Just inside the door of Athan's European Bakery in Washington Square is a brilliant carnivale of color. Sunlight fractures through dozens of pastel cellophane bags, filled with springtime goodies.
A freezer case full of gelato reminds me of a painter's palate, from its bright, glistening purple blackcurrant and deep mauve raspberry, to rich browns and beiges with undertones of cocoa or nuts. From the shelves beckon little chocolate pyramids and hearts and bars wrapped in fine gold foil. The urge to run around touching everything, to plunge my hands into the bins of cookies like a kid in a toy store, hits me hard.
And the cakes—oh, the cakes! Curlicues of icing dance over dark, velvety chocolate. Snow-white frosting peeks out between toasted almonds the color of amber, the gold and brown overlaid like layers of a pine cone. There is a heart-shaped confection, no larger than the palm of your hand, with a chocolate disc like a beret perched jauntily over a cloak of raspberry mousse. Some have whimsical names, like the 'Sarah Bernhardt,' that Venus of the stage, known in her day as 'The Divine Sarah.'
If only all of the sweets were as divine as the true Ms. Bernhardt. The flavors within that heart-shaped framboise dainty are pale reflections of its rosy pink and umber facade. A mango cake tastes more like a discordant buttercream than the sweet fruit for which it is named.
One glorious exception is the 'Jamaica,' a union of rich chocolate mousse, a few liquor-soaked cherries, and chocolate cake with a fine crumb. The server hasn’t a clue about the Caribbean moniker (she doesn't know who Sarah Bernhardt was, either), but the Jamaican effect is intense and decadent while still surprisingly light.
Likewise, the chocolates made in-house can be more capricious than steadfast; a chocolate pyramid with almond paste felt crumbly and aerated, rather than smooth and luscious like a bourbon-filled heart.
At the cafe tables, in a warm room filled with sunlight from large windows, a few students pore over laptops. They nurse cups of milky cappuccino, each crowned with about two inches of foam, and perhaps a flaky croissant tasting of butter and air. Most baked goods are made in the larger kitchen space at the Athan's in Brighton, and then transported across the city to emerge, golden and crispy, from the oven just as the rest of us get the hankering for a morning pastry.
A few salads, sandwiches, and wraps draw in some lunchtime visitors to Athan’s Brookline, while the Brighton location offers more expansive choices for breakfast and lunch, as well as dinner entrees like braised lamb shank or hearty spaghetti bolognaise.
In Brighton, a plate of brioche French toast is unremarkable; even if the thick slices of bread are day-old, I'd rather not be able to taste it. A breakfast panini topped with bacon, cheddar, and a fried egg is dragged downwards by its bread, an imitation ciabatta without any of the chewy crust or character. This bread is dense, thick, and tasteless, and there's far too much of it to build a successful sandwich. A turkey panini suffers from the same problem, though the turkey is high-quality and a drizzle of rosemary-infused oil perks things up.
But it’s really the sweets that are the star of the show, and Athan’s can sell you enough colorful cakes and chocolates to build a gorgeous springtime dessert table. Just choose carefully if you want a feast as delicious as it is beautiful.
Athan’s Brookline is open Sunday to Thursday 8am-10pm; Friday and Saturday 8am-11pm. 1621 Beacon Street, Brookline. MBTA: Green Line (C) to Washington Square. Athan’s Brighton is open daily 8am-11pm. 407 Washington Street, Brighton. MBTA: 57 bus to Washington Street at Leicester Street.