"It's all David's fault," she deadpans. Former executive chef of Piatti, chef and owner of Caf‚ Gringo, and recent baker-elect as proprietor of Upper Crust Bakery and Deli, Zenda Willemstein laughs as she recounts the circuitous way by which she and partner, David Dimler, entered into yet another aspect of the food business--the kind that is known for criminally early hours. "David was just strolling by here one morning, on his way to get a cheese Danish when it was the Monterey Baking Company," she explains. "The place was closed and the doors were chained shut, and so it began."

What laypeople might not immediately realize is the inherent ideological conflict involved when a chef decides to become a baker. One could perhaps liken it to when the airline mechanic decides to fly the plane, or vice versa; each one is a highly trained professional, but with different skills. Firing dinner orders on a hot line at Caf‚ Gringo in Carmel and firing up ovens before dawn was a real challenge at first, Willemstein admits, but one that has evened out now that they've been open for several months.

"I'm finding that the concept of a deli-bakery allows me to branch out to do all kinds of food. You're not limited to 'just Mexican' or 'just Italian.' And I'm getting in wonderful breads from Palermo and Paris Bakeries, and fine pastries from Parker-Lusseau." Willemstein whips up the banana-walnut, blueberry, and bran muffins herself as well as a variety of scones and "homey" pastries, like their ever-popular bread pudding.

"What I've come to realize is that bakeries survive on memory," Willemstein reflects. "It's not just about the right location, it's about offering the kinds of things that people remember from their past--the homey, squishy bread pudding or a favorite butter cookie that a 95-year-old woman remembered loving as a wonderful treat when she was four. I think finding that out is what a bakery is really about."

Having been brought up in a family that owned and operated a popular East London candy store and wine shop, Dimler shares his partner's philosophy. The imported chocolates, cookies and candy take their inspiration from his roots, as do the teas, made the 'real' way. "Eclectic and spontaneous, with a British twist," is how he describes the new venue.

And as any self-respecting deli should mandate, the corned beef is cooked in house and served on rye, with sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. Ditto the turkey, roasted in house and appearing on a soft French roll with Jack cheese. Equal billing is given on the menu to vegetarian items like the smoked Gouda sandwich on focaccia and a variety of salads (classic Caesar with the option of grilled chicken or smoked salmon, Oriental chicken salad with noodles and cashews) and soups.

The special board stays open to inspiration, and might find a hearty, low-fat enchilada casserole, loaded with corn and black beans with lean ground beef or turkey, a favorite lunch entr‚e that "isn't too heavy or spicy," as Willemstein describes it. "And available in big or small portions," she adds. Deep dish pizzas and bagel dogs are standard lunch items.

Some of the inventive breakfast specials might include double-stuffed potatoes, filled with scrambled eggs over corned beef hash, or turkey with spinach and cheddar. There are bagel options, too, as well as a full range of coffee drinks. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, to eat in or take out, the Upper Crust provides a comfortable niche for delicious respite at this busy thoroughfare.

Upper Crust Bakery and Deli

Crossroads Shopping Center, Highway 1 at Rio Road, Carmel, 625-0800

Hours: 7:30am-6pm, 7 days

Price range: $2.95-6.25

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