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The great pastry trek is over... (Long)

Dana Harris Aug 27, 2006 12:45 AM

And to tell the truth, it was a little less than all that.

All told, we visited eight bakeries. Left Highland Park at 10 am; back by 2:45. Didn’t try Bluebird; it’s closed on Saturday. Dolce Forno is open, but may as well be closed; there was almost nothing in the case. Most items were sampled after we got back to the house.

The rules of engagement: All were bakeries less than a year old. We selected sweet items that were:

1) visually appealing
2) and/or recommended by staff
3) and not a cupcake.

The bad news first:

Sophie's Bakery & Café. Hard to find (in Bel Air, about a half mile off of Mulholland); not worth the search.

• Apple tart had a thick, tough crust and oversweet apple-raisin filling
• Mini key lime cheesecake: artificial color and flavoring
• Éclair was fine
• Tough, squishy napoleon that tasted a little of the refrigerator
• Also depressing: the shop/cafe smells more like cleaning solution than a bakery

Hotcakes Bakes. (I feel badly about this; the women working there seem really earnest and sincere.)

Two good things:
• The cannelle (better than Surfas)
• A blueberry muffin (berries sank to the bottom, but there was lemon zest in the batter. Still, needed a browner top and more moistness.)

Everything else we tried was just short of terrible.
• A muffin-like thing, described as topped with crème fraiche and sugar: Dry and nothing-flavored. Not a nice thing to do to someone.
• Greasy filling in a tiny cream puff.
• A cinnamon roll that had almost no cinnamon or roll – pulled apart, it looked like a dry and oversized biscuit with frosting.
• A chocolate-chip cookie had a margarine aftertaste. (Would a bakery like this use margarine?)
• And the chocolate cookie that a friend described as “one of those cookies you made as Christmas ornaments – after spending five years on the tree.”

Surfas Bakery. Squarely in the “eh” category. (I know many sing praises of the lavender lemon bars; they were out.)

• Cookies were fine but not great; a little dry and heavy. They’re made from the prefab dough you can buy in their freezer case – great if you’re a kid. (If you can vote, you’ll want something else.)
• A plain cannele was fine; the banana canelle was made with artificial flavoring that reminded me of the banana chewy candy I liked (again) as a kid.
• Other baked goods came from LaBrea.

Jamaica’s Cakes
• I liked the cinnamon roll; filled with a sort of cinnamon paste, nicely browned.
• An oversized chocolate chip cookie was very good
• Eclairs were enormous – five inches around and almost all cream filling
• The cream puff was not for me, with a bittersweet (but fluffy) chocolate mousse filling.
• The “Scottish oat” scone was as dry as breadcrumbs.

Susiecakes
• Love the butterscotch pudding
• Don’t love the chocolate pudding; strange aftertaste
• Whoopie pies are cute, but inedible for anyone not actively pursuing adult-onset diabetes. (Even if you were, there are tastier ways to do it. Those cookies were thick and tough.)
• Iced molasses cookies were nothing special.

The best for last:

City Bakery

• Caramelized French toast caramelized French toast caramelized French toast They sell it at room temp in the pastry case; when they run out, you can order it a la carte (and it’s hot. But why serve it with maple syrup? Talk about gilding the lily.). Hot, cold, room temperature – it’s my green eggs and ham.
• An excellent oatmeal-chocolate cookie
• And a shout-out for the pretzel croissant; it was a red herring in this horse race (mixed metaphors! My favorite!), but based on reputation, I had to try it. I don’t really taste pretzel, but there is enough salt to cut the sweetness you usually get in butter croissants. And damn, that’s a flaky croissant.

However...
• More than a morsel of the melted chocolate chip cookie seems like overkill – can anyone actually eat one?
• I really liked the baker’s muffin last time; today, it seemed bland and a little doughy.
• The scone was the size of a tablecloth and approximated a dry muffin (what is it with scones?)
• A blueberry cornmeal muffin was dense and... not very nice.
• A coconut-blueberry tart was mostly the former and too sweet.

BreadBar

• Apricot tart with custard and almond-chocolate croissant: Winners both.
• Didn’t care for “Wall Streets” – small rounds of chocolate or vanilla cake, made moist with nut paste. They’d be nice next to a cup of coffee to end a meal, but nothing I’d crave.
• A blueberry-custard danish teetered between good and sweet overkill
• Pain au chocolat was fine (but I’m hard pressed to get overexcited by pain au chocolat)

Maison du Pain: The day’s most pleasant surprise.
• Excellent pain aux raisin, made with golden raisins.
• A square of just-sweet puff pastry, crisp on top, moist in the center and topped with pear.
• A chocolate chip cookie was fair, as was a bite-sized éclair.
• The big disappointment: a napoleon that tasted as if someone forgot to add sugar.

What I learned:

a. City Bakery for caramelized French toast and an oatmeal cookie fix.
b. Breadbar for apricot tart and almond croissants.
c. Maison du pain for pain aux raisin.
d. Even with so many new bakeries in L.A., there is still room for more – and a really great one will clean up.

Finally, while I tried to be fair and thorough in this process, I know it falls short. Bakeries may have been out of items that, had I tried, I would have loved. I may have overlooked as something that I should have bought. And, of course, I am one big fat personal opinion covered in skin, but what the hell: It was my pastry trek.

- dh

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  1. b
    Briggs RE: Dana Harris Aug 27, 2006 01:41 AM

    Perhaps you should have appended the title to "The great pastry trek is over...on the Westside" What about Europane, Pastries by Nancy, Auntie Em's, Petite Beaujolais, just for starters?

    11 Replies
    1. re: Briggs
      Dana Harris RE: Briggs Aug 27, 2006 01:53 AM

      Hi, Briggs. I've got nothing against the east side; I live here and love it. However, Europane, Pastries by Nancy and Petite Beaujolais are all more than a year old. As I said in the rules o' engagement, I limited the sampling to bakeries that had opened *in the last 12 months.* Auntie Em's falls under the mark (they opened last October), but I don't really think of it as a bakery; I've always seen it as a restaurant and catering service that also sells some baked goods. (And they're best known for their cupcakes, which I'm not including in this tasting - I wanted to find out what L.A.'s new bakeries are offering beyond the great cupcake frenzy.) Having said that, I'll go by tomorrow to see what they have.

      Also, please see an earlier post I made when I outlined this plan and sought suggestions of other bakeries.

      1. re: Dana Harris
        b
        Briggs RE: Dana Harris Aug 27, 2006 05:55 AM

        My bad, sorry.

        1. re: Dana Harris
          e
          Eastsider RE: Dana Harris Aug 29, 2006 12:27 AM

          Auntie Em's has been open much longer than a year. You may be thinking of their gourmet shop.

          1. re: Eastsider
            Dana Harris RE: Eastsider Aug 29, 2006 01:46 AM

            Cripes. You are right. Which is unfortunate for my survey, because their baked goods (which I tried after my original post) are stellar.

        2. re: Briggs
          s
          sambrown3 RE: Briggs Aug 27, 2006 07:32 PM

          I had the a marscapone and fig galette at Auntie Em's last week that knocked my socks off. Europane is always a home run, especialy the chocolate tart with hazelnuts. Where is Pastries by Nancy?

          1. re: sambrown3
            liu RE: sambrown3 Aug 27, 2006 08:38 PM

            I am with you, sambrown3! Europane is one of my favorites, although I have not been there in more than a year; it is not solely for window-shoppers -- the pastry items actually taste delicious!

            Also, I am still thinking about the carrot cupcake I had a Auntie Em's way too long ago...I dream about it, I think about it when I work out, and I even long for it when I am in OTHER bakeries!

            I'm with you on both these places!

            1. re: sambrown3
              LT from LF RE: sambrown3 Aug 28, 2006 06:36 PM

              Pastries by Nancy is in Altadena. And, apparently, in Whittier as well.

              http://www.pastriesbynancy.com/

              1. re: LT from LF
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                revets2 RE: LT from LF Aug 29, 2006 12:34 AM

                pastries by nancy has really gone downhill. she sold to some guy and unless his lead baker is there, it's really not that good. too sweet. and he really messed up a birthday cake for us. the owner doesn't know the first thing about baking.

                1. re: revets2
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                  Briggs RE: revets2 Aug 30, 2006 02:04 AM

                  Wow, "2 my bads" in one thread. It has been a few years since I had her cakes which were wonderful. When did Nancy sell out, and is she no longer involved at all?

                  1. re: revets2
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                    revets2 RE: revets2 Aug 30, 2006 04:55 AM

                    to respond to briggs (for some reason there's no reply button on the box, i think nancy sold almost 24 months ago). some of her girls are still there and they are what keep it ticking.

                    i'll not go into every horrible detail, but the bottom line is he bought the business, doesn't know what he's doing, and he's going to lose his staff as soon as they can find another job.

                    too bad. they made such beautiful cakes. but he really blew my nephew's birthday party.

                    you're right on about aunty em's though!

                    1. re: revets2
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                      feathertaste RE: revets2 Mar 6, 2007 08:40 PM

                      I am so very sad to hear that Nancy's has gone down hill. Nancy did our wedding cake...not to mention numerous birthday and shower cakes...and we loved them all. Her cakes were always beautifully adorned with flowers and the barvarian creme filling was to die for. This makes me wish she'd buy the business back.

              2. s
                surfer63 RE: Dana Harris Aug 27, 2006 01:57 AM

                if you're going to auntie em, head up colorado blvd to pasadena and go to wheatberrys on lake in pasadena. outstanding breads, tarts and cakes. best kept secret in pasadena.

                1 Reply
                1. re: surfer63
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                  revets2 RE: surfer63 Aug 29, 2006 12:36 AM

                  i think wheatberry is good, but not great. it's really an asian bakery overhauled to appeal to an american palette. that being said, you'll get lots of pretty good mousse cakes, but so-so breads, etc. i do like to stop by for lunch and love their cake and coffee idea. their help can be a little clueless.

                2. Funwithfood RE: Dana Harris Aug 27, 2006 03:30 AM

                  Thanks for reporting back. The City Bakery did have outstanding cookies.

                  It's hard to believe Maison du Pain makes such great stuff and bakeries that are terrible do a better business. I really like the bread that has cream and sugar on top--yum!

                  Did you try the Emmenthaler bread at Breadbar--warm and slathered with Plugra--ahh...pure heaven.

                  1. y
                    yum RE: Dana Harris Aug 27, 2006 08:35 PM

                    the french toast at city bakery is the BEST!

                    1. David Kahn RE: Dana Harris Aug 28, 2006 06:23 PM

                      Great post! Thanks.

                      1. PaulF RE: Dana Harris Aug 28, 2006 06:39 PM

                        Great post -- I'm not even a bakery person, but that was a good read, the type of thing I like finding on this board. Nice work.

                        1. Dommy RE: Dana Harris Aug 28, 2006 06:45 PM

                          Ah ha! Another tough grader... Thanks for the post!! :)

                          --Dommy!

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                            revets2 RE: Dana Harris Aug 29, 2006 12:39 AM

                            saw that you were coming from highland park. if you don't want to make the trek all the way to breadbar, tao coffee in the bottom of cal plaza one at 300 s. grand ave. downtown, next door to MOCA, carries some of their pastries (mostly the AC, apricot and blueberry tarts). you need to get there early or request they save something for you. the almond croissants always disappear.

                            mendecino farms, next door (same owner), serves all their sandwiches on breadbar bread.

                            i think i'll ask if they can get that emmenthaler bread. yummy!

                            many thanks for the great report, btw.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: revets2
                              PseudoNerd RE: revets2 Aug 29, 2006 09:38 PM

                              Are the Tao almond croissants actually from BreadBar? In that case, you've just saved me a trip! I'd been meaning to go on a weekday afternoon, but the thought of the parking situation has kept me away.

                              Mendocino Farms apparently can do no wrong. Everyone raves about the sandwiches.

                              1. re: PseudoNerd
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                                revets2 RE: PseudoNerd Aug 29, 2006 09:49 PM

                                so you have had the almond croissant from tao or no?

                                you said in your almond croissant post:

                                "The almond croissants follow (but with the "anymore" dropped). The almond croissants, while really popular, fail for the following reasons: they're too sweet and are filled with something akin to almond paste. The paste-like substance has the right texture, but it lacks flavor; it's just an overly sweetened, bland THING found all over a croissant. To add insult to injury, the croissant itself lacks freshness and crispness-- yes, it's buttery, but it's also so butter-laden that it's SOGGY and weighed down."

                                mendocino's pretty good and they do have good sandwiches, but it's hard to beat pentolino (patina group) across the street. we alternate between the two when we're eating in.

                                1. re: revets2
                                  PseudoNerd RE: revets2 Aug 29, 2006 11:21 PM

                                  I think you've misread my post, which was: The coffee and espresso drinks aren't *as* good anymore, but they're pretty good, considering. The almond croissants follow (but with the "anymore" dropped).

                                  The almond croissants weren't good in the past, and I'm sure they're still not good. Frankly, I'm not interested in finding out because I have better things to do than waste my money on an item that looks the same as it did when I previously purchased and disliked it. The almond croissants aren't as good as those at (you fill in the blank).

                                  The coffee and espresso drinks at Tao, on the other hand, were really quite good-- even better than the ones at RedCat-- when Donny was around. It's not as great now, but whatever; there's not much choice in the Bunker Hill area. Mendocino Farms, as I've said and NOT in an ironic manner, apparently can do no wrong. My friends and co-workers swear by the sandwiches. I'm not a fan of bread in general, so I really can't say I'd even want to try them. I can, however, say with confidence that the majority of the soups are pretty good.

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