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Friday, April 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dining Deals

All that's Essential: Good bread, chocolate, soups and sandwiches

Special to The Seattle Times

The Essential Baking Co.


1604 N. 34th St., Seattle, 206-545-3804, www.essentialbaking.com

American

Recommended

$

Hours: 6 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, 8 a.m.- 6 p.m. Sundays.

No obstacles to access / credit cards: Visa, MC / no liquor license / no smoking.

If you hear a Seattleite talking about "that rosemary bread," chances are they mean the Rosemary Diamante from The Essential Baking Co. This round loaf full of fresh rosemary and topped with coarse sea salt has become a local tradition. Bring one to a party and watch your otherwise demure, latte-sipping friends tear it apart like a wolf pack.

But there's more to Essential than bread. At its headquarters in the former Oroweat bakery space in Fremont, the company serves breakfast and lunch every day, along with a full line of chocolates and desserts.

It's hard to find parking at this popular spot, and on weekends you have to navigate around the lineup of cars trying to get to the city dump (I mean "transfer station"). But once inside, the room is bright and relaxing, with Northwest wood-grain accents. The bakery counter is expansive, piled high with breads and pastries above a glass dessert case. At the end of the counter is Essential's climate-controlled chocolate case, where you can fill a small cardboard box with organic handmade chocolate candies ($1 each), including a delicious one flavored with Earl Grey tea.

Each day brings two soups, one recurring (Wednesday is always saffron rice and sausage, for example) and one special. Bread-based items are predictably good, and there are many vegetarian options. Hot sandwiches ($6 whole, $4 half) include braised winter vegetable and a modernized Reuben with fresh red cabbage on roasted onion rye. You can also have a cold pecan tuna salad or egg salad.

Pizzas are available as individual pies or stromboli (stuffed bread). A bowl of soup or salad will come with pizza bianca, Essential's pizza dough baked with no toppings other than olive oil and salt.

That's the good news. The bad news is the pastry case is a minefield. The croissant ($1.50) is exemplary, slightly crusty on the outside with a good balance of yeast and butter flavors. A chocolate raspberry financier was spot-on, light and delicious. Parisian-style macaroons with a variety of fillings (50 cents) have great texture but little flavor. And the chocolate-mousse raspberry tart ($3.95) was a gluey mass of tough crust and dense filling.

Essential has breakfast and lunch covered; now it needs to make its desserts as essential as the rest of the lineup.

Check please

Grilled cheese sandwich: A grown-up version of the classic sandwich, filled with cheddar, goat-cheese spread, aioli, roasted tomatoes and watercress. It's cooked on the panini grill, which makes everything taste better, but with this combination of ingredients, it would be good any way it was prepared.

Cup of creamy tomato soup: A few floating croutons and a good balance of tomato, broth and cream elevate this soup from simple to superb.

Napolitana pizza: A great combination of toppings: red sauce and mozzarella with onion confit, pancetta and grated Parmigiano. Cooked in Essential's bread oven, the crust comes out crispy and flavorful. The overall package needs a bit of a flavor boost, but I ate the whole thing, and it's a lot of pizza for under $5.

Cup of artichoke-heart soup: With potatoes, fennel, carrots and (undercooked) white beans, this soup was so thick I literally ate it with a fork. It was like an overlong double album: The ingredients should have been broken out into two separate soups.

Madagascar chocolate: No question, Essential makes great chocolates. This one, dark chocolate flavored with Madagascar vanilla, was smooth and rich.

Eclair: They've stamped the Essential logo in gold leaf onto the top of this eclair, which looks cool but doesn't make up for the too-hard chocolate and dry pastry.

Itemized bill, meal for two

Grilled cheese sandwich $6.00

Cup of creamy tomato soup $2.50 ($3.50 without sandwich)

Napolitana pizza $4.75

Cup of artichoke- heart soup $3.50

Madagascar chocolate $1.00

Eclair $2.50

Tax $1.88

Total $22.13

Matthew Amster-Burton: mamster@mamster.net

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