Like the restaurant in which it operates, the new weekend bakery at Compass Rose aims to provide a sense of adventure at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic discourages travel. While the restaurant in the 14th Street NW corridor does that with a menu that puts shrimp cocktail from Mexico alongside Sichuan green beans and Georgian khachapuri, the first lineup of pastries La Bodega introduced last month draw from source material that’s a little more complicated.
With options like a babka loaf lightly laced with dulce de leche and cheesecake that folds in labneh, Compass Rose and Maydan executive pastry chef Paola Velez calls back to her Bronx childhood while breaking from tradition altogether. As a kid, the 2020 James Beard Award finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year says she felt like a world traveler without leaving New York City. On any given day, she might have been inhaling the scent of Italian cookies from the dearly departed Stella D’Oro factory or venturing into Russian neighborhoods for a taste of kolbasa.
“It’s that innocence of not knowing that people divide each other by culture or by ethnicity, me just assuming that everybody loved each other,” says Velez, who pays tribute to her Dominican heritage by layering fluffy yellow bizcocho (cake) with guava and pineapple jam and a topping of torched meringue. “It’s an ode to that portion in my life where I just kind of was able to bend different cultures together.”
Dating back to her time studying Greek desserts as a pastry chef at Iron Gate in Dupont Circle, Velez says she started to see commonalities in different cuisines that can be attributed to great migrations and colonizations throughout history. Working alongside chef Marcelle Afram, who has Assyrian roots, Velez says she’s seen how many Middle Eastern spices and syrups appear in Caribbean kitchens. The idea of certain flavors or ingredients belonging to one place or another began to unravel.
When she’s remixing a traditional dessert, Velez says she’s “100 percent a believer in always making something true to that culture and true to that representation,” so she works to master the original before she starts to modify it. Anyone who has an emotional attachment to the yeasty folds of babka found in Jewish delis and Eastern European bakeries shouldn’t feel Velez’s version is all that different from an old-school cinnamon flavor. The addition of the Latin caramel is subtle, most noticeable in the sticky, concentrated areas baked into the bottom.
Velez gave her pastry staff, DeAndra Bailey and Nikkie Rodriguez, three days to learn how to make babka, a complicated process that involves manipulating stretchy dough with a short window for spreading hot dulce de leche. Now Bailey oversees the process, braiding them every morning.
Another deli staple, cheesecake, was a summertime treat for Velez, who used to eat slices from S&S Cheesecake with her parents on their fire escape as a reward for getting good grades. Velez compares her version to a burnt Basque cheesecake, but says it’s cooked through in the middle. She tops it with candied cherries, and a buckwheat crust keeps it gluten free.
La Bodega sells rectangular Portuguese egg tarts built on puff pastry as a nod to Velez’s time renting an apartment in Chinatown. “You would be able to really survive as a line cook on a couple of dollars,” she says. “If you really wanted a dessert you would get an egg tart.”
Babka, cheesecake, and egg tarts represent some of the early staples, but Velez and her team plan to explore other themes while rotating specials in and out. Renowned for her doughnuts, Velez has already played around with an apple jam-stuffed variety with sumac crumb and a strikingly purple ube flavor as walk-in specials. Whole cakes ($50 for a 4-inch cake, $80 for a 6-inch cake) will rotate flavors, too.
Velez also offers mystery boxes under a “Decolonize Your Pastries” package, with a portion of proceeds will going to National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. One recent example was an apple turnover made out of Native American fry bread.
To go with the pastries, La Bodega has hot and cold Tynan coffee and a handful of cocktails like a gin-spiked cardamom chai or a prickly pear and guava mix that can be ordered with mezcal or as an NA lemonade.
La Bodega accepts preorders through Tock for pickups Friday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Masked walk-ins are welcome.