I am a bread lover. For a long time, the phrase “gluten-free” would elicit a cowering, uncertain reaction from bread lovers. It still exists in pop culture as a punchline, showing up on SNL this past weekend as part of a joke about Georgia’s shift toward liberal values. And over the last few decades, as American food culture slowly began to shift away from using wheat (and more specifically, white flour) as the basis for everything, a lot of the early products that sought to avoid it were, frankly, quite terrible. Hence the punchlines and the jokes about “gluten-free.”
But in the last several decades, expanded production and access to other kinds of flour, along with a steady rise in the sophistication of food science behind gluten-free products, has led to a totally different kind of non-wheat baked good. In some cases, these items are now so similar to their glutinous counterparts, that the difference is practically indiscernible. And, in other cases, like the bulk of the baked goods at Breadblok, they’re actually better. That’s probably because aside from strictly avoiding gluten, their menu includes almost 100% organic ingredients, and are also “free of gums, soy, and refined sugar.” If a proliferation of reverse-engineered, chemically-altered food has taught us anything, it’s that natural food was the real prize all along.
Founded in February of 2020 by sisters Chloé and Celine Charlier, the Santa Monica bakery — located at Montana and 15th — is just approaching its one-year anniversary. And since opening their doors, weeks before a pandemic descended, they’ve quickly become a staple for those looking to avoid wheat flour, for whatever reason, without sacrificing the experience of consuming delicious food. Chloe and Celine are third-generation purveyors of a gluten-free lifestyle, a tradition that was second nature back on the family’s farm in Provence, France, and a dearth of delicious options here in LA is what inspired them to make their own bread and pastries.
I’m not allergic to wheat (as far as I know), but I do know that eating products with gluten do sometimes make me feel bad, as in lethargic and cranky, and since three or four close friends of mine are allergic to gluten, I’m often eating foods that make a point to skirt it as an ingredient. A recent meal at Breadblok still stands out as one of my favorite experiences with menus seeking to avoid wheat as a staple. What’s striking about the baked goods at Breadblok is that instead of avoiding any mainstays, they do recreate the foods that are most beloved for their gluten — loaves of bread, donuts, croissants and other obviously flour-based pastries like scones and cakes. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel or manufacture other, newer baked goods, the Charlier sisters went all in on making classic baked goods better. And for the most part they did so with flying colors.
Their take on a croissant isn’t an airy, fluffy thing, but dense and a little sweet, still buttery and flaky but more akin to a biscuit than the French original. What’s more astonishing is that they’d attempt a croissant at all — and pull it off so well. If you’re not also adopting vegan preferences, go for the prosciutto and gruyere version ($7.50), which is crispy, salty and thanks to the cheese, even a little nutty. The crispy outside and chewiness of the proscuitto make it a layered, textured pastry that can double as lunch in a pinch.
If you’re looking for a more substantial take on lunch, that’s another area where Breadblok really shines, converting their fresh, homemade bread into a vehicle for sandwiches that will satisfy your vegan friends. The Rainbow Sandwich ($16) comes on chestnut (!) sourdough with an extravagance of beet hummus that bleeds through the bread, loads of red cabbage, avocado, arugula, sprouts and thinly sliced carrots. It was a vegan sandwich with flavor and heft that felt both nutritious and delicious, and again, was anchored by a variety of textures that made eating it that much more enjoyable.
Though there’s plenty of veggies on the sandwich, it also comes with a side salad, as does my other favorite lunchtime item, the Smoked Salmon Tartine ($16). This one comes on housemade carraway bread, with a vegan cashew-based cream cheese that could’ve fooled me, and a smattering of olive-caper relish that adds just the right jolt of sourness to the delicate salmon. Topped with arugula and a squeeze of lemon, this could technically be a breakfast item too, if you’re in the mood for savory early on.
Another effortlessly vegan lunch item is their Caesar salad ($16), a mix of kale and gem lettuce topped with halved cherry tomatoes and a gluten-free (of course) rosemary cracker crumbles. The cracker crumbles are also offered as part of the store’s ample retail products, packaged items the crackers that are sold at local partners such as Erehwon, Honey Hi, and at several farmer’s markets, where the family first began peddling their wares. Their stand at the farmer’s market was always distinctive for its design, a nod to their French sensibilities, and they’ve also brought that aesthetic to their Santa Monica brick and mortar shop.
Crafted by LA-based agency Commune Design, the cozy enclave is tastefully decorated with soft browns and light wood, delicate hanging baskets and lots of open shelving that showcases the most important decoration of all — their breads. There is nothing more beautiful than rows and rows of perfectly golden loaves, and the space sets these massive shelves up to steal the spotlight. Of course, the immediate onset of a pandemic that prohibits gathering indoors means the space has been unavailable to the public for a little while, but with a recent order to re-open recents in California, the cafe now offers outdoor seating and allows customers inside the shop to place their orders.
For the grab and go crowd, their half-baked, half-fried donuts ($6.50) are just heavy enough to hold you down, topped with a variety of icing flavors that keep a farm-to-table palate in mind, like the blueberry rosemary one I had a few days ago. A Honey Lavender Cake ($7) was the perfect end to a celebratory meal this weekend, and the Pain Au Chocolat ($6.5) is seriously rich — even the chocolate filling is homemade, semi-sweet, lightly salty, and slightly granulated. I haven’t tried them yet, but I’m still impressed they make focaccia, brioche, and tarts, all delicate doughs that rely heavily on gluten bonds for their signature texture.
This is a gluten-free bakery for people who love bread, and are interested in the ways it can change as we understand more about how carbo-loading and white flour can be detrimental in the long-term. It’s also one of my new favorite lunch spots on the west side, and since they’ve already weathered a pandemic, I’m sure it will be blossoming in Santa Monica for years to come. Especially if everyone tries the sourdough.