The Village People

Flat Rock Village Bakery, part of the town’s Little Rainbow Row, is fitted Lego-like inside a boutique gift shop. (The Wrinkled Egg has a spirited concept and deserves its own write-up.) That meandering store’s unique inventory has nothing to do with the Bakery’s robust, creative fare. Somehow, though, the contiguous retailers exude the same festivity.

The popular café’s real companion is West First in downtown Hendersonville, owner Scott Unfried’s newer restaurant (David Workman is the Bakery’s co-owner, head baker, and acknowledged visionary.). Both places feature Mediterranean-style thin-crust pizza that’s baked — this is crucial — in wood-fired ovens. But while West First is a bistro with a bistro’s brisk vibe, the Village Bakery is where you go when you want to sit a spell.

On a recent visit, we observed a man doing just that. He was compelled to be leisurely, since he was accomplishing something remarkable: eating an entire loaf of bread, and nothing else, for his Saturday lunch.

For more than an hour, while we peeked at his progress, he carved chunks out of one of the Village Bakery’s celebrated loaves, dipping it in an oil infusion and washing down each bite with a sip of water, all while perusing a print periodical (and not, significantly, thumbing an electronic device).

Bread is the hallmark of any important bakery. Even when a menu expands to fit trends, as the one here lately has, bread still claims pride of place.

Rustic rounds of bread are the edible pioneers in the foodie-fication of Western North Carolina. Organic bakeries in Sylva, Saluda, and other mountain towns started appearing more than 20 years ago. In this milieu, the Village Bakery’s offerings remain on the top of the shelf. Pain au levain. Ciabatta. Whole-wheat walnut. Carmelized-onion asiago. The list is sanctified.

But judging by the long noon line at the walk-up counter, people are coming to the Village Bakery just as much for the artisan sandwiches, salads, and sweets as for the handsome loaves and the 13-inch pizzas. It was a diverse bunch, too. We saw young families, a spirited six-top of lunching ladies, and a professional bicycle team whose members minced around in cleats on the bakery’s magnolia-tree-shaded back deck, nursing their Nalgene water bottles and inhaling pastries.

After almost choosing the tuna melt — it’s nice to see this fading classic firmly ensconced on a local menu — I tried the house chicken salad instead. It was a happy, juicy mix with fresh dill as the top note and a fantastic quartet of texture courtesy of red onion, celery, dried cranberries, and walnuts.

Presented cliff-high on a ciabatta roll, the sandwich was hard to navigate with only hands and mouth. But that’s why someone invented knives and forks. Beautiful bread seems to require generous fillings.

You know a café means business about goodness when even the kids’ offerings are scrumptious. The provolone-and-havarti cheese melt, a smaller version of the same item on the regular menu but without the kid-offending red onion, was comfort-food extraordinaire. I battled my own child for the last bite.

Also excellent was the beet salad, available in two sizes, half and full. I got the half and smiled wide at the large plate, rather more hearty than half-y. Toasted walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese, and a house balsamic dressing added much personality to the bed of greens and the toothsome beets.

The Village Bakery is rightfully proud of its old-school-style pastries; I sensed a competitive urgency in line that day — patrons eager to order favorites before the other fellow got them. We selected a mint brownie and a cherry-almond pinwheel, intending to eat them later. Didn’t happen. Enough said.

For our second pass at Village fare, we brought home two of the pizzas, the Classic Margherita with fresh basil and a meaty rival, the BBQ Chicken. Wood-fired is a delicate style of pizza. The thin-crusted slices need to be cradled full-palm. And the toppings are lightly scattered — in a word, arranged.

Gourmet players such as wild mushrooms, roasted-potato slices, kale, and prosciutto ably complement this kind of pizza. Despite a pleasing smoky flavor, the BBQ Chicken option, perhaps suited to a weightier pie, didn’t come off with the same success.

Service was a little chaotic. Our to-go pizzas arrived before our in-house meal, and we waited too long for all of it. The room, quaint as it is, is tight. If you’re used to the arched-ceilinged coldness of Asheville’s newer cafés, it can take some adjusting, sitting cheek-by-jowl with your espresso-sipping companions.

Which could be the whole point. We ended up in a surprisingly personal conversation with the person beside us, the guy with the loaf and the oil who was happily living on bread alone.

Flat Rock Village Bakery

2710 Greenville Hwy.

Flat Rock

828-693-1313

www.flatrockwoodfired.com

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