Monday, June 05, 2006

Sweets in the Southland

I spent last weekend in the L.A. area doing some planning for my book and having fun with my brother and his family. I did some advance scouting before the trip, digging out clippings of special culinary destinations in SoCal, just in case we ended up in the vicinity of any of them.

My friend Jen is always game for food hunts, so we left Pasadena on Friday morning and headed down the freeway(s) to Sherman Oaks to visit Baby Donuts. I read about this establishment in the November 2005 issue of Food & Wine Magazine. They reported that Baby Donuts makes their product to order. You pick the type of donut you want, the kind of filling, if any, that is desired, and the frosting or topping of your choice. Interesting concept. Pulling into the uninteresting strip mall off the main drag in Sherman Oaks, we saw the sign, but as we approached the door, we realized something was wrong. It was dark, and clearly closed for business. Not just closed today, but closed for good. Amazing that something that appears in a mag like Food & Wine goes out of business 6 months after being feted. A restaurant, yes, but a donut shop? Definitely a huge disappointment (not that I needed the calories, mind you).

We took our sad faces and got back into the car and headed south to Beverly Hills, home of Sprinkles Cupcakes, another magazine find. Easy to locate on a main drag, but not easy to park near, this small storefront does a booming business with daily handcrafted cupcakes in 20+ flavors. We observed lines out the door each time we passed (we stayed around town for a few hours to have lunch and window shop). And people were not buying one or two (like us), but boxfuls. The cost: $3.25/pop or $13 for 4, $19.50 for 6, $36 for 12 (such a deal!). Sprinkles offers 8 flavors each day. Available flavors are banana, black and white, carrot, chai latte, chocolate coconut, coconut, dark chocolate, ginger lemon, lemon, lemon coconut, milk chocolate, mocha, peanut butter chocolate, peanut butter chip, orange, pumpkin, vanilla, vanilla-milk chocolate, strawberry, and red velvet. Also available are doggie cupcakes, which are mini-size, and run $2.50, and frosting shots for $.75. We tried the black and white and the chai latte. The cake in both was dense, with tops that bordered on hard, and sported a generous amount of frosting. The frosting was of good quality, with no gritty sugary mouthfeel. The chai latte had very mild spice accents, almost too light. I wanted to bite into the cupcake and have the chai flavorings burst into my mouth, but no luck. While not a bad cupcake, it wasn’t as moist as I would like, and neither was worth the price. I have used boxed cake mixes that tasted better. Given that there are 15 other flavors, there must be a reason that the line is out the door, unless it’s one of those eateries where the people line up just because there is a line or because the right reviewer raved about it.

Next on our list was Valerie Confections on S. Orlando in L.A. (off W. Olympic). Mentioned in a recent article in Saveur, titled “The Saveur List: 10 Chocolates,” this confectionary specializes in handmade hard toffee, a bit of a departure from the upscale truffles, sea salt caramels, and tasty ganache treats normally featured. Unfortunately, we were not able to find the store. We busted out again. I was beginning to feel that there is a conspiracy afoot to keep me from ingesting too many calories. I’ll save this for the next trip and make sure I call for directions.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to make it across town to the Hollywood and Highland Center to check out the famous chain of cream puff stores, Beard Papa. But since we had one open in San Francisco in May on Yerba Buena Lane, I can stop in on one of my little forays to the city, just 35 minutes away. In case you haven’t heard about Beard Papa, this is a Japanese chain that has migrated to the U.S. If you live in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Hawaii or California, you are in luck (and Louisiana is being added to the list as we speak). Beard Papa bakes their pate choux shells several times per day and stuffs them to order. Always available flavors are Vanilla Bean custard and Chocolate Custard. They rotate caramel, green tea, pumpkin, milk tea, and strawberry custard filings. Also available are ├ęclairs in vanilla or double chocolate. Normally I don’t go in for any kind of chain restaurants, but the concept here is interesting, and I am willing to try just about anything once.

Saturday led me out to Torrance, off the PCH, to my niece’s volleyball tournament. Once we finished at 11:30, it was time for some food, so we headed up to Venice where I had been encouraging my brother to go for months. We were intent on hitting up Jin Patisserie, a bakery, confectionary, tea shop on Abbot Kinney. We walked in and scanned the walls which were lined with refrigerated glass shelving, strategically placed at eye level. The glass shelves contained mouth-watering desserts with fresh tropical fruits, ganache, genoise, teas, and other sweet treats. In the glass case at front were the handmade chocolates, small bite-sized pieces of art. Flavors such as Mango Basil, Lavendar, Black Roasted Sesame, Grand Jasmine, Lemongrass, Earl Gray, Caramel Clove, Chrsanthemum, and more tempt the palate. We opted for a box of 9 for $20.50, as well as 4 desserts, including the decadent Inspiration and Chocolate Heaven. The desserts were excellent, particularly the Inspiration (see picture), and the chocolates are a good small size, which do not elicit feelings of guilt whatsoever. However, the flavors are very subtle and shouldn’t be enjoyed with anything strong, like coffee or red wine, as these would overpower them. I loved the creaminess of the interiors, and the quality of chocolate is very good, but in some cases, the flavors were a bit too subtle. (Either that or my palate is losing its touch.)

All in all, I had a great three days in LA. While there was only a 50% success rate with attempts at taste testing, my waistline is appreciative. And I look forward to my next foray into the culinary bastion of the Southland.

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