Over the last three weeks, I kept finding myself in the spacious, modern confines of Little T American Baker. Whether coveting neatly displayed muffins, cookies, and croissants, or enjoying a muffuletta sandwich, one question kept returning: Why "American Baker?" You see, during the time I spent amid the stainless steel counters and butcher-block tables, chewing my way through the menu, I couldn't figure out what made the bakery distinctly American.
I called Little T's owner and master baker, Tim Healea, in hopes that he might set me straight.
"For the last couple of cycles at the World Cup of Baking in Paris," Healea says, "Americans took top rank. When I opened the bakery I wanted 'American' to be specifically stated: You can be an American and still be a great baker."
Healea, whose nickname was Little T when he took the Silver Medal for laminated doughs (viennoiserie) in the 2002 World Cup of Baking, doesn't want to be tied to a specific baking tradition. "Mostly, I'm aiming for rustic home-style stuff," he says. "I really wanted [the bakery] to be American in terms of it being a melting pot as well."
The danger with this wide worldview is the possibility that without focus, a baker's skill might be diluted among styles. This isn't the case at Little T. Healea is as adept at creating a delicious baguette with airy crumb and nice golden crust as he is at creating a loaf of slightly sweet, cake-like Sally Lunn bread.
Sally Lunn seems to be the flagship type of bread at Little T. The recipe is "straight from James Beard" according to Healea, and he uses Sally Lunn liberally throughout his menu. The thick, light slices work well combined with mild egg salad, but create a shallow, sugary flavor profile when combined with a surprisingly saccharine slab of meatloaf. Happily, the meatloaf sandwich is a rare miss in an otherwise fine menu.
While Little T is making a showing in the burgeoning Clinton/Division lunch scene, the breakfast offerings are a welcome addition to the neighborhood.
A formed, baked donut, studded with currants, has a balanced sweetness with powdered sugar and cinnamon spiciness. The texture has the integrity of dense cake. The oat and date scones are soft and substantial—the oats providing body to the flavor, hues of butter and sugar melting across the tongue, while the dates brighten the whole affair.
The breakfast sandwiches are also pleasant. The ham and cheese on pretzel works very well, primarily because of the split, stubby, soft pretzel roll with its large grains of salt studded across shining, deep brown crust. Another excellent offering is cowgirl toast, a riff on the classic egg-in-a-basket, wherein an egg is fried in a hole punched through a bread slice. Here the sweetness of the Sally Lunn plays well against salty egg and bacon.
There are so many options at Little T, it's impossible to give them all their due in this space. But I'd encourage anyone to try the seven-grain carrot roll, focaccia-style olive slab, or any of the other offerings filling Little T's dynamic menu. Like that muffuletta sandwich—its coarse and tangy tapenade mellowed by the warm give of sliced skinny baguette.
Henry Miller once wrote, "You can travel 50,000 miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread." Lucky for Portland, Little T is close to home.