With my Vegas plans evaporated by the gross incompetence of Chase bank and their failings to appropriately process a loan for my new home and my life for the next few weeks now relegated to a combination of (hopefully) moving, (probably) studying, and (definitely) working long hours I decided to take my second Saturday in a row to explore Arizona’s culinary landscape – this time starting in Tempe where I fortunately talked my way out of a traffic violation en route to Essence Bakery, a spot that had been on my “to eat” list since my original visit to the Valley of the Sun.
Owned and operated by Eugenia Theodosopoulos (an Ohio native, fyi) and considered by many to be the best patisserie/bakery in the state I approached Essence with a note of skepticism largely assuming much of the hype was derived from Tempe’s plethoric college crowd but arriving at the doors of the small shop on a particularly lovely 80 degree morning I gathered quite quickly that my original conceptions were misplaced; not only does Essence not look like a college haunt, neither do its prices or products – a vast selection of at least twenty items aside from the posted menu sitting beneath and atop a glass case forcing me to make more than one tough decision that was not helped by my server’s accurate assessment that everything was really good.
Now bearing in mind that the original impetus to visit Tempe on this particular morning was to visit Caffe Boa and that Essence was more of ‘pre-meal’ activity what follows may seem slightly gluttonous, but to be fair once I took my first bite of Theodosopoulos’s École Lenôtre trained almond croissant I knew I was in good hands and everything else just sort of followed. Without a doubt my favorite breakfast pastry and perhaps my favorite French pastry overall, Essence’s $3 twice baked option arrives slightly smaller than the average but with a shell that crackles to the tooth and an interior that is at once yawning pockets of air and nearly overloaded with butter and light frangipane there is no doubt that this is a case of “big things in small packages,” and particularly in its still-warm morning state the flavors and textures rivaled those at Dominique Ansel and Payard Las Vegas for best I’ve had stateside.
Moving next from the baked goods to one prepared from the menu my second taste of the morning aside from the slightly earthy and lightly leather accented coffee was Essence’s “Signature” French Toast, a $7.25 selection featuring three griddled slices of eggy brioche and a sidecar of what I can best describe as banana infused caramel. Rich but thinly sliced and therefore nicely saturated each piece of the French Toast was exactly as it should be – the exterior crisp and the interior custard – while the sauce provided a pleasant balance of fruity notes and intrinsic sweetness that complimented rather than overwhelming the bread.
At this point submitting to the fact that I was going to eat even the items I’d bought ‘for later,’ my next two tastes were a pair of $2.95 macarons that, much like the croissant, rivaled those both here and abroad in terms of taste and texture while opting for a much more rustic approach terms of size and presentation. Beginning first with Pumpkin Spice and then proceeding to Vanilla with Dark Rum each palm-sized cookie was exactly what one would expect from a well trained pastry chef as the exterior shell provided a slight crackle on bite subsequently giving way to a soft meringue followed by dense cream that slowly dissipated on the tongue – the cinnamon and nutmeg notes of the former particularly notable while the rum in the second was appropriately understated thus serving to highlight the vanilla of the shell.
If there were any ‘misstep’ on the morning, it *might* have been the “Summer Berry Croissant Bread Pudding with Fresh Strawberry Sauce,” though when I say misstep I must temper the comment with the fact that my quibble is only that I prefer the French/English take on the dish while this one was more based on the French Custard style, a rich vanilla bean pudding without a lot of crunch or textural variance but instead laden with blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries plus a sidecar of lightly sugared strawberries. Focusing more of the natural sweetness of the fruits and aromatics of the vanilla than the typical overly sweet versions served stateside it was more panna cotta than bread pudding to me, but chalking that up to personal tastes it was still delicious.
Moving last to the one dish that gave me trepidation, the “French Napoleon” gave pause not only because the name clearly skewed towards a subset unfamiliar with a proper Mille-Feuille but also because so many pre-made versions of this layered pastry have failed to wow in the past…thankfully this was not the case at Essence. Featuring light and crunchy layers of choux easily withstanding the tines of a fork without turning into a smooshy mess (see “Mille Feuille New York”) intertwined with rich pastry cream speckled with dots of vanilla bean and ripe raspberries what truly made this version stand out was the manner in which Theodosopoulos caramelized each layer of choux, a technique reminiscent of Pierre Herme and as good as the French icon’s version was I’d be hard pressed to say Essence’s was any less impressive. It would be awesome to see what they could do a la minut like Savoy, L’Arpege, or Genin and given the names I’ve dropped in the paragraphs above plus Essence’s proximity I’ve no doubt I’ll be returning to see what else the small shop is capable of soon.
Having already mentioned my next stop as the primary impetus to visit Tempe in the first place I’ll start off by saying I’d originally identified Caffe Boa when browsing SlowFood.com and having subsequently read the profiles of both Jay Wisniewski and his wife on the website I was sold that it was a place to put on my list; a fact that a 50% off coupon from localdines.com certainly did not hurt.
Located on Mill Avenue, a space much maligned by local epicures and gourmands due to the proliferation of ASU “College food” stops such as pizza and burgers Caffe Boa seemed to be a sort of panacea to the area’s dining trend with its focus that which is local/fresh/organic and with offerings of brunch, lunch, and dinner I decided to make my fist visit a morning one; an audition, if you will, to see if a dinnertime drive to Tempe would be well advised in the future and recruiting my friend Aileen to join we scheduled for 10am since she had to be at work by 11:30.
Arriving just minutes late largely due to parking issues ($1.50/hr, FYI, though there is rumor of a free lot) after spending some time wandering around Mill and the ASU campus I entered Caffe Boa to find the restaurant much larger than I’d anticipated from the website and with only one other table occupied and my friend already arrived it would not be long before our server stopped by, told us of the mimosa table ($15,) and explained the new menu before filling Aileen’s coffee and a glass of water with cucumber for each of us.
Having each browsed the menu prior to arrival and with $40 to spend it would not be long before our decisions were made and with three plates to be shared amongst us ordered it would also not be long until we were left to wait…and wait…and wait…nearly twenty minutes before someone returned to prepare my friend water without cucumber and nearly fifty minutes before our food arrived; Aileen now likely to be late for work and myself simply hoping the food would be worth the wait.
Beginning first with the savory as my morning visit to Essence had been quite sweet the Croissant Croque Monsieur (sans Dijon) along with an egg requested to be soft poached would prove to be the first disappointment of the day as the overall composition of the dish was simply poorly conceived – the croissant lacking any crunch and weighted down by the cheese, the béchamel largely blurred by the brine of the ham, and the $2 egg most certainly not soft poached (especially since a quality kitchen can sous vide a perfect 63-degree egg in less time than Boa prepared this one.) The salad was fresh and the dish was edible, but at $16…even with the localdines certificate I felt ripped off.
Moving next to a pair of sweets, Aileen opted for the Parisian Crepes with Apricot preserves, Crème Chantilly, and Berries and requesting the dish without powdered sugar I think we both kind of chuckled at the lackluster presentation but unlike the croque this dish was at least tasty; the crepes dainty with a goodly amount of sweet filling and the crème light yet flavorful but at $12 probably not enough to satiate all but the slightest appetite.
For our final (and certainly most decadent) taste of Boa an order of Stuffed Pain Perdu arrived featuring two pieces of brioche wrapped around a light layer of mascarpone and Nutella that was subsequently battered and dipped in hazelnuts prior before a trip to the pan. Nicely caramelized with an exterior still featuring a bit of crunch and an interior just short of custard plus a topping of caramelized bananas, raisins, and maple the overall flavor profile was certainly sweet but at the same time nicely balanced and certainly a step up from the rest of the morning…even if nearly twice the price and half as good as the French Toast at Essence just hours before. A 60 minute wait and $40 (plus tax and tip) for 3 items – only one of which was even remotely memorable – let’s just say Caffe Boa won’t see a starring role in my dinner plans any time soon.
Shopping, studying, and surfing the internet followed Boa and after a few hours of hanging out with hipsters and being happy I own neither a MacBook nor an Ipod while drinking and excellent chocolate toned cup of Guatemalan Finca El Limonar followed by an iced Toddy made with a 50/50 blend of Black Market and Viota at Cartel Coffee Lab’s flagship location on University I decided lunch was in order and debating whether to return to Phoenix/Scottsdale or to spend the rest of the afternoon in Tempe I decided on the later so that I could check out something new – the pasty.
Apparently hailing from the British city of Cornwall and here in Arizona finding its foothold at the appropriately named Cornish Pasty Company I had originally heard of the pasty during a recent trip to Philadelphia where the baked crescent was a daily special on the menu at The Dandelion but featuring the least the combination of beef, rutabaga, onion, and potato I cannot really say my interest as high – a situation remedied by the extensive (if inauthentic selection at Cornish Pasty Company and thus leading me through their doors just after 2:30pm where I’d find the small bar area still full but the larger dining room only perhaps half so.
Largely unaware of the logistics of CPC – whether you seat yourself or wait to be seated and whether you order at the counter or at a table I stood and watched for a moment before deciding to seat myself and within moments a friendly young woman named Hannah greeted me, first offering a beverage – just water – and subsequently the restaurant’s extensive menu which I browsed at length while listening to The Sex Pistols and then The Clash play overhead. An eclectic list of Pasty’s both ‘traditional,’ ‘signature,’ and ‘premium’ plus a collection of soups, salads, and sides I asked Hannah about portions on her return and told that each pasty clocked in at approximately a pound (and that two would be “way too much” food for a solo diner since she could only eat half of one) thus leading me to settle on a single option, a dish I was told would take “about fifteen minutes,” leaving me more time to study and enjoy the tunes – the White Stripes perhaps the only thing ‘un-British’ in a string of songs ranging from Zeppelin to The Beatles to The Ramones.
Reading as I waited and enjoying the room as well as watching the team slice meat, shape dough, and chop vegetables it would be just under a quarter hour before my dish arrived and although smaller than I’d imagined (I definitely could have eaten two – probably three if I didn’t have dessert and dinner plans) the Shepherd’s Pie that was presented was far better than I’d have ever expected, a golden buttery shell wrapped around lightly mint tinged lamb and although fatty and intense nicely balanced by the vegetables. Generally a fan of Shepherd’s Pie, particularly when using a sharp cheddar, this handheld version would prove to be an exemplary take on the classic and the addition of a sidecar of onion and sage laden red wine gravy certainly did not hurt.
Debating a second pasty as Hannah returned to check in on me (The Pilgrim sounds quite good) but subsequently turning my attention to the sweeter half of the menu I decided to not make the same mistake twice and inquiring as to which dessert she recommended I went with my gut and ordered two to arrive with a delay between them, the first “Shirley Temple’s Pudding,” a $6 sticky toffee pudding served in a cast iron pot with a side of crème anglaise. Rich and thick, a dark treacle just barely set at the center and almost a brownie consistency along the edges what really shined about this dish was the manner in which it worked with the crème, a thick but delicate sauce balancing out the intense sweetness of the pudding.
Moving next to my second dessert, and for my tastes the better of the two, a goodly delay of fifteen minutes brought to the table Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding with vanilla ice cream – a truly unique spin on bread pudding made with what almost seemed to be cracker-thin pieces of bread juxtaposing a brandy tinged chocolate sauce and baked much like the sticky toffee pudding to be set at the edges yet dense and moist at the center. Truly a decadent dessert – the sort begging for a glass of milk or coffee – I will say that the ice cream was rather run-of-the-mill vanilla and although it served its purpose admirably I’d definitely go with more anglaise on subsequent visits – visits which I’m sure will happen the next time I find myself drawn back to Tempe, or to Mesa where there is apparently a second location whose Banoffee Pie and Apple Caramel Pasties seem to be calling.