Like most of my trips the concept of three meals a day is simply too limiting, especially when traveling with a group who is willing to share and thereby allow multiple samples at multiple locations; as such the most recent trip to Seattle and Vancouver would include multiple stops – some for sweets, some for savories, many for caffeine, and everywhere from breakfast to lunch to pre-dinner or a late night snack. Having already discussed the three trips to Pike’s Place, this list shall encompass the sweets and coffees that we experienced in the Seattle area, 10 locations in total ranging from South American Coffee to French Pastries to Italian Gelato to good ol’ American cupcakes and donuts.
Beginning first with the least impressive stop of our entire trip, a late night caffeine run would lead us to the oft raved Bauhaus Coffee and books – a technically correct name, I guess, even if the books are merely there as decoration and the coffee is average at best. To those who’ve never been, what Bauhaus actually represents is a place for hipsters to gather and sip espressos while placing their Mac-Book on a table and their Iphone on a chair of its own while browsing facebook – or, for the truly awesome, to set a book of Proust on the table and proceed to pull out a small canvas and a set of oils to paint while looking forlorn – yes, we did see both of theses. Add in a menu that includes Ding Dongs for $1 and Kool-Aid plus baristas who act as if it is a huge inconvenience to hand you the code for free wireless internet (while also giving you shit for pocketing two extra packets of Splenda even though you are a paying customer…) enough said.
Moving next to a far more pleasurable coffee experience, a stop after the Seattle Museum of Art would lead us to Fonte Coffee where instead of the pretentious and well inked a nice young woman named Ellie would greet us at the counter and not only offer us a list of no less than ten different coffees available in the café or by the pound, but would also offer a great degree of knowledge about the flavor profiles of each leading me to order not only a large cup of Kenya AA Gaturiri, but also a half pound of both it and the El Salvador las Delicias Cup of Excellence to take back to Ohio.
Generally not a fan of acidic coffees Ellie sold me on the Kenya based on its wet processing and stone fruit profile and while I cannot say it was the best coffee I’ve ever tasted, it was perhaps the best African cup I’ve had in a long time with a thick and almost syrupy body from the drip and even better at home from my French Press. Moving next to the El Salvador, this one only tried thus far via French Press (and being savored accordingly) I particularly like this blend due to the body – a nearly satin like smoothness with notes of caramel and vanilla and just a bit of citrus on the finish; overall it was probably the best coffee I had in Seattle (or at least on par with the Stumptown blend made exclusively for the Herbfarm.)
Continuing the coffee theme but adding in some breakfast, our second morning in Seattle would deliver the disappointment of Café Besalu being closed (12/23-1/13) with the next logical step being a drive to what was to be breakfast on our third day, Bakery Nouveau, a spot I’d been looking forward to ever since I read about their Double Baked Almond Croissant.
Located in a rather unassuming part of town and many miles (and bridges) from our hotel in Edmonds our arrival at Bakery Nouveau would be just a couple hours after opening and having ran nearly 10 miles that morning I arrived quite famished even despite the previous day’s eating. With parking quite ample on the streets so early and my aunt’s ability to walk in her boot improving by the day we made our way through the doors of Nouveau and within moments it felt like we were back in Paris – the smell of butter, cinnamon, and coffee about and fresh baked goods emerging from the kitchen as tiny jewelbox pastries lined the shelves.
With the small restaurant crowded but again finding good fortune as a table of four stood up to leave my aunt took a seat while the rest of us waited in line and with the only stipulations being “a croissant and a pain au chocolate” I was left in charge of the order – 7 items in total, 3 coffees, and a glass of milk (which was strangely provided free of charge with a total of $0.00 listed on the bill.) With two servers attending to us, one named Chris preparing the beverages while a lady named Jess gathered and plated each item individually from the case (or in the case of two of the croissants directly from the warm bakers rack) it took approximately 5 minutes for everything to be prepared, paid, and carried to the table before we would begin.
Starting first with a note on the coffee, provided by Lighthouse, I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the cups but again thwarted by the sweetener choices of sugar or Stevia and preparing the cup to the best of my abilities I personally felt that the coffee was a bit watered down and may have benefitted from a different preparation method, though when drank with the pastries it proved adequate enough – particularly with those containing chocolate where the light acid tones were better balanced.
Moving next to the pastries, the majority of our selections from Nouveau would be their oft-raved croissants or other forms of leavened puff pastry including the Pain au Chocolate, Butter Croissant, Double Baked Almond Croissant, Double Baked Chocolate Almond Croissant, and the Pain au Pommes – five of the eleven versions available that morning and each quite impressive, particularly the still-warm Butter Croissant and the Double Baked Almond Croissant I requested direct from the wire rack – the first featuring a crackling shell that offered just enough resistance to the tooth before shattering and giving way to a buttery cavernous interior and the second a dense split-frangipane filled-and baked again masterpiece that rivaled the best in the states and even some of the better ones we had in Paris.
Moving on to the other flaky pastries including the breads of apple and chocolate plus the Double Baked Almond Croissant these selections would again prove to be good, but without being as crisp on the exterior or as wispy on the interior they simply could not stand up to the quality of the first two croissants. Perhaps suffering from a bit too long on the shelf or perhaps simply outshined by their counterparts I will note that the quality of the chocolate was top and not overly sweet while the apples were nicely prepared, intensely buttery, and laden with cinnamon but overall I’d simply suggest sticking with the basics (a safe bet in Paris, as well.)
For our last two bites one would be a personal favorite, the Baba Savarin, and the second the “Pastry of the day” – a modified Linzer cookie described as “Linzer Cookie Brioche.” Starting off with the Baba, a clever presentation with the enriched dough absolutely saturated in simple syrup tinged with rum and skewered with a pipette filled with pure rum for extra kick I would have to rank this amongst the best Baba au Rhum I’ve ever tasted not only for the quality of the boozy and butter pastry, but also for the inclusion of light pastry cream on the interior and a topping of caramel whipped cream that added just a bit of sweet salinity on the finish; a definite must order and better than any I had overseas. Fairing less well, but still interesting the Linzer Cookie Brioche would present a somewhat paradoxical dense yet crumbly cookie stuffed with raspberry jam, loaded with eggy notes and butter, and topped with a cinnamon sugar crumble – a sort of linzer meets donut meets biscuit that definitely needed a bit of coffee (or milk) but tasted quite good overall, even if I would’ve preferred a standard Linzer (or another Double Baked Almond Croissant) instead.
Walking back from Bakery Nouveau and finding Easy Street Records now open for business I obviously had to stop in and knowing my propensity for spending far too much time digging through records and CDs my family decided to see what else was on California Avenue, eventually taking a seat at Cupcake Royale across the street and eventually deciding to grab a few treats for later – namely, cupcakes.
With my browsing eventually done and a copy of St. Vincent’s debut album in hand for a mere $6 I eventually made my way across the street to Cupcake Royale where I found the ladies reading the local paper and where I was greeted by two friendly young bakers who were carefully frosting a large order of cupcakes for a party. Taking a look at the selections in the case and then what my family had ordered while a group of students studied and poked around on their laptops at the tables throughout the small restaurant I have to admit I liked what I saw – a collection of mostly classics but also some unique finds including one that would turn out to be superb.
Beginning first with the classic, our first bite of Cupcake Royale would be the Red Velvet, a moist cake with nice dollop of cream cheese frosting that did well to temper the cocoa notes without overwhelming or being too sweet – a nice start to be sure. Moving next to the Vanilla coconut, this cake would prove to be a bit of a disappointment largely because in my opinion it really did not taste of vanilla at all, but rather just sweet meets coconut and while cake itself was buttery and moist this just felt like something that could have come from Pillsbury.
Moving last to the best of the group (by far,) our last cupcake would be the Salted Caramel, a dense and almost fudge-like cake rich with dark chocolate topped with a whipped caramel frosting dotted with curls of chocolate and crunchy bits of sea salt that provided a sweet meets savory balance that I absolutely loved. Intensely sweet to be sure, particularly after a breakfast at Nouveau this was another one of those treats that would have probably paired much better with coffee and overall it would be the second best cupcake of the trip – behind the Almond Cupcake at Yellow Leaf.
With a day of sight-seeing and savories now behind us and my mother and aunt not coming along to The Herbfarm an early stop at Serious Pizza for happy hour was planned but when we arrived to find a 45 minute wait my sister and I decided to wander the streets and just so happened to walk past Dahlia Bakery, a spot I wasn’t sure we would make it to during our visit but a place whose smell would beckon us in even though the day’s selection had dwindled to just a few options including perhaps the two most well regarded and one that I’d personally targeted based on the recommendation of a friend.
With the servers pleasant but otherwise busy preparing what looked like at least 3 large carry out orders for later that day or the next morning my sister and I weighed our options and after finding out that the coconut pie bites had been made that morning we instead opted for the two fresh items on the wire rack behind the counter – a Chocolate Truffle Cookie and a Chocolate “Fancy” cupcake before heading to the street where we tasted the goods, the first intensely chocolate but shockingly melt-in-your-mouth-light despite the minimal amounts of flour and the second a rich and tasty cocoa cupcake topped with marshmallow textured butter cream fluff that was fine but really not all that memorable (particularly given the $3.40 price tag after tax.)
With dinner at the Herbfarm still fresh in our memories the last day of the first leg of our trip to Seattle and Vancouver would start with coffee and donuts, but certainly not Dunkin or Tim’s – this would be our day to visit Top Pot in order to experience their “hand forged” doughnuts and while I still don’t know precisely what “hand forged” means in regard to a doughnut I do know that for a group of four we did a great job in sampling their wares and that although the space was busy the servers couldn’t have been more helpful and pleasant as they offered suggestions and plated each option individually before putting together our drink orders and even helping us carry everything to the table.
Beginning first with the beverage choices, three of us opted for the Top Pot Diplomat blend – a nutty French Roast that generally would not have been my first choice but when paired with the sweet breakfast pastries proved a perfect balance with nutty undertones and plenty of body to stand up to the pastries. For my aunt, not a coffee fan, she opted for the house made hot chocolate – a milky blend somewhere between a sipping chocolate and standard hot cocoa that certainly did not have the tempering effect that coffee did on the donuts but tasted nice and had a silky mouthfeel just the same.
Moving on to the donuts, all told eight selections were made and dividing each into fourths afforded us each to sample eight flavors for the price and capacity of two whole donuts – by far and away my favorite part of pastry-based breakfasts with a group. Sampling far and wide both in terms of flavor and style based on our own preferences and the suggestions of the staff our choices included a frosted Old Fashioned, Peppermint Chocolate Cake, Blueberry Cinnamon Cake, Apple Fritter, Raspberry Ring, Maple Bar, Chocolate Coconut Boa, and finally a cinnamon laden iced Pershing – each very impressive, especially considering the variations in size, density, and texture with the old fashioned moist and dense on the interior and crunchy on the exterior while the puffy cake donuts were somewhere between Dunkin and Krispy Kreme – light and wispy, but not quite “melt in the mouth.”
Taking into account the prices, certainly not cheap but also not vastly overpriced like New York’s fabled Donut Plant my personal favorites of the set were the airy Maple Bar – intense and vastly more satisfying and sticky sweet than Tim Horton’s classic, the densely apple studded fritter with pockets of spicy cinnamon juxtaposing the sweet buttery apple inside the raised dough, and finally the Blueberry speckled and Cinnamon sugar dusted cake doughnut that my sister almost refused to share as it was delivered still warm. Overall a great collection and although not quite as mesmerizing or ethereal as those at Chicago’s Donut Vault, less expensive and vastly less hassle with a much larger collection and a place to sit down and enjoy.
Having already noted my predilection for sweets another planned stop in our travels was to visit the Theo Chocolate factory for the afternoon tour but unfortunately the combination of spending far too much time at Archie McPhee and the Fremont Troll and an earlier start time during “holiday hours” we arrived twenty minutes too late for the tour and instead had to spend half an hour wandering the store, sampling innumerable free chocolates including a delectable chipotle sipping chocolate, and picking out a few gifts for friends back home including a “beer and chocolate” tasting kit as well as a number of single origin bars.
With helpful servers abound and the samples available without having to ask (in clear plastic containers) I will simply note that all things being equal I probably consumed the equivalent of two 3-oz bars during our visit and was particularly impressed by their section sampling cocoa percentages (anywhere from a 45% milk to a 99% bitter black,) the holiday selections including both dark and milk varieties of peppermint, gingerbread, and others plus their single origin collection including pricier options from the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. With pleasant servers and more to try than most can handle I’d definitely place this on the list of “must visit” stops in Seattle, particularly given their focus on fair trade practices and top notch customer service.
With Lummi Island and then Vancouver in our sites the next stop on our travels would be Mill Creek, Washington – home of Frost Donuts and their frequently rotating menu of “evolved” donuts. With traffic light and the weather for once not raining the drive from downtown Seattle would be a swift one and although a bit off the highway we managed to find Frost with minimal difficulty in the middle of a bustling outdoor mall and making our way in the door were met first with a bit of surprise as a large pile of empty boxes came tumbling over the counter, but then by the smell of fresh pastries and coffee – the best smell I know.
With two groups in front of us and only one cashier working as the other was collecting boxes and then bringing fresh, hot donuts from the kitchen we weighed our options and upon realizing that a half dozen would garner me a free medium Victrola coffee (as well as a discount) we opted for a half dozen that were carefully hand selected by a friendly youngster named Steven who boxed them up, poured the surprisingly smooth cocoa and caramel nuanced coffee, and collected the modest tab of $8.99 before bidding us a thank you and good night and happy New Year.
With plenty of time between our departure from Mill Creek and our dinner on the island our progression through Frost’s treasure box of treats would begin with the classic (and still warm) Raised and Glazed, a light and yeasty donut that ranks along with Donut Vault as the best I’ve ever tasted and a perfect rendition of a “classic” from a place that seems to focus on anything but. Moving next to the more esoteric selections the Butterfinger Blast would both present similarly to the first in that they were both yeasted raised donuts with a light interior and soft buttery notes, but taking a total different direction the toppings in this situation was a dense chocolate and crunchy Butterfinger crumbs – a step up from a simple glaze if you ask me.
Moving on to the other selections a trio of cake donuts would follow in the Bourbon Caramel Pecan, Red Velvet, and Cherry Bomb – each delicious with the vanilla cake donut and salty caramel with notes of booze being my favorite of the trio while my aunt raved about the dense cocoa an smooth cream cheese on the red velvet and the others particularly enjoyed the still warm and fresh vanilla cake donut speckled with cherries and cherry glaze before moving on to the last creation, a Banana Cream and Walnut Bismarck absolutely stuffed with thick Bavarian cream and chopped cooked bananas beneath the same dense chocolate as the Butterfinger plus toasted walnuts – yet another donut well worth the drive for those looking for a unique donut and all things being equal a better selection and better bargain than Top Pot.
Moving into the home stretch and the year 2011 now behind us, our return to Seattle would be another food-filled day and with Salumi not offering desserts and snacks/cocktails/dinner at Walrus and the Carpenter and Spur still many hours away we decided to check out the classic duo of cake (or in this case cupcakes) followed by ice cream (or in this case gelato) beginning first with Yellow Leaf Cupcake, a small shop near downtown with a frequently rotating menu of choices and apparently even some national credit secondary to an appearance on The Cooking Channel (a channel not carried by Time Warner Ohio, it seems.)
With the shop located just past the Olympic Sculpture Park and no parking to be found my sister and I took to the task of entering the shop while my mother and aunt circled the block and greeted by a young woman who seemed a bit bored (“it’s been a really slow day!”) we weighed the options before selecting a half dozen cupcakes, each individually packed in a cardboard holder with a hand-written flavor sheet affixed to the interior of the box, and after paying made our way to the street where we progressed to a yarn-bombed park just down the street to enjoy.
Having selected a few standards along with a couple of more interesting specialties to enjoy alongside another cup of Fonte coffee – this time their creamy Panama Callejon Seco – our cupcake tasting began with the standard Red Velvet, to top notch example with an excellent cake to cream cheese frosting ratio that proved to be one of the best I’ve had in a while and then progressed through the intense Boston Cream with plenty of rich pastry cream and a crunchy chocolate top, sweet meets savory Pancakes and Bacon with fresh baked bits of salty pork atop, and then to the rich and jammy PB&J topped with rich peanut butter cream and stuffed with grape jelly before sampling the two very best of the group – a rich and intensely sweet Dulce de Leche that was literally dripping with fresh caramel and the totally unexpected Almond – a dense cupcake with a texture almost like a financier but a flavor like rich frangipane topped with a frosting that tasted nearly identical to a toasted almond; a truly remarkable cupcake that ranks amongst my top 10 ever and when combined with the rest makes Yellow Leaf one of the best cupcakeries I’ve yet to try.
Having already mentioned our gelato run, after a less than stellar experience at Bottega Italiana earlier in our stay we decided to wrap up our tasting of Emerald City sweets with a trip to D’Ambrosio in Ballard not only because it was conveniently located near Walrus and the Carpenter (as well as some great shopping in the form of Monster, Earth Hues, and more) but because I’d heard great things from a pair of trusted palates that this was some of the best gelato out west and despite the gloomy weather there is always time (and room) for ice cream (and gelato.)
Entering the small store to actually find a line of 5 ahead of us I spent a bit of time surveying the options before I made it to the front of the queue and after tasting a few samples including a creamy and crunchy “crunchy biscotti” and an intense pistachio I opted for a medium size cup largely because it afforded my three choices; Salted Caramel, Bewitched Ricotta, and Caramel and Fig that were packed densely into the cup for a bargain $5 before I made my way to the street where I tasted each flavor and enjoyed slowly in the 45 degree light rain.
Beginning first with the Bewitched Ricotta, a heavenly blend that tasted like frozen cream cheese frosting and next tasting each of the caramel options featuring house made organic caramel, on one side flecked with sea salt and on the other bespeckled with sweet organic figs I can only say that alongside Capogiro Philadelphia this is the best textured gelato I’ve ever tasted while the Caramel and Fig is absolutely on my list of the best frozen desserts I’ve ever tasted.