Note: First Looks give previews of new dishes, drinks, and menus we're curious about. Since they are arranged photo shoots and interviews with restaurants, we do not make critical evaluations or recommendations.
When I visit the newly opened 20th Century Cafe in Hayes Valley, the owner, Michelle Polzine, is busy. It's just her and two assistants who are pulling shots of espresso, stacking chocolate chip cookies on a pedestal, and peeping into the oven to check on an exceedingly lovely looking peach tart. The kitchen is not only open, but essentially just a sectioned off portion of the room, making it easy to eavesdrop on the process.
I'm really entranced by watching one of Polzine's assistants layer cream cheese and smoked salmon on a poppyseed bagel. When I, a born and bred New Yorker who's had terrible luck finding real bagels west of Hoboken, ask if she's boiling the bagels, Polzine, who has just been doing three things at once, stops dead in her tracks and gives me a serious look.
"Are you kidding?" she asks.
"Well, see I've had a hard time finding..."
She shakes her head. "Yes, they're boiled."
I should have known better given that Polzine, formerly a pastry chef at Range, has carefully crafted this menu. The idea is to riff on the cafe experience that she had in Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. While there, she found that everyone was having tea at 4 pm. "Coffee and pastry is part of life. It's very civilized. People stop and have their espresso, pastry, glass of wine. I thought, this is amazing. I want to do this."
And doing this she is, with a menu that includes pastries, knish, fruit tarts, honey cake, poppy cakes, tortes, and bagels. There are savory "lunch specials" available after 12 pm; the special on the day I visited was a butter bean and kale soup with gypsy peppers and paprika ($7.50).
However Polzine is interpreting the pastries she had abroad, not copying them. "I've been reading a lot of old books," she explains. "It's like I made my pastries for people with Hungarian grandmas. They're different but they still remind them of her in the way they feel."
For example, the potato knish is made with a thin, stretched dough akin to what's used in a Russian style strudel instead of the traditional heavy rolled dough. Other interpretations mean going local: the Reuben sandwich ($12) features Wise Sons bread, pastrami made by Polzine's "friend Pete", and kraut and Russian dressing that Polzine makes in house.
Her travels are also translated in the decor, which features details like sconces and gold-rimmed cups. The components were slowly sourced from all over; lights from Washington, doors from Ohio, chairs from Eastern Europe. This is clearly the kind of place to stop and savor your pastry, not take it to go. You can pair it with a cappuccino, freshly made hot chocolate, or glass of wine (right now the wine list includes Champagne, Gruner Veltliner, and a Tokaji).
Not to mention the fact that the pastries are just too pretty to stuff in a bag. Like the golden, 9-layer Russian Honey Cake.
"What's in that?" I ask as a customer receives a slice.
"Love and secrets."
I smile and wait for an elaboration which, it quickly becomes clear, isn't coming. That's fine, we're in the 20th Century Cafe, after all, and in the 20th century you didn't ask what was in your cake; you ate it.