Flour versus Tatte. What are we thinking? We have taken on other institutions with our taste-tests before, sparking backlash and fury. We ranked every item on Eventide’s menu and drew the sort of ire usually reserved for political commentary. We also opined on every flavor of Toscanini’s ice cream — possibly enough to get us exiled from Massachusetts (or at least Cambridge) forever.
And so we approach this bakery showdown, our toughest assignment yet, with trepidation tempered with enthusiasm. Since it opened in 2000, Flour has become the go-to pastry (and sandwich) destination for Boston, first in the South End and then throughout the city. Joanne Chang is to sugar what David Ortiz is to baseball in this town — beyond reproach. Her sticky buns are a religion. Her Boston cream pie? Legendary.
The newer Tatte, which opened in 2007, is growing rapidly. Fans line up for shakshuka and tea cakes, served in subway-tiled spaces designed for first dates and Instagram myth-making. Both have legions of loyalists. Both are run by dynamic women. Tatte owner Tzurit Or served in the Israeli army and worked there in the film industry before embarking on a pastry career; Chang graduated from Harvard and was a management consultant before ascending her throne as the baroness of buns.
But what is hype, and what is reality? We set out to find out, sampling five signature dishes plus coffee at Flour in Central Square and Tatte on Cambridge’s Third Street. We conducted our tastes independently. We did not identify ourselves to personnel. We drew strange looks. These are our findings.
Kara: I always enter Flour with a sense of anticipation commingled with dread. Anticipation because I know the food is terrific. Dread because there’s so much uncertainty leading up to the moment that I’ll get it. Will I find a seat? Why isn’t anyone moving? Am I in the wrong line? Did they just call my name? I think they called my name! Is that my sticky bun? Whoops, nope — back to my seat. There’s a lot of waiting, jostling, and maneuvering involved in this process. Plus, there’s a push-button code to enter the bathroom, and by the time I’ve gotten my food, I really don’t feel like approaching the counter one more time to try to find out what it is. That said, service is fast and cheerful.
Devra: Flour is always crowded, but there is method to the madness. The lines move quickly and you can order ahead online. Eventually you will land a seat at one of the counters along the windows, a little marble table, or the communal table decorated with pretty flowers in a vase, alongside students, parents with strollers, and medical researchers conversing in English, Chinese, and Italian simultaneously. If there is inevitable jockeying for position at the coffee station, it is extremely friendly: “Sorry I’m in your way!” “Oh no, you’re good!” On a recent visit, a woman trying to get to the milk laughs and says: “’Excuse me, sorry, excuse me, sorry.’ I love this cafe, but how often do you hear that? At least everyone is nice!” And everyone is. Flour puts people in a good mood.
Signature egg dish: Breakfast egg sandwich with bacon
Kara: Heavenly. I had my doubts at first, because the egg “soufflé” is a fluffy square, the kind you might find at airports. Don’t let the shape deceive you. This is one fresh egg. Bacon maintains an admirable ratio of fat to crispy. The tomatoes, so often translucently gray this time of year, are crimson and juicy. Dijonnaise adds a nice tang, and plenty of it. I occasionally find Flour to be stingy with condiments, but not this time, much to my delight. My only quibble is the bitter arugula. I pluck it out of my sandwich and set it aside. But this is a small price to pay for such a delicious treat.
Devra: I’ve always thought this is the best offering at Flour, and this taste test doesn’t change my mind. There are some excellent peripherals: sharpness and contrast from arugula (which I love and am glad to find here) and Dijonnaise, really good applewood-smoked bacon, just the right thickness and crisp-fattiness. But the central attraction is the eggs, which are cooked into a custardy, creamy, silky soufflé that’s pretty glorious. Tiny quibbles: The tomatoes are a little out-of-season crunchy, and the bun is neither a distraction nor a standout. But this is an egg sandwich that is actually a showcase for the eggs, which is as it should be, and mostly not how it is when it comes to egg sandwiches.
Kara: Fresh. Airy, yet dense, with a buttery coating that makes my fingers glisten. It’s the ideal carb-missile. Is it legal to marry a croissant in the state of Massachusetts? A truly perfect pastry.
Devra: How was I not aware how good Flour’s croissants are? Probably because there are so many other things here to order, and I’ve gravitated toward the unique on past visits. The first thing that is evident about them is the crisp exterior, so satisfying to bite into. Next is the quality of the butter, which has wonderful flavor. A cross-section reveals a lacy structure and plentiful air pockets. The whole thing pulls apart in flaky layers. Each one is dark brown on top, giving way to striations of caramel and gold. This is a really good croissant. Now I know.
Nut showcase: Sticky bun
Kara: Everything you’ve heard about this sticky bun is true. It is enormous. It is majestic. It is shellacked with a luxuriant caramel coating that looks like a 1950s beauty mask, dotted with enormous pecans, which are so firm and sweetly nutty that I dislodge them one by one like a mad scientist until my hands are coated in goo. The brioche dough is soft and pillowy. If I weren’t on edge from all this sugar, I’d want to curl up on it and take a nap.
Devra: Probably Flour’s most-famous item, having once beaten Bobby Flay’s version on TV, followed by years of public adulation. I get it. The goo (technical term) on top is a perfectly caramel-y concoction of brown sugar and butter. There are so many pecans. The whole is a deep brown, the flavor neither underdeveloped nor burned. It’s sweet but not kill-you sweet. For this taste test, I snagged the very last sticky bun, and the people behind me let out an audible whimper. (Sorry, people!) The brioche dough beneath the topping was a little bit dry, and I thought it might be because it had lingered in the case. I went back a few days later, earlier in the morning, and tried again. The dough was still on the dry side. If I hadn’t been overanalyzing things, I never would have noticed. The topping is just that mesmerizing.
Cauliflower sandwich: Grilled cauliflower melt
Kara: Smoked poblano relish and pumpkin seed butter combine in a smoky, savory tango, and the cauliflower is soft and rich and caramelized, delicious on its own. But the Oaxaca cheese snakes like a weed of rubbery dental floss across the sandwich. It’s distracting. My main issue with the dish, though, is its color — the greenish-brown hue of a dentist’s waiting room. Hmph.
Devra: First thing I notice is that this sandwich weighs about 12 pounds. It’s hefty! The bread bears the lines of a panini press. A pro: It’s not at all greasy from the griddle. A con: The bread is thus dry and doesn’t have much flavor. The sandwich mostly tastes like poblano peppers. I like poblanos, but they overwhelm the cauliflower. The pumpkin-seed flavor is mild. The cheese is rubbery. The flavors do a muddying-together thing that would be helped by something bright or crunchy for contrast. Greens would be good. I love all the ingredients here. But I like this sandwich better in theory than in practice.
Wild card: Boston cream pie
Kara: This classic dessert isn’t for everyone. To me, it’s like eating a sugar-soaked sponge. Flour’s version is no different. A couple of bites, and I’m done. Points for the chocolate frosting, though, which isn’t as cloyingly sweet as so many renditions. If this is your thing, Flour makes a fine version.
Devra: A fat slice of sponge cake layers with vanilla cream and coffee syrup, topped in chocolate ganache with a little white marbling. The sponge is light and fluffy, with little air bubbles throughout. The coffee flavor is mild, and there’s just enough chocolate to be truly chocolate-y without overwhelming things. The sponge layers are slightly soggy, which isn’t a deal breaker but is noticeable. Cold from the case, the slice improves after coming to room temperature. I’d never be sad to eat this.
Kara: Spicy. Aromatic. Bracing. A welcome counterpoint to all this sugar.
Devra: No thank you. It tastes cooked. I drink coffee black, but here I feel the need to add milk and sugar. It doesn’t help.
Kara: Tatte’s counter is every bit as congested as Flour’s, yet somehow I feel tended to here — probably because servers bring dishes to the table, even though the tall number signs you have to tote to your seat are unwieldy, and I keep knocking mine over. From the moment I order, I am coddled: A busy employee pauses to pull out a stool for me. Another fetches me a to-go bag. It’s nice to sit down and wait instead of popping up like a contestant on “Double Dare” whenever I think I hear my name. Here, it’s nice to be a number.
Devra: Tatte is nothing if not aesthetically pleasing: the mind-calmingly clean white and black palette, the mosaic tiles, the well-chosen light fixtures. There’s an antique card catalog used for storage here, a repurposed wood church pew for seating there. Although it’s crowded, it is less hectic than Flour; Flour feels like it’s more for the artists and bohemians, Tatte for the tech crowd, Type A’s with good design sense, and students who have their acts together. Between customers, there’s more of an efficient, transactional friendliness than a genuine mutual interest, but the staffers are all warm, well-trained, and solicitous.
Signature egg dish: Traditional shakshuka
Kara: What’s not to love about shakshuka? I order Tatte’s classic version, with tomato sauce, bell pepper, feta, parsley, and poached eggs served in a scalding-hot skillet atop a wooden board lined with challah. Sadly, my eggs are gummy — cooked maybe a few seconds too long. And I prefer a saucier shakshuka; this version is lumpier, thanks to the red pepper. But this is a matter of taste. Presentation is gorgeous, although I nearly knock the whole affair onto my lap when someone elbows me heading for the trash.
Devra: I’m partial to this egg dish and often make it at home, which means I have Ideas about what it should taste like. This one works for me. The tomato sauce could be a little spicier, but it has some warmth and a hint of cumin. I’m wary of bell peppers in sauce, because so often they’re all I can taste. But here their flavor is pleasantly present without dominating. Parsley adds freshness, and there’s a generous sprinkle of good feta. Most important, the eggs are cooked just right, the yolks still a little runny. I pretty much ignore the challah toast on the side, but it’s good to have around for those who like to dip. The dish looks great too, of course, served in a metal skillet on a wood board.
Kara: Sublime. Also airy and dense. Also buttery. Definitely flakier than Flour’s version. I’m satisfied, though I’m also wearing half of my breakfast on my shirt.
Devra: Tatte’s croissant has a pretty butterscotch color, good internal structure, and a pleasant flakiness. I feel sort of bad eating it side by side with Flour’s version, because it’s good, but not as good. It doesn’t have the same exterior crispness; the butter isn’t as noticeably stellar. What is stellar: Tatte’s pistachio croissant. I can’t resist ordering one when I’m here, every time.
Nut showcase: Mixed nut tart
Kara: A nutty bonanza — a crispy, buttery rectangular box packed with a glazed medley of walnuts, pecans, pistachios, and cashews bound with honey caramel. If you really like nuts, and really like sweets, this is your Shangri-la. I’m satisfied after a bite or two.
Devra: A pastry shell filled with runny caramel and a mixture of nuts (pistachio, hazelnut, cashew, etc.), this is a Tatte signature. It’s what would happen if Rosh Hashanah teiglach were made by a French baker. Where Flour’s sticky bun socks you in the mouth, the nut box is more refined and subtle. Think dog vs. cat. The flavors here are more complex; it’s also harder to eat, and some bites can be a little dry.
Cauliflower sandwich: Roasted cauliflower
Kara: The cauliflower is sweet and springy — you know, maybe a bit too springy. I’d like a softer, more caramelized cauli. But this flaw is masked by succulent spiced labneh dotted with sweet golden raisins and pine nuts. And the pita is puffy and fresh, a yeasty little pouch. I’m happy.
Devra: From the moment I bite into the fluffy pita, I know this sandwich is a winner. It tastes both familiar and not: The roast cauliflower is combined with pine nuts, capers, and raisins. There’s also spicy labneh in the mix, although I’d like more of it. The sweet-tangy mixture doesn’t get boring, and the pita has good texture and chew.
Wild card: Halva sesame tea cake
Kara: A crumby, firm respite from the sugar onslaught I’ve experienced. It is perfectly pleasant, a palate-cleansing way to end my odyssey. Can’t complain.
Devra: This little tea cake is cute as a button, dusted in sesame seeds, but it looks like it’s going to taste kind of plain. It’s a surprise: simple, yes, but in a good way. It tastes like a macaroon, except made with sesame instead of almond. (I like halva probably an abnormal amount, so I’m predisposed to enjoy this.) The inside is moist and dense, and the sweet little cake is great with a cup of black coffee.
Kara: So strong that I can’t drink more than a sip. If you want to be awake for two days, by all means.
Devra: An entirely acceptable cup. Tastes good black; no need to adulterate.
■ The experience: Devra: Tatte. Kara: Tatte.
■ Signature egg dish: Devra: Flour. Kara: Flour.
■ Croissant: Devra: Flour. Kara: Flour.
■ Nut showcase: Devra: Flour. Kara: Flour.
■ Cauliflower sandwich: Devra: Tatte. Kara: Tatte.
■ Wild card: Devra: Tatte. Kara: Tatte.
■ Coffee: Devra: Tatte. Kara: Flour.
■ Total: Flour: 7. Tatte: 7.
Kara: It’s a tie. Really, we’re lucky to have two superb bakery mini-chains in our midst. I’m hard-pressed to say that one beats the other. Some people prefer the Beatles. Others prefer the Stones. In terms of service, I’ll give the edge to Tatte — their ordering process is calmer and more orderly. When it comes to food, it’s a close tie, but I’m still dreaming of (and recovering from) Flour’s sticky bun, croissant, and egg sandwich.
Devra: I start this taste test thinking both bakeries are a) fine and b) somewhat overrated. I end it with my mind changed. Trying to determine which one is superior is an ungenerous and petty act: Both are a) great and b) appropriately appreciated. Each has its strengths, and its own flavor and aesthetic. I’m glad to be able to celebrate two enormously successful mini-empires started by powerhouse women. If it sometimes seems that Flours and Tattes are taking over the town, well, things could be worse.
Tell us in the comments if you prefer Tatte or Flour and why.