Wednesday, March 25, 2009

La Boulangerie

Tarte Normande
La Boulangerie, $4.50

The need for carbohydrate comfort first steered me into La Boulangerie several years ago, when a movie I was desperate to see at the theater across the street sold out just as I got to the ticket window. Fast forward to now and I can't remember the name of the movie, but I can recall every bite of my consolation treat, a meltingly tender and spicy baked apple encased in a buttery croissant--a chausson au pomme.

Today, the knowledge that a chausson was waiting just down the street got me through a routine physical with a smile on my face. Sadly, by the time I got to La Boulangerie, my chausson had gone home with somebody else--probably while I was still reading a tattered Popular Mechanic in the doctor's waiting room. Although it was once a much larger business, La Boulangerie is currently a one-man show, and patchy selection is perhaps inevitable. Owner/baker/barista Xon N. Luong fires up the ovens at 5am daily (except Monday when the shop is closed and Luong allows himself to sleep as late as he likes), but things can and do sell out. (Some online reviewers have also reported inconsistent service and cleanliness, but I've never experienced these issues myself).

Scanning the cases for a chausson substitute I couldn't for the life of me remember: is it tarte tatin that I like....or tarte Normande?

Turns out it's not tarte Normande ($4.50). A beautiful thing with a crenellated crust and a filleted apple fanned out on top like a hand of cards, it was as golden as an ingot--but nearly as dense, weighed down by almond paste and a gummy glaze. It was just too heavy for my tastes, in terms of both texture and flavor.

A buoyant and balanced almond croissant ($2.70) was just the opposite, teetering between flavors and textures like a master tightrope walker. The crisp exterior cracked into shards (not that dust that just blows away when you try to eat it), tethered together by the chewier inner layers. The sweetness of the perfectly-proportioned almond paste seam was enhanced by the salted butter in the pastry.

As ephemeral as they are, Luong's pastries are also reminders of the enduring, widespread, and oddly quotidian ripples that emanate from political conflict. Chaussons, tartes, and croissants all belong to a culinary tradition introduced to Luong's native Vietnam in the 19th century under French colonial rule. Luong himself picked up the skills at age 13, when his father died suddenly, leaving Luong in charge of the family bakery. Although he has had many other occupations, baking helped Luong to cope with the upheavals of the Vietnam war and his later relocation to Seattle, where he has been baking (and telling fascinating true stories) at La Boulangerie since 1995.

La Boulangerie
2200 N 45th Street
Seattle, WA 98103-6904

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Grapefruit Brulée

ChikaLicious, $12 for 3 courses

Just like eating breakfast for dinner or walking a cat on a leash, a dessert-only restaurant is a delightful perversion of the natural order. At the ChikaLicious Dessert Bar, there's no need to save room for dessert, because dessert is all you're getting.

A $12 prix fixe "meal" includes an amuse-bouche, main course, and a plate of assorted petit-fours. Another $7 buys either a wine pairing or an additional main; tea and coffee are also available. The menu changes daily and seasonal ingredients feature heavily. Tables are an option but bellying up to the bar gets you a stage show in the bargain, as the pastry chefs behind the counter dodge and twirl around each other in a kind of plating ballet (above). Come on the right day and chef-owner Chika Tillman will be there to chat about her creations.

ChikaLicious doesn't accept reservations and the website lists substantial "typical waits"
for particular days and times. They also won't seat groups larger that four, a pragmatic move for a place that can only accomodate 20 patrons at once, and one that helps to encourage an atmosphere that's convivial rather than deafening.

According to its website, the ChikaLicious concept boils down to "American desserts, French Presentation and Japanese tasting portions". For most of us Big Gulp-suckled Americans it will be the portion sizes that illicit the strongest initial reaction. On my visit, the amuse du jour was a scoop of vanilla ice cream about the size of a quail egg, buoyed on a few spoonfuls of dark, aromatic, espresso gelee (above left); absolutely delcious, quickly dispatched. My friend Gary and I amused ourselves further by considering what items might best be used to add a sense of scale to my photos: a quarter? his pinkie finger? a family of seamonkies?

For mains, Gary had macerated kiwis with yogurt gelato, lavender syrup, and a jaunty "coconut sombrero" (below left), while the woman on my other side chose the iced Fromage Blanc "cheese cake" (above right); both issued favorable reviews.

I had the grapefruit brulee, two wedges of caramelized fruit gussied up with candied pistachios, a light sabayon, and another quail egg of slightly bitter, boozy sorbet. It was a lovely play of flavors and textures--smooth cream and spiky citrus, crakly dry nuts and juice-swollen fruit. My only criticism is predictible but, I think, springs from a generous impluse: if it had only been one bite bigger, Gary might have been able to have his taste without me growling at him.

The minute petit-fours were, sadly, anti-climactic: a dark chocolate truffle as appealling as a dusty raisin, a tiny Ritz-ish cracker topped with cream and candied citron, and, best of all, a lovely fresh marshmallow sided with toasted coconut.

Just across the street the ChikaLicious Dessert Club offers stylish reinterpretations of classic baked goods and treats in a more casual setting.

ChikaLicious Dessert Bar

203 E. 10th St.
New York, NY

Monday, March 16, 2009

Bespoke Chocolates

Southampton Tea Truffle

Bespoke Chocolates, $2.25

Extra Place doesn't exactly welcome visitors,
particularly in the gathering dusk of a late winter evening. It's a stunted alleyway just off the Bowery, too small to appear on most maps, wallpapered with graffiti, and, on the occasion of my visit, bedecked with police tape. That it's not the kind of place where you'd expect to find an artisanal chocolate shop makes stepping out of the alley and into Bespoke Chocolates that much more delightful.

Open less than a year, Bespoke has made its name with impeccably crafted small-batch chocolates featuring creative flavor profiles. At the helm is London-trained chocolatier
Rachel Zoe Insler, whose previous career was in "academic cognitive neuroscience research".

While I don't want to belabor that transition or cast Insler as a cocoa-streaked mad scientist, it's hard not to look at the shop and see echoes of a laboratory or an old-fashioned apothecary as apron-clad chocolatiers bustle around in plain sight behind the gleaming marble counter of an open kitchen. As they patiently answer questions about their creations, it also becomes apparent that their process is suspiciously scientific.

I asked about the genesis of my chosen truffle, the Southampton Tea (top photo), and heard a tale of drawn-out research and methodical experimentation; infusing the silky-smooth ganache with a maximum wallop of apricot-scented Ceylon tea was not as straightforward as you might think. While the shell of fruity Caribbean chocolate comes from
readymade couverture, it was given perhaps the most perfect temper I've ever experienced; snapping my front teeth through the shell seemed to set off tiny shockwaves, and a millisecond later the glossy chocolate cracked into two halves held loosely together by oozing ganache.

Bespoke is also famous for an award-winning confection filled with liquid, sea-salted caramel and rolled in crumbled pretzels (below right, front), and a hand-beaten spread of chocolate, hazelnuts, and Marcona almonds (in process, below left).

Bespoke Chocolates
6 Extra Place

New York NY, 10003


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Wafels and Dinges

Liege Wafel

Wafels and Dinges, $4

When I first heard about a truck that roams New York dispensing fresh Belgian wafels, my stomach began to flutter with both hunger and nerves. The wafels sounded great but I was afraid that I'd have trouble finding such a small moving target during my limited time in the city.

It turns out that while the owners of Wafels and Dinges embrace the serendipity that causes some customers to cross their path, they also recognize that other people need a wafel RIGHT NOW. W&D's charming website and blog detail the truck's regular weekly route, and both a hotline and a Twitter feed offer more up-to-the-minute information. In keeping with W&D's role as spokesnack for a country most of us know next to nothing about, the website also spreads the word about Belgian-related happenings and community events. A daily password grants wafel buyers one free dinge (topping) from a long list that includes fruit, nuts, and dulce de leche. Every week one lucky wafel fan (known as wafelettes or wafeloons) is awarded a free WMD ("wafel of massive deliciousness") piled high with the dinges of his or her dreams.

Sadly, the aging wafel truck conked out during my trip and my visions of chasing it into the setting sun were replaced by an anticlimatic visit to Chelsea, where it sits on a side street, tethered to a generator. I decided on a dinge-less Liege wafel. Also known as "the other Belgian wafel", the Liege is not as geometric, crispy, or famous as its cousin; as W&D's menu explains, the Liege is the wafel Belgians kept to themselves.

For a moment I regretted my decision, as the friendly staffer flipped a pale, misshapen, and soggy mass out onto the counter. It turns out that unlike the batter-based Belgian wafel, the Liege is made from dough, liberally seeded with pearl sugar. When an order comes in a par-baked wafel is slapped back onto the griddle where the dough crisps up; the sugar inside melts into tiny pockets of nectar while the surface sugar caramelizes into a crispy, crackly, golden crust. It was hot, chewy, sticky--perfect street food for a bright, crisp, winter day.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Make My Cake

Red Velvet Cake
Make My Cake, $5/slice

What with its strong reputation and its, ahem, mouthwateringly retro logo (below), the Harlem-based bakery Make My Cake seems like a much older business than it is. Established in 1996, this southern-style scratch bakery ("We even crack our own eggs!") still relies on recipes brought north by Baylor family matriarch "Ma Smith" when she migrated from Mississippi to Harlem in the 1940's. Ma's descendants pride themselves on making commerical cakes exactly as they would in their own kitchens--or as Ma might have in hers.

Although the original Midtown store has since closed, two Harlem locations have become popular destinations for locals and tourists like. The newer St. Nicholas location is an upscale, dine-in dessert cafe, while the the take-out shop on Adam C. Powell stands in as an impromptu community center, with space available for meetings and children's parties.

Of MMC's many fine products, the pedigreed red velvet cake is a standout, recognized as the best in New York by a New York Times panel. At $5 per slice, it's something of an investment, but being nearly as tall and deep as a brownstone, it's plenty for two sittings or two people. The cake is blood-red, well-oiled, dense, and moist. The frosting is essentially whipped cream cheese cut with sugar and vanilla--sweet, unctuous, and as blindingly white as Tom Cruise's teeth. A scattering of pecan shards on the top adds texture, a nice roasted note, and a much-needed touch of nutrition.

Just down Adam C. Powell is another landmark that's equally delicious, if more savory.
Cafe Veg offers vegetarian versions of soul food classics--perfectly cooked okra, beans, and greens, minus the bacon.

Make My Cake

121 St. Nicholas Ave (116th St.)

212/ 932-0833
Adam C Powell Blvd (139th St.)

212/ 234-2344

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Doughnut Plant


Les Tres Leches Doughnut
The Doughnut Plant, $2.25

While the Doughnut Plant's website is full of streamlined graphics and elegant animation, by far the most moving feature is a slideshow of owner Mark Isreal's family photos, ending with a heartfelt thanks to his supportive loved ones. Several black-and-white snapshots feature his grandfather, a commercial baker who died with Isreal was only a toddler but left behind a valuable legacy scrawled on a yellowing index card: the recipe for an egg-free yeast doughnut.

Those light, fluffy, and vegetarian-friendly doughnuts were the foundation of the grandson's fortunes. For five years, working in a converted tenement basement, Isreal baked through the night, then delivered doughnuts to high-end retail outlets by bike each morning. In his spare time, Isreal perfected an original recipe for a stellar cake doughnut, now available in flavors such as Blackout (chocolate encrusted chocolate cake bursting with chocolate pudding) and the Cinco de Mayo-inspired Les Tres Leches (pictured above). The Factory's square jelly doughnuts are also a departure from the norm; instead of a single jelly core waiting to drop in your lap like hot lava, there's a generous seam of house-made fruit preserves circling the dough like an enclosed racetrack.

Doughnut Plant products contain no transfats, no preservatives, and no artificial flavors. They are made with carefully chosen ingredients--Valhrona chocolate, Tahitian vanilla, fresh coconut, seasonal fruit, and nuts that are roasted and ground on the premises. Ingredients like lavender buds, Meyer lemons, or rose petals that could end up as just so much frippery are used deliberately and to full, flavorful effect. Overseas shops (in Tokyo and Korea) have a slightly different menu, featuring local produce and flavors (shiso and yuzu!).

After waiting in a long but snappy line at the Plant's Lower East Side store, I ordered a cup of hot, strong chai and a Tres Leches and perched on the windowseat to eat. The seat was delightful--crayon-colored tiles stamped out with a doughnut cutter and raku-fired by Isreal's father, Marvin. The doughnut was even better--plump and light, with a milky glaze and a mildly sweet, sensuously creamy filling. The "three milks" were in harmonious balance, no one flavor or texture overpowering the others. As I ate I found myself thinking of St. Exupery's definition of perfection--"...not when nothing more can be added, but when nothing more can be taken away.”

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Hungarian Bakery

Cherry Cheese Strudel

The Hungarian Bakery, $6 with coffee

My application to graduate school at Columbia University was motivated in no small part by visions of spending my free time at the Hungarian Bakery, a popular neighborhood coffee shop. It's the kind of place that seems smoky, even though it isn't. Bespectacled strangers splitting rickety little tables pound on laptops or pore over dense texts in the dim light. Even on a sunny summer day, the Hungarian Bakery has the kind of lighting that makes everyone look earnest and interesting; with snow falling outside it could be a scene from the university quarter of any northern European capital. If they take place at all, conversations are kept to murmur and held in mysteriously sybillant foreign tongues; the bathroom's regularly repainted walls soon sprout fresh crops of conceptual or erudite graffitti in at least a dozen different languages--dead as well as living.

Every time I visit, that foreign feeling is reinforced by need to relearn the Hungarian Bakery ropes. First I hem and haw over the bakery case, trying to match the unnamed occupants to their descriptions on the wall. I ogle the list of fancy coffee concoctions and wonder whether it's possible to get a simple drip (it is). After placing my order with one of the tall, exotic, and rather detached waitresses, I guess at which bill to remove from my wallet (no prices are posted) and hold it out like a friendly handshake; when no one takes the money or even acknowledges it (pay as you leave), I try to conjure it back into my pocket unseen. Since I no longer seem to have any business at the counter, I stumble into the dark recesses, looking for an empty chair, or--mother lode!--an unclaimed table. I murmur apologies and act cool until an exotic waitress bearing plates calls out my order and I flail my arm like a second-grade know-it-all. Then it's back to acting cool, with pastry in one hand and note-scribbling pen in the other.

And the pastry? Good enough to keep me coming back, not so great that I get stuck and have the same thing every time. This time I chose the cherry cheese strudel. A heavy helping of tofu-like cheese overbalanced the thin seam of cherry pie filling and the even thinner tissue of flaky pastry, but the solid, simple taste was a pleasant foil for my bottomless cup of hot, dark coffee (serve-yourself refills available from the pot by the register--but don' t count on anyone to tell you that).

Thursday, March 5, 2009



from $3.30 each at retail outlets
$10/3 at monthly "Open House"

They say it's the reverse culture shock that really gets you, and I would have been petrified to return to Seattle after 3 months in Japan on a strict diet of wagashi (Japanese sweets) if I didn't know I could rely on tokaragashi to get me through the withdrawal pangs. Chef Tokara-san is Seattle's only professional producer of fresh, seasonal wagashi, and we are lucky to have her. So what if Tokara-san teases that I am a "wagashi freak"? After all, she's the one who enables me to get my freak on.

As a girl in Sapporo, Tokara-san was first attracted to western-style baking. Her family invested in an oven when she was in second grade (ovens still aren't all that common in Japanese homes) and from then on she was "always making sponge cake!"

As an adult, Tokara-san moved to Kyoto and learned to make wagashi.
Following another relocation to Seattle, she began producing sweets for tea ceremony gatherings. I had my first Tokaragashi during a class at the Urasenke tea school in the summer of 2004; a pale green paste of young soybeans, wrapped in a rippled sheet of golden kanten jelly, "Firefly Dreaming" was like a bright spark in the shadowy tearoom. The sweet catalysed the gathering, allowing all the guests to join together in mutual delight.

Local businesses soon began to clamor for Tokaragashi, and in A
ugust 2007 Tokara-san opened her commercial kitchen in a small building on Phinney Ridge. She now travels to Japan a few times a year, returning with suitcase-loads of ingredients. She makes all her products from scratch and by herself; not many people have the patience to start cooking at 5:30, the stamina to stir for hours, and and the sensitivity to tell, just by looking, whether a sweet meets Tokara's high standards.

Tokara's products are modeled on
kyōgashi, Kyoto-style artisanal sweets renowned for their abstract elegance and poetic layers of meaning. Although a complete understanding of all those layers would require a broad knowledge of Japanese history, art history, and classical poetry, Tokara-san finds that her customers understand more than enough to appreciate her designs, and that they are hungry to learn more.

Tokara-san makes slight changes to traditional designs to reflect Seattle's own seasons and flora, but she doesn't dumb her sweets down for the non-Japanese customers who make up about half of her clientele.
Tokara's menu of sweets changes monthly, and this seasonality, perhaps even more than gelatinous textures or the combination of beans and sugar, has proved tough to translate to customers raised on strawberries in January; people love something one month and can't understand why its not there the next time. According to Tokara-san, wagashi remind us to live in the moment: "You have to buy now or wait a year."

Tokaragashi are available at several local restaurants and coffee shops, including Fresh Flours and the Panama Hotel. On the tenth of every month, Tokara holds a touryanse, a low-key open house that gives fans a chance to peek inside her wholesale premises. Call well ahead to reserve a box of 3 tokaragashi; pick them up any time between 1 and 6.

The sweets in the above left picture made up January's touryanse assortment. Tokara's website describes
Early Plum, at the bottom, as "Soft silky mochi with White bean paste. Rice flour, white beans, sugar, coloring, wheat flour." The Crane is a "Rice sponge cake with Adzuki paste. Japanese yam potato, Adzuki, rice flour, sugar, coloring," its shape and markings suggesting those of the auspicious bird. My favorite of the bunch was the Rice sack, a "Soft bean paste candy with egg flavor. White bean, rice flour, egg, butter, sugar"; it was rich, mildly sweet, and meltingly tender.

Of the March assortment (above right), I was especially fond of Ancient Camellia (at the top): "Cinnamon flavor is everybody’s favorite. Rice flour, sugar, adzuki, cinnamon, camellia leaf." The rice paste was slightly chunky, the bean paste smooth as suede; the camellia leaf itself, sadly inedible.

6208 Phinney Avenue North
Seattle WA 98103


Tokara-san was featured on KUOW's Sound Focus program last year; hear her interview here.