It was a grim morning.
So instead of driving to work, I went sniffing for a new bakery. I had gotten a tip that a fella had started baking bread in the old London Fog building next to I-83, the Jones Falls Expressway. Just where down there I wasn't sure.
Discovering a new bakery, like finding a dollar bill on the street, always improves my spirit. So I fired up the car, drove up and down Clipper Mill Road and sniffed. I wasn't immediately successful. At first my nose led me to a kitchen cabinet shop. Then I wandered over to a building where the Potter's Guild was at work, then I happened upon a furniture restoration business. Finally I found the Stone Mill Bakery.
The bakery was tucked under the expressway, in a place called Meadow Mill, among the old factories built with native stone.
Once I walked in the door, I saw magnificent breads with crisp crusts, sheets of Italian flat breads and loaves of sourdough that looked as if they came out of a French travel poster.
I was about to settle in for life when I was told I was in the wrong place. Billy Himmelrich, the man responsible for these picturesque baked goods, explained that I had been standing in the baking end of the operation.
The eating end, where members of the crunching public could buy bread, was several blocks away, at the Stone Mill Bakery shop at 1617 Sulgrave Ave. in Mount Washington.
Himmelrich told me this as he sprinted around the premises tending to his ovens. I had caught him at a bad time. He was getting ready to make a presentation of baked goods to a client in about 30 minutes.
But just as a parent can't resist finding time to show pictures of his kids, a baker can't resist showing off his ovens.
Himmelrich took me toward a large metal oven and threw open one of the doors. Inside it looked dark, narrow and about half of a block long. This, he said, was a "steam-injected deck oven, France."
He demonstrated, touching a button that sent a blast of steam out from somewhere near the oven door.
I was impressed, but didn't know exactly why I should be. Steam, Himmelrich reported, is one of the keys to making a good crust. He showed me other equipment, a proofer, where the bread rises, and a smaller steam-injected convection oven, also French. Over in the corner was a gigantic safe. Years ago the safe held cash. Himmelrich now uses it to store dry goods.
In between injections of steam and conferences with his assistant, Mike Valencia, Himmelrich gave me a brief account of his career. A native of Baltimore, he was trained at La Varenne cooking school in Paris. He worked as a chef and baker at the Ritz hotel in Paris and several other restaurants in France. Returning to America last year, Himmelrich worked in Washington as chef at 21 Federal restaurant.
Love brought him back to Baltimore. Last January he and Shelly Pechter, another Baltimore native, were married. The bakery's been open about three weeks.
As Himmelrich was hurrying out the door for his appointment, he plied me with breads. A round loaf of country sourdough, and a long loaf of Italian, which he also bakes for Mastellone's on Harford Road. The carrot rolls he bakes for Linwood's Cafe Grille weren't ready yet, so he tossed me a few round walnut rolls.
And then there was the raisin brioche with Granny Smith apples. I bit into it as I got in my car. It was magnificent -- so good that I told myself I had to find the exact location of the bakery.
I drove there, even though Himmelrich told me the shop was closed on Mondays. I found it. And the next morning after dropping off the kids at school, I opted out of the morning rush hour. I pulled off the Jones Falls Expressway at Northern Parkway, turned on Falls Road, rolled over the Kelly Avenue Bridge, and took a quick right on Sulgrave.
The brioche roll costs $2.25, pricey but worth it. A baguette or basic loaf of French bread is $1.75, a raisin walnut loaf is $4, and a massive focaccia is $16, but is sold in half or quarter loaves as well. It was delicious, if upper-crust, fare. The shop is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays.
And I discovered that not only does the Stone Mill Bakery have terrific baked rolls and breads with amazing crusts, it also makes a good cup of espresso.