Sunday, June 16, 2024

A Lotus babka with Biscoff cookies crumbled along the top from Asaro Bakery and Café, which was approved Tuesday to come to a Mid-Cambridge location. (Photo: Timna Barsheshet via Instagram)

Two former Darwins Ltd. coffee shop locations are on the way to being coffee shops again, one of them as a cooperative run by former Darwins employees.

Asaro Bakery and Café won License Commission approval Tuesday to take over the 2,182-square-foot space at 1629 Cambridge St., Mid-Cambridge, and so did the Circus Cooperative Cafe for the 1,550-square-foot 31 Putnam Ave., Riverside, location.

The original Darwin’s closed Nov. 22 after 30 years at 148 Mount Auburn St. and became Roust Coffee in January; the business’ other three locations throughout Cambridge closed in December. Pressures from a recently formed union were widely blamed for the end of the chain, with Steve and Isabel Darwin saying that workers marching to their home during the fall and holding a rally outside it “resulted in the acceleration of our decision to retire.’’

With the approval for Asaro and Circus, that leaves only a location at 313 Massachusetts Ave., The Port, not getting a coffee refill – or any known next tenant. The other three have turned around within eight months.

Management of the two former Darwin’s locations on the Tuesday agenda are unrelated, and it’s a coincidence that they appeared as License Commission administrative matters on the same day, said Asaro’s co-owner, head baker and manager, Timna Barsheshet.

Asaro Bakery and Café

Asaro is family-owned, and the Barsheshets come to Cambridge with 30 years of experience running bakeries in Israel. “Our specialty will be finding a middle ground between Israeli and American culture,” she said. “Our goal is to offer high-quality and delicious baked goods with Israeli authenticity, but with creativity inspired from all around the world.”

A sample menu, which Barsheshet stressed was preliminary only, shows breakfast and lunch classics such as avocado toast on multigrain bread and an egg salad sandwich on brioche but stakes out territory with selections such as a lemon poppy seed pancake and Not So Sweet Waffle (with arugula, sprouts, avocado, hard-boiled egg, lemon, chili flakes and green tahini sauce), as well as a Not So Classic Turkey Sandwich with fig jam, pickled onion and manchego cheese.

Asaro will serve La Colombe espressos and other coffee beverages, she said.

Barsheshet’s Instagram reveals several indulgent pastries that could make their way to Asaro, including a Nutella and roasted hazelnut babka and a Lotus babka with an intense coating of Biscoff cookies along the top. Even savory dishes look rich, such as a cheesy pesto pull-apart bread with feta and walnuts.

“We are known for babka and our breads,” Barsheshet said. “It’s important to us that we have challahs to sell on Fridays mornings and be part of the community. We want to have something like that for the whole area.”

A braided challah is a tradition for Fridays – the Jewish sabbath begins at sundown – which suggests Asaro is part of a mini-trend of Jewish foods begun with the arrival of Lehrhaus, the “Jewish Tavern” that opened in Somerville in March. But it’s also part of a larger trend with Sofra and Tatte that makes Cambridge and Somerville a center for Mediterranean-inspired foods and pastry.

A Wellesley location was anticipated for more than a year before “coming soon” signs came down in May and attention shifted northeast. Because the family plans to repaint but leave the rest of the interior on Cambridge Street largely intact, Asaro could be open in around eight weeks pending approvals from the city, Barsheshet said. They’re asking for the 40-occupancy cafe to be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. all days.

Circus Cooperative Cafe

The Riverside, Cambridge location of Darwin’s Ltd. in 2019. (Photo: Albee X. via Yelp)

Less is known about Circus Cooperative Cafe, for which former Darwin’s baristas launched a $20,000 crowdfunding campaign Dec. 16, raising $11,650 as of Monday that they said would be matched with $10,000 of their own. In April, baristas including Caleb Zedek reported being in negotiations for a space. “Some of us are working on our menu, testing flavors, testing recipes,” the update said.

“We aspire to combine our love for good food and coffee with our goals of determining our own working conditions in a truly democratic manner,” Zedek and the cooperative said. “Our current focus is on taking one of the former Darwin’s spaces and operating a similar coffee and sandwich business.”

The cafe is asking to be open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. all days for a space with maximum occupancy of 36 people. The cooperative’s secretary, Kveten Nerudova, said Thursday after the meeting that the group’s expectation was to open sometime in September, serving Equal Exchange coffee and a menu that includes some sandwiches Darwin’s regulars will recognize. “We’ll be keeping some of the old classics,” Nerudova said. There will be new menu items too, including a Korean-inspired cold marinated tofu sandwich with gochujang.