Sometimes, food is just so good that you can’t help but be drawn into its orbit. I first noticed that OWL Bakery has a bit of a cult following when wandering the leaf-covered aisle of the North Asheville Tailgate Market.
This is a popular farmers market with a ton of booths, and almost all of them have a little buzzy hive of people around them shopping, but OWL’s bakery truck stand had a line that very clearly was 20 or 25 people deep.
As a person presently munching on another, less-line-inducing pastry from elsewhere in the market and enjoying it very much, I saw it as a mystery that I wanted to unravel: what exactly was this shop peddling that had so many people under its spell?
I learned during a pleasant morning sitting in the window seat at the newer Charlotte Street location of OWL Bakery. While you can find them at markets, they also have their original location in West Asheville and a new one close to downtown in the trendy area of Charlotte Street. I drank a delicious cup of coffee here and, being hungry in the median space between “skipped breakfast” and “too early for lunch,” I ordered two bakery items.
First was a strudel made of incredible puff pastry. If you’ve never made puff pastry, you probably would just think it was delicious, but any baking show watcher knows that making this delicate treat requires layering butter between layers of dough so that flakiness emerges in the oven.
There’s a million ways to mess it up and end up with a yummy but decidedly lumpy resulting food, no flakiness. OWL Bakery clearly has their execution score up at a 10, producing top-quality pastry that I suspect is made with excellent raw ingredients… you know, a lot of butter.
Inside, this pastry was filled with a savory filling – creamy ricotta, spinach for depth and chew, garlic, peas, and an herby sauce called gremolata, all conspiring to create the right pairing for the pastry itself. I was in awe. I don’t even like peas! I’m the sort to happily reach for seconds of something that tastes really good, but this one felt so special that I was actually savoring it.
For my “dessert,” I’d opted for one of their salt and pepper shortbread cookies. I was intrigued by the idea of putting pepper in a cookie. I know that chocolate cookies with chili or cayenne have been popular for a while, but somehow the idea of basic black pepper felt less intimidating than other warming spices.
Like the first pastry, this shortbread clearly made use of lots of high-quality butter – no complaints from me. It had the perfect combo of crisp snap and crumbly interior, and the edge of salt and black pepper just brought enough complexity to the party that it was more than just a blank canvas of richness. I wish I knew how much pepper they put in because I’d totally make shortbread this way at home if I thought I could pull it off.
Another day, I visit the mothership, a tiny cream-colored building on Haywood. It’s Sunday morning at 10 am, and unbeknownst to me, this is prime time for gathering to eat pastries at Old World Levain bakery, or OWL. I peruse the case and end up selecting three smaller items instead of my already-decadent two items that I often use to cobble together a flavorful breakfast.
First is a thick, fudgy, flourless chocolate torte. If brownies and a chocolate bar had a baby, it’d be this tasty little morsel. Their holiday-themed take is a gingerbread-chocolate version, with molasses notes and, of course, ginger and other warming spices, with a bit of sprinkled spice and ginger on top for texture in all that rich smoothness.
Second, I eat a gougere, a cheese pastry that tasted different than I’d expected. From the outside, any Southern girl would be forgiven for assuming the interior is a biscuit, full of fluffy leavened flour. Instead, gougere are choux pastry, the basic pastry that forms an eclair shell, that puffs up hollow with a soft inner layer and a crispy outer case.
With gougere, there’s gruyere cheese and goat cheese mixed into the dough. The gougere is still hollow when you bite in, a warm cheesy cave bubble, but instead of being thin, the bottom is still generously thick, with the exterior having that crispy perfection you’d expect from a biscuit, and just inside, it turns to quiche-like softness. It’s substantial despite being a lot bigger on the outside than it is on the inside.
Finally, I commemorated a long-ago trip to Portugal with a pasteis de nata. These pastries are an Easter standard in Portugal, which I discovered while traveling there, and all the bakeries prepare custard tarts in a puff pastry crust.
It’s very slightly sweet, just enough not to be a savory dish, and the tops are just a smidge charred with a lovely dusting of cinnamon. The combination of the flavors took me back to walking along the beach and looking out at the Atlantic to enjoying the unpretentious hospitality of Portuguese shop owners to a general comfort.
Even in their reasonable portions, I reel from the richness of these three items, but it won’t be long before I’m browsing OWL Bakery’s social media, realizing why I had to wait patiently in line and navigate their small shop’s packed interior on that Sunday morning. Everything they make seems like a bit of jewelry, a bright and beautiful thing to be treasured.
They make crusty baguettes studded with local NC grapes with a fanciful name (Razzmatazz!), and they make black-cocoa skeleton cookies with meticulous white icing piped on top. A recent poached-pear tart has the thin pear slices perfectly arranged and is finished with a dusting of edible gold mica, like it was just designed to shine.
At the same time, this inspires confidence in things I’d never pick up personally. I know people who can make okra delicious, but when I see a white cheddar okra sourdough loaf at OWL, I’m filled with conflict: that doesn’t sound good to me, but their tastes are kind of impeccable. They wouldn’t serve me okra if I wasn’t going to love it.
That’s the fun thing about finding great spots in Asheville, I think. After a restaurant or bakery consistently stuns me with their flavor combos, I don’t go there to find the one or two items that I like. Instead, I go there to let them pick for me.
I used to do this at restaurants when I was feeling adventurous, asking the people who eat that food all the time what is going to taste wonderful. Occasionally, of course, tastes don’t align, but most of the time, something novel and memorable occurs.
One thing I haven’t done a lot of is try a lot of their breads, and what with focusing on natural leavening through sourdough, they have developed a strong following as the place to get your sandwich bread for the week.
Each day, you’re at the mercy of how many people manage to buy bread before you, but the North location on Charlotte Street will typically have a baguette, a country sourdough loaf, a rye loaf, and the wheatless “Squirrel Loaf,” which includes oats, psyllium, flax, chia, and nuts and seeds, which lends itself to being perhaps the most nutritionally dense loaf you’ll try in a while.
Then they have daily breads, with raisin flax only on offer on Tuesday and Thursday, Porridge bread made with sunflower seeds, oats, and buckwheat on Sundays, and a rustic sourdough full of olives and herbs on Saturday.
One of the little things that I think we lose in the world of instant, constant availability of many of our favorite foods is the feeling of association and rhythm – if I can get excited that the Heritage Grit bread is only on offer on Wednesday and have that mark the middle of my week rather than just thinking about the weekend, the association brings joy.
No lie, I love a well-stocked supermarket as much as any other convenience lover, but making some things special is also lovely, even if it means I never have a fresh loaf of brioche on a Thursday at OWL.
OWL Bakery’s specialties and their attention to detail inspire me to set an intention in Asheville – while it’s easy to let things just happen to me and be happy when I get to eat a good meal or drink a delectable beverage, I like the idea of making traditions that are Asheville-centric.
Whether you choose to meet a friend for an espresso and a croissant once a month or decide to make your work lunch sandwiches on some truly elevated sandwich bread, it’s possible to be inspired by the beauty of craftsmanship and add a little ritual to your own days and weeks. When we’re all very busy, these moments help us slow down and truly savor.