial cooperation and a lack of pretension (it’s Motown and The Beatles on the sound system) that makes this a nice place to hang out. And then take some bread to go.