By Wynter Holden
Syrian native Kinana Halik makes the best croissants in the world – at least according to her husband, Adam. The iconic crescent-shaped French pastry is among the house specialties at Early Baker, an eclectic bakery and fast-casual restaurant in Ahwatukee’s Mountainside Plaza. The eatery namesake is Kinana, who makes a habit out of getting up at 4 a.m. to start baking. By the time her sons are ready to get up for school, she’s already whipped up two cakes, several loaves of homemade bread and a tray of French macarons decorated like tiny autumn pumpkins.
“When I started baking for the first time, it was like fireworks went off,” Kinana says. “I don’t call it a job. Even now, it’s a hobby.” She learned to cook nearly two decades ago, when Adam received a technology job assignment in Japan. Kinana, then a certified physician, didn’t have a work visa. Looking for hobbies to keep her mind occupied, she enrolled in cooking school.
Kinana’s early training shows in her Japanese cheesecake, a fluffy crossbreed of pound cake and the classic cream cheese confection. It’s nearly as springy as angel food, with alternatingly creamy layers and a delicate sweetness. Adam occasionally sneaks his favorite caramel sauce onto some customers’ plates, but this cheesecake is perfect without any additions.
Early Baker’s other sweets are equally well-balanced. Mixed berry crêpes have just enough tartness to offset rich cream cheese filling, while sugary orange blossom honey is used sparingly in light, crisp pistachio baklava. The latter is baked into tiny bird’s nests, its phyllo layers gently rolled and drizzled to prevent them from turning into the lead-weight pastries found at most Middle Eastern restaurants.
Even notoriously sugary French macarons are toned down. The seasonal pumpkin has a spicy-sweet flavor somewhere between chai and Apple Jacks cereal, without the cloying aftertaste I’ve come to expect from American macarons. My dining companion and I received the tangy lemon variety on the house after bringing in a copy of Scrabble to occupy ourselves during a dessert break. “We want to encourage people to come in for coffee or dessert and play games,” Adam says.
That’s the kind of friendly, welcoming service you can expect at Early Baker. The Haliks personally greet their regulars. They even designed the space, from the juicy orange walls and rooster statues to the hand-picked dining tables and cozy conversation nook. A Jenga tower in the corner invites guests to stay and play. Visit the high tea room – used for private parties, but open for community dining during peak hours – and you’ll find an eclectic wall display of Kinana’s Japanese fabric art.
Want to order a custom cake? Try a sample on the house. Craving breakfast past the 11 a.m. posted time? No problem; this isn’t McDonald’s. “You can order breakfast or lunch anytime. We don’t report to anyone,” Adam says. Though most of the current menu focuses on egg dishes, crêpes and sandwiches, the Haliks plan to expand the offerings as word of mouth about dinnertime service grows.
While Early Baker is known for pastries, its savory entrees are worth sampling. The Early American sandwich plate pleases with herb-crusted Middle Eastern potatoes and juicy turkey sausage, taking second only to the heartier Early Steak & Egg made with thin-sliced roast beef and three eggs. Heap the accompanying greens and potatoes onto the central players and you have a breakfast dish that’s hearty and flavorful, with a welcome burst of acidity and brine from the Greek salad.
The only main dish that disappoints is a turkey & Swiss crêpe. Though the béchamel is made in-house and the crêpes freshly pan-cooked, this classic doesn’t have enough flavor to compete with a cheesy egg boat or French toast. Because its ingredients are so mild, this crêpe needs a boost. A little pepper Jack or fresh rosemary would go a long way.
Though Adam Halik is convinced there’s no better croissant on the planet, his wife is slightly more humble about her signature pastry. “It’s the best in Arizona,” Kinana says, a sentiment echoed on Early Baker’s website. According to the Haliks, one of their regulars came in recently after visiting San Francisco’s famed bakery, Tartine. The patron sampled Early Baker’s version and – after a nerve-wracking pause – declared the local croissant her favorite.
Sadly, I can’t offer a personal opinion. Fresh croissants were unavailable during three visits, having been gobbled up by hungry Phoenicians earlier in the day. Considering the quality of the breakfasts and baked goods, I’ll definitely be back to put the elusive pastry to the test. All I have to do is wake up at the crack of dawn and be there when the chef puts out her first batch.