A longwinded roundup of the sweetest 2-days in Los Angeles yet (Donut Man, Nickel Diner, Semi Sweet, Proof, Sycamore Kitchen, Short Cake, and Sweet Rose)
Full review in the blog, text as below (sections divided by restaurant):
A fan of the Los Angeles Kings ever since my aunt and grandfather took me to see the purple and gold play at Joe Louis Arena during the 1987-88 season it goes without saying that the 2012 NHL playoffs were a dream come true – even if a last minute trip to New Jersey saw the Kings lose their first road game of the playoffs only to return home and win the Stanley Cup a few days later as I watched from the living room of an apartment I’d soon be abandoning to move across the country to Phoenix. Vowing then that I would do anything in my power to see the Kings raise the Stanley Cup banner at Staples my dreams were again thwarted when the NHL schedule was released indicating the home opener would be mere days before I took the Endocrine Boards…kind of a big deal, and certainly not one I could jeopardize no matter how strong my love for a sports franchise…but then serendipity (or perhaps just greed and stupidity) intervened leading to a prolonged lockout, hundreds of cancelled and rescheduled games, and a home opener at noon on January 19th, 2013; a 5 hour drive on a weekend with no plans I bought a ticket before they technically even went on sale, snapped up a cheap hotel, and forged together a dining agenda within 24 hours.
Never one to be able to sleep before a trip, whether driving or flying, and particularly not before one as highly anticipated as this one it became apparent after work on Friday that caffeine would be my partner for the week and although I tried to get some rest starting at 8pm I only managed to sleep for 5 hours before awaking – the day began at 12:30am with a great run on the treadmill and from there I loaded up the car and hopped on the I-10 west through Quartzsite, Blythe, Indio, and Palm Springs before arriving at the the Iconic “Donut Man” in Glendora just after 6:00am – still dark the 24/7/365 shop was all aglow and although there was no line a steady trickle of traffic came and went as I perused the options and waited for a warm batch of donuts I was told would be done “any minute.”
A fan of breakfast in all its forms, particularly those sweet, the Donut Man had been on my agenda ever since my first food/hockey/banner-raising trip to Los Angeles on 1/20/07 (Robitaille’s jersey retirement) but located 40 minutes from town it was Bob’s at the Farmers Market that had sufficed back then yet the moment I started browsing the Donut Man I knew two things would be true – first off, these would be superior and second, that I would over-order…to the tune of a half dozen donuts, each larger than necessary, four of them still warm, at a total of just under $9 after giving the young clerk a dollar and some cents tip.
Known most for their Strawberry donut, not yet in season, I began with the apple-cinnamon stuffed option and planning to eat only a few bites of each option in order to save room for later this proved impossible, the yeasty warm donut packed with golden cinnamon apples tempting me to eat more with each bite – in moments it was gone, my hands sticky, and my elevated blood sugar levels pushing me to the another warm option, an ample buttermilk bar whose cake style proved an excellent contrast to the raised option and whose simplicity and strong notes of buttermilk rivaled those at Chicago’s Doughnut Vault for my favorite Cake donut of all time.
With half the buttermilk bar packed back in the box and realizing that filled donuts were less likely to survive the trip I moved next to the Blueberry Cream Puff – an airy cruller filled with an airy mousse bespeckled with pieces of blueberry - the flavor like that of blueberry yogurt and gone in three bites as I moved next to a pair of elongated raised and glazed options, a warm Tiger Tail and room temperature Maple Bar – both enormous and the Tiger Tail a truly awesome concoction featuring a twist of standard glazed dough with a ribbon of chocolate; again eating a few bites of each the tiger tail proved equally excellent later on while the maple bar unfortunately dried out quickly.
Moving finally to the best of the bunch, or at least my personal favorite style of donut, a warm Apple Fritter proved well worth the wait and although it wasn’t nearly as plethoric as that at Old Fashioned in Chicago it was definitively a superior product, the interior studded with buttery baked apples and ribbons of cinnamon while the outside was slightly charred to provide a sort of campfire pie flavor to the nearly half pound round of dough. Certainly better warm than cool I had to show restraint from eating the whole thing right then but stopping by a Starbucks to grab a cup of Sun Roasted Harrar off the Clover a few hours later I know that for the future the key is getting this donut warm WITH coffee…and perhaps recruiting a group to share so I can try more of the two dozen or so options.
Continuing the theme of classic spots that had been on my to-do list through many trips to Los Angeles I arrived in the city just shy of 7:00am and allocated $3 rooftop parking before making my way to Nickel Diner; a space I’d long wanted to visit for breakfast but given its downtown location never a place I chose to venture so early in the morning. Small, oldschool, and frequently with waits topping an hour I wandered downtown for about half an hour and located another (later) destination before doubling back to Nickel where a small line had already gathered by 7:45 – a line including at least ten other Kings fans hoping for a good breakfast before making their way to Staples Center for the 10:00am pre-game fan-fest.
With the doors opened at precisely eight and guests being escorted into the narrow restaurant and seated in sections to best accommodate the wait staff it would not be long before I found myself at a cozy two-top next to two ladies also visiting from Phoenix (though not for the game) and moments later both our tables were greeted by Lisa, a pleasant young woman who appeared to be the senior server that morning, and with menus presented decisions were quickly made by myself while my neighbors weighed their options – an important consideration given the small size of the short-order kitchen as I received my meal more than half an hour before their food arrived.
A bustling space to say the least and filled to near capacity by 8:15 the first half of my two-part order would arrive mere moments after it was placed – boxed-up to go alongside a glass of water, bold drip coffee with cream and a variety of sweeteners, and seasonal preserves with salsa. Realizing the gluttony of ordering more donuts after an early morning stop at the Donut Man I simply couldn’t resist the options offered at Nickel and although both the Nutella and Red Velvet versions I selected would not be consumed until shortly before the doors opened at Staples I must say that the Nutella was one of the best donuts I have ever tasted, the yeast raised dough light and airy while the a lacquer of nutella rolled in crushed hazelnuts provided a great flavor and textural balance. Decent, but a bit gimmicky in that it was a standard raised donut rolled in subtle red cocoa and filled with tangy cream cheese, the Red Velvet was simply too sweet; not a total ‘miss’ but certainly not as good as the rest of my meal at Nickel Diner (or the superlative Red Velvet Donut at Semi-Sweet that I would enjoy later.)
With the two donuts taken to go the portion of the meal that I enjoyed within the friendly confines of Nickel Diner arrived just after 8:30am and at this point working on a third cup of coffee my meal started with the house made cinnamon swirl brioche French toast served with pure organic maple syrup – two thick slices of buttery brioche saturated with rich custard and pan seared to crispy on the exterior. Simple, delicious, and served with a dollop of butter and a sprinkle of powdered sugar this was diner food done right; nothing fussy, just a great rendition of a classic.
Moving finally to what many consider to be Nickel Diner’s signature dish, the Maple Glazed Bacon Donut would prove to be every bit worth the hype and having experienced many of the most well regarded versions of this culinary phenomenon – from Dynamo in San Francisco to Nord’s in Louisville – I can say without batting an eye that Nickel’s warm version was the best of the bunch, the glaze itself featuring a smoky pork flavor while the slightly charred bacon provides a saline crunch – the sweet meets savory whole far greater than the sum of its parts and good enough to warrant a visit to Nickel Diner all by itself - and all the moreso considering the quality of the Nutella donut, French Toast, service, setting, and sub-$20 tab.
Moving along from breakfast – and actually backtracking a bit as I’d parked on 6th Street – I knew it would be a bit gluttonous to pick up more pastry en route to Staples Center, particularly as I was still porting two donuts from Nickel Diner while four half-donuts from The Donut Man waited in the car, but with no intention of eating stadium food and no lunch plans until three a stop at Semi Sweet Bakery seemed a logical choice…and an inspired one since both Sharlena Fong and James Gonzalez had previously spent time cooking at Nickel Diner.
Small and relatively unknown to many local gourmands I’d originally heard about Semi Sweet from a friend in New York who mentioned Fong’s stints at both Eleven Madison Park and Per Se when we were discussing new places to check out in Los Angeles and making my way into the bakery (for the first of two times that day) I found the cute yet minimalist space to be empty save for one table thus allowing me to discuss the hand crafted and largely organic menu at length with the young man behind the counter – a good thing in that I learned a lot about the culinary team at Semi Sweet and a bad thing in that it predictably led to me ordering more than I should have…and coming back later for more.
With options boxed up carefully and loaded into a bag along with the donuts from Nickel Diner after a few photos were taken it would not be long before the modest tab was paid and shortly thereafter I was standing in front of Staples Center and the Stanley Cup with hoards of fans decorated in black and silver realizing that while I’d likely be able to sneak some of the items into the arena I certainly couldn’t manage them all and as such it was time to see if Semi Sweet was as good as anticipated; the answer a resounding yes kicked off by a Samoa Macaron with a delicate coconut shell drizzled with chocolate giving way to an intense caramel center far more salty and savory than its girl scout namesake and all the better for it.
With the macaron a mere bite my next taste of Fong’s work would be in the form of my favorite French pastry – the Almond Croissant – and although perhaps a bit unfair to judge as I’d let it sit in a bag for nearly three hours this would prove to be the biggest disappointment of the items I tried from Semi-Sweet as the double baked option was nicely flavored but unfortunately far less crunchy than I’d have hoped, the frangipane and butter taking away from the shattering layers I’d hoped for and leading me to move rather quickly to a pair of Ding-a-Lings; the restaurant’s upscale take on the Hostess’ Ding Dong (or King Don for all you Midwesterners out there.)
Beginning first with the Red Velvet – strongly recommended by the clerk – this was certainly not the snack cake of my childhood, the cocoa notes far more subtle, the cake far more dense, and the cream lesser in portion but greater in flavor while the dark chocolate shell was exemplary – even better than Thomas Keller’s Oh-Oh’s at trumping a classic, but not nearly as good as the second Ding-a-Ling – a “Hazelnut Crunch” version with dense chocolate cake, Nutella cream filling, and a crispy hazelnut tuille embedded within and providing an unexpected textural counterpoint to the moist cocoa sponge.
So taken by the Ding-a-Lings was I that en route back to my car (after the game and lunch at Industriel but before dinner at Alma) I actually stopped back at Semi Sweet to pick up a couple more for later but finding the space far more crowded than prior what I ended up ordering instead was two items that hadn’t been available during breakfast – the first a Baked Red Velvet Donut and the second a dense slice of Blueberry Cornbread; both excellent and the Red Velvet (my tenth donut sampling of the day) a revelation in the lightness of not only the cake, but the cream cheese glaze – a sweet/savory balance that went great with a cup of coffee and left plenty of room for the toothsome cornbread featuring a golden exterior and soft crumb studded with fresh, bursting berries and subtle sweetness not unlike a well-crafted blueberry muffin with butter – a strong influence for me to go back on my next trip to Los Angeles for the Coffee Cake, Banana Bread, and 7-Up Pound Cake.
Admitting fully that day one of this whirlwind trip to Los Angeles was absurd – a mere 5 hours of sleep in 48 hours and 5 dining destinations intertwined the following day would actually prove to be even more prolific with seven spots visited between 8am and midnight, the first Na Young’s highly acclaimed “Proof” just south of Glendale off the I-5. Having retired quite early the prior night after dinner at Alma and already with a nine mile jog at Veterans Memorial Park in Commerce behind me I arrived at Proof quite hungry and with parking ample and the small bakery just opened I made my way through the doors to find the shelves just being stocked, the smells of butter and sugar wafting in the air and the staff all smiling brightly.
Having heard good things about a number of Proof’s creations but with my heart set on one of my very favorite pastries – the Paris Brest – I was disheartened temporarily to see none in the case and inquiring further my fears were confirmed when I was told none of the hazelnut and choux pastry was yet available that morning and I’d be forced to make the best of a bad situation; a first-world problem without a doubt and one that I remedied with a selection of four alternatives, a $15 tab setting the bar rather high and thanking the staff as I returned to Glendale Avenue my tasting started off on a good note with a still-warm scone juxtaposing pockets of butter with crunchy pearls of sugar and tart currants all beneath a crunchy sucrose gloss.
Feeling the warmth of what was left in the bag but wanting to save the other morning pastries for last my next taste of Proof came in the form of an item obviously better suited as a dessert but stereotyped meal times be damned the Salted Caramel Tart was absolutely outstanding – a nearly liquid fresh caramel beneath a creamy dark chocolate ganache all resting atop a buttery shortbread crust and topped with flaked Maldon sea salt; bite for bite one of the most decadent desserts I’ve had in some time and as perfect at 8am as it would have been mid-day.
Moving next to another option still warm from the oven, the oft raved Morning Bun proved to be another outstanding bite as the crispy cinnamon-sugar speckled exterior gave way to elastic buttery layers rife with light aromatics and refined sweetness; part laminated brioche cinnamon roll and part Kouign Amann this was excellent but still not on par with what followed; an Almond Croissant that rivals the very best in both stateside and in Paris, the shattering layers on the exterior giving way to a loosely wound core brimming with butter and light on frangipane; a truly beautiful creation that only reaffirmed that fact that I need to go back in order to experience the Brest, the bread pudding, and the canele – even if I have to call ahead from Phoenix to figure out what day and time they’ll be available during my next visit.
Next up, proper breakfast would be served at The Sycamore Kitchen…along with a goodly number of baked goods, some consumed at the restaurant and others a little later in the day. Owned and operated by Karen and Quinn Hatfield – a couple whose namesake restaurant has still eluded me despite many visits to the area – and located in La Brea where I’d planned to browse around before a trip to the Farmer’s Market it seemed like a perfect fit, and an introduction point to upscale rustic approach that seems to define the couple’s culinary style.
Arriving just after 9:00am to find plenty of free-parking (11am on weekends) directly in front of the restaurant’s lovely patio I made my way in to Sycamore Kitchen to find perhaps half of the seats taken, a half dozen or so smiling employees, and unmistakable smell of cinnamon, sugar, and coffee in the air. Rustic and industrial with a lot of exposed brick, brown wood, and natural lighting the space feels trendy but comfortable and with seemingly everyone choosing to dine outdoors in the morning sun the interior of the space was rather quiet as I perused the options – trying to avoid ordering one of each.
Opting to order one prepared plate and a single baked good for the patio and four more for the road…many of which would not make it to said ‘road’…I was given a number, a cup of Stumptown Coffee, and settled on a table outside in the sun where a number of people with their dogs sat while others came and went with coffee and a pastry in hand. Promised a short wait for my main plate, a server arrived moments later with my first pastry selection and the other four packed up in a tidy box; the first bite being the Salted Caramel Pecan Babka Roll that falls somewhere between a pecan roll, croissant, and coffee cake…three of the best things ever that, when warm and pulled apart piece-by-piece provided notes sweet, salty, smoky, and yeasty all beneath a rich buttery veil – an early contender for pastry of the year (along with Proof’s Almond Croissant.)
Moving next to one of my previously designated ‘take-out’ pastries as I waited for my plate, the Banana Chocolate Strudel would prove to be another outstanding reinvention/combination of two things – the chocolate dipped frozen banana so ubiquitous at any number of festivals and baklava – the end result a sort of spring roll shaped item with thousands of crackling layers giving way to an interior at once creamy banana pudding and chocolate sauce; an outstanding flavor and texture that I restrained myself from eating in its entirety until later and leading to more coffee before tasting the traditional Almond Brioche Bostock, the rich bread golden and caramelized with strong almond notes on the exterior and buttery soft within.
At this point with my main course now before me a meal that was already going nicely turned into something truly outstanding – a “destination breakfast” anchored by what may be the best French Toast I’ve ever tasted. Described as Cinnamon Brioche French toast with Grated Apple Slaw and Whipped Crème Fraiche but also featuring an ample helping of golden raisins and warm maple syrup this dish began with rich brioche every bit as crunchy as the bostock on the exterior but creamy as custard in the interior with hefty cinnamon notes throughout and then moved it to the next level with slightly sour apples and tangy crème fraiche balanced effortlessly by the raisin and the syrup. Ample in portion, not a bit greasy, and a great amalgam of textures and flavors this is a must order.
Having photographed the rest of my bounty before departing my last two selections from Sycamore kitchen would prove every bit as good as those enjoyed at the restaurant and consumed some ten hours later on the beach in Santa Monica both the Blueberry Muffin Financier and the Crème Fraiche Coffee Cake remained dense, moist, and flavorful – the almond tinged financier a particularly interesting take on marrying the light textures of a financier with the shape and structure of a traditional muffin and an exclamation point reminder that my next visit to Los Angeles requires a stop at Hatfield’s.
For my final pastry stop on this trip to the city of Angels, Short Cake ranked high on my list of places to check out for two reasons, the first being the culinary pedigree of Pressman and Silverton, and the second being its fanciful location within the Original Farmer’s Market – a space I feel obligated to visit each time I’m in town, particularly on weekends when the space is bustling and parking at the Grove can be had at an hour for free. Acknowledging, of course, that I’d already managed to visit two of the city’s newest and best bakeries prior to my stop at Short Cake I wasn’t really sure if I would be ordering anything or simply performing reconnaissance for a future trip but in traditional fashion the plan changed when I arrived and saw what was available.
Noting the bakery’s location, a large space in the market with an open kitchen bustling with energy, a small line greeted me on arrival and with plenty of options both sweet and savory I stood back for a moment before stepping into the line and progressing forward denoting the items that interested me most – an unsurprising six in total, only one to be tasted then and the rest for later, a total bill of $18 after tax and a $1 tip to the man boxing/bagging/expediting the line.
Already with some leftovers in the car but still with room to indulge and four hours until lunch my tasting of Short Cake would begin with a total failure – a particularly appalling disaster in that it occurred with my favorite French pastry, a Twice Baked Almond Croissant so sticky (and sickly sweet) with frangipane that I actually scooped some from the soggy interior with a spoon before depositing 2/3 of the pastry in the trash and moving on to something I hoped would redeem the experience immediately – the Bakery’s last slice of Chocolate Bun Bread Pudding; an intensely cocoa laden but unfortunately dry take on my favorite dessert that benefitted greatly by some time in the sun (in the back seat of my car) but still ended up largely going to waste because the other options from Short Cake (and leftovers from Sycamore Kitchen and Proof) were vastly superior.
Saving the rest of the selections for dessert after Dim Sum at Sea Harbour my next bites of Pressman’s wares would be alongside ice cream from Sweet Rose Creamery and starting first with the Turbinado Babka there was a decided improvement from the prior options as the buttery layered pastry was nicely balanced and quite light with a savory yeastiness coming through beneath the sugar, but on the whole it was not even in the same league as that from Sycamore Kitchen. Faring better, two cookies and a scone would round out the options and while both the Breakfast Cereal Cookie with Dried Blueberry and “Nancy’s Favorite” Chocolate Chip Cookie were quite good it was only the Campfire Scone that truly wowed; a sort of Snickerdoodle biscuit beneath charred marshmallows that was both sweet and savory, a slight smokiness one generally doesn’t associate with pastry that was quite unexpected considering the relative sub-par quality of the rest of the items from Short Cake.
For my last bites of non-restaurant sweets in Los Angeles a bunch of cakes and pastries clearly call for one thing (besides coffee,) and that is Ice Cream – in this instance from the brains behind Huckleberry Bakery in Santa Monica at the aforementioned Sweet Rose Creamery. A relative newcomer (late 2011) to the scene and focused on small-batch production with high quality ingredients Sweet Rose has certainly gathered its fair share of praise since it opened to the public and although many claim the prices are too high I had to see for myself whether the rumors of a trusted friend stating “the best Salted Caramel ice cream ever” were true.
A small scoop shop with what the lady in front of me described as “an unusually short” 20-person line my first impression of the area surrounding the Brentwood Country Market was how very ‘small town’ it seemed – the sort of place I’d have expected in Marblehead Ohio, for instance, yet as the line moved forward a double decker Starline bus drove past and a menu appeared listing a bacon sundae and Quince Manchego ice cream things certainly felt more in place – the warm sun in the middle of January also a bit at odds with my childhood memories of Ohio winter, yet just the same it would not be long before I stood at the counter ready to taste first, then order.
Beginning first with the two tasting spoons I requested (though more were offered if I were so inclined) my first experience with Sweet Rose was in fact the Quince Manchego, a slightly sharp and briny bite at its base with mellow sweetness on the finish that almost convinced me to order a full scoop, followed by signature “Verve Coffee” – a dark yet overly creamy bite that paled in comparison to Jeni’s Splendid Black Coffee version back in Columbus as well as to Bi-Rite’s Ritual Coffee Toffee in San Francisco thus allowing me to focus my attention on the flavor for which I’d came and “Today’s Flavor” special – a $5.50 Double of Brown Sugar Butter Pecan and Salted Caramel, the former an impeccable take on my favorite ice cream flavor with pralines in place of the standard pecans and lovely butter notes swirled with crunchy bits of brown sugar while the Salted Caramel, graced with an extra shake of crunchy sea salt before service, was every bit as good as Sweet Republic’s Salted Butter Caramel and the Burnt Caramel of Toscanini’s, my personal standard bearers for the flavor. A great shop in a really cute neighborhood I’d venture to say Sweet Rose is the best ice cream I’ve had in SoCal and a “two for two” along with Huckleberry in Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan’s collection of restaurants – a fact that will surely send me to Milo and Olive sooner rather than later.