No, we're also referring to the paler, blander varieties hawked in every American supermarket. You see, had Esther Nio never come face-to-face with such half-baked gluten after moving from Munich, Germany to Silicon Valley in 1997, she might never have become inspired to open her own bakery. And what a shame that would have been.
With a background in marketing and advertising, Nio considered herself a consumer rather than a retailer upon landing in the U.S. with her husband, an engineer who accepted a position with a high-tech company on the Peninsula. It took years for her to find a German baker who specialized in the type of breads and pastries of her homeland. Once she did, though, Nio began distributing wholesale to local specialty supermarkets in 2004, as well as selling directly to the public at farmers' markets around the area.
After haggling with prospective landlords for years, she simultaneously opened her Mountain View bakery (on Showers Drive) and Los Altos restaurant (on San Antonio Road) in 2008. We visited the Mountain View shop, located a few doors down from Trader Joe's in the San Antonio Center, and were surprised to learn that it doesn't actually have a working kitchen — just a back room where food is plated.
This explains why menu choices are rather limited at Esther's. But despite the handicap, we were never bored by the food we sampled, beginning with soup ($3.95 per bowl) prepared daily from scratch at Esther's nearby Los Altos location.
Our two choices couldn't have been more different. While the French onion soup featured a thin, dark beef broth loaded with caramelized onions and specks of seasoning, the butternut squash soup was thick, creamy and colorful, mildly spiced and imbued with the sweet flavor of vegetables roasted and slow-cooked. Fittingly, we ordered both on cold, damp days, and couldn't imagine a more perfect repast.
We tried several sandwiches, including bratwurst ($6.95). Perhaps the most Germanic of the sandwiches we ordered, its formula was austere, with a halved brat served on a choice of plain or poppy seed bun with a pickle slice on the side — and that's it. My suggestion is to cough up the extra $2 for a mound of the most sumptuous sauerkraut you've ever savored, slow-cooked with apple slices, bacon, white wine and onions. Dip the bratwurst in spicy German mustard and take a bite of the sandwich followed by a forkful of warm sauerkraut. Your mouth will explode with sweet and spicy tones.
Not everyone digs sausage, of course, so Esther's also offers a number of more standard sandwich selections ($5.95). Our roast beef sandwich was piled high with thin-sliced meat roasted in Esther's off-site kitchen. It proved to be so tender and fat-free that every bite sliced like a knife through butter. Other ingredients included a slice of provolone, tomato and lettuce wedged between two thick slices of Esther's hefty Steiner bread. (The bread's ingredients include organic wheat and rye flour, flax, sesame and sunflower seeds, rolled oats, sea salt, walnuts, honey and extra virgin olive oil. You can take home your own loaf for $5.75.)
Even an avowed carnivore enjoyed the rich taste of the vegetarian sandwich, featuring cream cheese rolled in herbs, ripe avocado slices and a slice of provolone served on Steiner bread. And I fell in love with the spinach quiche ($5.95), which arrived steaming hot. While our slice was relatively thin, it was light on flaky pasty and heavy on a filling bound by cream, egg and the slightest dash of cheese, allowing the spinach and onion to stand out.
And then there were the pastries and snacks! Allow the filling of the poppy seed coffee cake ($2) to roll around in your mouth to fully enjoy its intense flavors. While the cinnamon roll ($2.75) was a bit dry, its glaze was sweet and loaded with cinnamon. The walnut chocolate cake ($3.50) looked decadent but was bafflingly semi-sweet, and the German pretzel ($1.75) was crunchy and doughy at once, depending on where you bit it.
For some reason we were surprised to find a granola bar ($2.75) in the display case, but its crunchy texture of seeds bound by a caramel glaze and a rivulet of chocolate makes a great midday snack.
We couldn't resist the simple pleasures of Esther's German Bakery — but why resist at all? Fresh ingredients and homemade traditions invite foodies and neophytes alike to dive into the wealth of delicious baked goods at this proud outlet. In the final analysis, what starts with bread ends with bread.
Esther's German Bakery
570 Showers Drive, Mountain View
9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Daily