With my time in Ohio coming to a close and my love of northern California no secret it probably came as little surprise to anyone that my first scheduled job interview on a short but growing list would be in the Bay Area – and to anyone who knows me it also probably came as little surprise that the majority of the trip not directly tied to the interview would
be dedicated to exploring more of the region’s bountiful dining scene; a scene that had evolved substantially since my last visit two years prior.
Undertaking my traditional routes (and degree) of research but bearing in mind the potential variability in my schedule I have to admit I went into this trip with more variability than average but at the same time I still managed to reserve seven proper meals before flying out and in total the overall openness of the schedule actually led to two other proper meals plus far more small meals, snacks, and coffee breaks than I’d have ever imagined – 22 in total. Continuing with the tradition set by the Brooklyn Pizza Crawl and continued through the Paris Patisseries and Columbus Pizza crawl here I will discuss the pastry and coffee portion of that total in the most concise manner possible; as a list of what was ordered, how it looked and tasted, and notes on the location and service as
Beginning with the coffees and having already experienced much on my previous visit and via mail order from Blue Bottle, this trip would instead target some of San Francisco’s newer or less publicized locations – the first being Ritual Roasters not once, not twice, but thrice; In the Mission, at Bi-Rite, and then via The Yountville Coffee Caboose – each featuring a different blend, each a different brewing style, but each invariably impressive.
Starting with the Mission flagship, a fantastic store with an ever present line, stripped down décor, and a stereo blaring Queens of the Stoneage as hipsters tapped away on the MacBooks my first taste of Ritual would be La Soledad Sacatepequez via single cup drip and with prominent notes of vanilla, peach, and caramel this slightly acidic blend would prove the worst of the three, yet still a great cup of coffee with a clean smoky finish and hints of apple.
Moving next to the Coffee Caboose – this time prepared by Press Pot as I wandered the streets of Younville – Ritual Monte Rey Bambu from El Salvador would be a bold take on traditional Central American flavors and with a nearly syrupy mouth feel I enjoyed the sweet top notes of vanilla and chocolate so much that it ended up warranting a second cup that hinted at deeper notes of wood and citrus when enjoyed with a Red Velvet cupcake from Bouchon Bakery; a truly diverse cup of coffee my only disappointment was that the Caboose did not sell it by the bag.
My final sampling of Ritual would prove to be the best of the bunch and after a simple cup from a multi-brew pot at Bi-Rite Bakery and Creamery I progressed to the Bi-Rite store to pick up two bags of Hacienda Carmona Guatemala, a lovely single origin blend that tasted good from the pot but vastly better from my home French Press with a tongue-coating satin texture and top notes of vanilla and almond plus fruity flavors reminiscent of figs and
quince lingering on the palate.
Progressing along both in my travels and in my tasting, another exemplary brew during my trip to Wine Country would be at Dean and Deluca in the form of Counter Culture Coffee’s Santa Elena – a cup selected as I sampled some of D&D’s well culled cheese selection (and smiled at the presence of Columbus’ own Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in the freezer case.) Served from a multi-pour pot and featuring top notes of almond and citrus the high point of Santa Elena for me was actually once again the notes of fig and a mild cocoa flavor that worked nicely alone but particularly well with samples of Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawn and Sir Francis Drake.
Neglecting to mention a few unfortunate run-ins with Starbucks and a fairly unmemorable cup of Peets’ house blend during my interview days, my final coffee-centric experience during my trip would be with Four Barrel – first at the Mission Flagship and later at Dynamo Doughuts…and both times with pastries in toe. Beginning first with Four Barrel storefront I must admit I remain impressed with the Bay Area’s caffeine addiction as I arrived after a long morning run to find a line already formed before the crew had even opened the doors. Chatting with a couple locals as I waited the line reached a total of twenty before the door clicked open and making our way in I was instantly struck first by the bourbon, chocolate, and wood smells and next by the music – J.Mascis and the Fog. Queued up and with the single origin drip counter not yet running I made my way to the front counter where I was greeted by the young female barista and exploring the options I selected a cup of Columbia San Agustin la Cabana along with two pastries from Manresa alum Belinda Leong’s “B. Patisserie” before making my way to a table.
Beginning first with the coffee – poured from multiple cup pot my first taste was a bit of a shock largely because of impressive thickness of the brew; perhaps the thickest and most velvety mouth feel of any non-French Press I’ve ever had. Tasting the coffee first solo and then with my pastries I was particularly impressed by the dense vanilla and floral tones of the beans and later reminisced of the woody fig notes that clung to the palate. A strong
cup fitting my “ideal” flavor profile to the letter this would be the other coffee I brought back in Ohio – 24oz for $32.
Moving on to the pastries – something I was quite excited about having heard excellent things about B. Patisserie as Four Barrel has migrated their collection away from Dynamo and Telltale – while there were many options the two that struck me right away were the Cannelle and the Chocolate Croissant, both golden, still warm, and surprisingly well priced at $2 and $3 respectively. Beginning first with the croissant – a very strong example with a golden crackling exterior and large pockets of air within I was particularly smitten with the thick ribbon of dark chocolate and its nearly mousse-like texture and eating quickly while the pastry was still warm I can say without a doubt that while not “Paris quality”
it was definitely worth getting up for while it was still warm.
Moving on to the Cannelle – oh what a pastry this was – better than Boulette’s Larder and as good as all but the archetype example I had from Laurent Gras’ tenure at L2o. Clearly made in beeswax molds and with an audible crack on mastication the lightly eggy custard interior was nearly rice-pudding meets Chinese Egg-custard in texture and presented still warm and slightly soupy with light vanilla tones and slight boozy finish were textbook – the sort of thing that makes you think that just maybe we are catching up to the French.
Having already mentioned that my second run-in with Four Barrel was at Dynamo Doughnuts there should really be no surprise that it was once again preceded by a line – in part because the place always seems to have a line (unless they are sold out as was the case during my previous visit) and in part because I arrived ten minutes before owner Sara Spearin and team had even lifted the metal awning and opened the doors.
With the morning sunny and the Mission already thriving with activity I took my place as fifth in a line that would grow to over twenty in a short time and featuring a mixture of both locals and tourists ranging from five to sixty five we stood chatting until the door opened, a young man sweeped the stoop, and a list of the days flavors was hung; it was at that point that I realized my eyes and my stomach were going to have a battle of the wits and with some folks opting to order at the window I stepped inside not only to order, but to watch the kitchen at work.
Having heard great things about Dynamo’s approach and ingredients it I stood and waited while the customers before me ordered and browsing the kitchen full of Clover Organic milk, organic flour, whole butter, and natural palm shortening I immediately felt a bit better about the $2-3 price per doughnut and with the couple before me picking up their order to take a seat I stepped up and placed my order – a coffee plus five doughnuts; some
for now and some for consumption during the Giants afternoon game at AT&T field.
Beginning first with the coffee – prepared “Americano” style – I enjoyed a cup of Four Barrel’s signature “Friendo Blendo” with thick citrus notes that at first did not sit well with my palate, but improved drastically after I began enjoying my pastries. Difficult to assess due to its style of preparation I will simply say the jury is still out on Friendo, but left to my own devices I’d sooner focus on their single origin selections and save blends for the espresso crowd.
Moving on to the main attraction my doughnut choices of the day included the famous Maple Glazed Bacon Apple along with four of the eleven rotating options; Caramel de sel, Dougnut Bread Pudding, Sticky Bun, and (reportedly for the first time in 3 months) Buckwheat Corn Peach, and with each still warm I opted to eat a portion of each immediately and save the rest for later…a good plan, though poorly implemented as not much was saved.
Beginning first with the Maple Bacon Apple I’ve got to hand it to Dynamo – as much as I’m growing tired of the hipster-affinity to add bacon to everything this was a very well balanced doughnut with a golden crispy exterior and buttery soft crumb balancing savory and sweet with a slight bourbon undertone and plenty of sweetness punctuated by the smoky pork. Moving next to the Bread Pudding I was a bit let down largely because I love bread pudding and this was simply not as good as it could have been. Reportedly crafted from day old doughnuts soaked in custard with seasonal fruits mixed in it really wasn’t that the pudding was not good, but simply that save for the few bites with plump blueberries the flavor profile was simply “sweet” with little nuance or textural variability.
Moving back to the doughnuts my next taste from Dynamo would be the Buckwheat Corn Peach featuring an astoundingly toothsome texture bespeckled with whole kernels of corn and diced peaches plus notes of cinnamon and nutmeg adding an aromatic undertone to the whole pastry. Topped with a “peaches and cream” frosting that was more creamy than sweet and with an overall mouth feel somewhat akin to a Little Debbie doughnut stick this was where my plan to only try a bite or two of each began to fall apart – I ate the whole thing without a second thought.
Showing a bit of restraint my next two selections would prove to be as good as billed and eating part right away while leaving the rest for the game I particularly loved the profound sweetness of the caramel option (doughnut texture similar to the Maple Bacon Apple) as crystals of fleur de sel formed a nearly “burnt caramel” flavor profile overlying light notes of orange as well as the “sticky bun” – a half chocolate/half vanilla spiral densely coated top to bottom with caramelized milk, cinnamon, and what I swear were notes of saffron.
With friendly service and an open kitchen well worth spending a few minutes observing I will simply say that save for the bread pudding Dynamo absolutely lives up to the hype and while slightly more pricey than Chicago’s Doughnut Vault and New York’s Doughnut Plant the quality off the ingredients, service, and product are well worth the cash and the calories.
Moving along in my travels Saturday morning would predictably be spent at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market prior to an impromptu trip north to dine at Cyrus. Knowing that I did not want to overindulge but wanting to pick up some snacks for breakfast while browsing the bounty of fruits and vegetables that will soon disappear from Ohio for at least five months my first stop of the morning (after enjoying samples of somewhere between ten and one hundred types of plums, strawberries, peaches, and figs) would be at Frog Hollow Farm for a taste of two of their fabled tartlets – the first seasonal blueberries and the second their signature risotto.
Beginning first with the blueberry selection there really isn’t much I can say that isn’t obvious from a photo – flawless plump blueberries lightly cooked with sugar and lemon zest packed into a flaky pastry crust – it was warm, dense, and the sort of rustic preparation that will never win a beauty contest but doesn’t really need to in order to be fantastic.
Moving next to the risotto tart, an item I’d targeted on my previous visit to San Francisco only to find it sold out, the presentation was again rustic but unlike the blueberry option this one was quite unlike anything I’ve ever experienced; a portable rice pudding with diced currants plus notes of orange, vanilla, and cinnamon dancing across the palate. Generally more a fan of bread pudding than rice pudding largely because I tend to find the texture of rice pudding a bit too homogenous what particularly enthralled me with this item was actually the toothsomeness of the risotto – soft and creamy yet with each grain still retaining most of its characteristic texture, like a baked version of the riz au lait at L’Ami Jean.
Not entirely sated from the options at Frog’s Hollow my second stop at the Ferry Plaza would again be for an item I missed out on during my prior visit – the Cannelle at Boulette’s Larder – a $3.50 one-to-two bite bee’s wax baked custard that although warm and tasty with a crisp shell and creamy interior simply did not hold a candle to the version I had from B. Patisserie at Four Barrel at nearly half the price. Disappointed but willing to give them a second chance even after I was *yelled* at for taking a picture my second selection, a salty peanut cookie ($1.50 and about the size of an Oreo) would fare slightly better with the minimal use of flour as a binder to what was likely 90% peanut and 5% salt proving to be quite tasty but invariably not worth the price. A nice concept for a store, sure, and if I needed duck confit or high end quinoa perhaps I’d come back but all things being equal I’d strongly recommend getting your pastries elsewhere.
Having already mentioned my trip to Healdsburg (and having not already mentioned later trips to Napa, Yountville, and St. Helena) another pastry stop on my tour would be The Model Bakery at the Oxbow Public Market – a location I’d visited previously without purchasing anything due to a picked over selection, but a location I’d vowed to return to largely based on word of mouth and their claim to producing the best English Muffin in the world – plus a seemingly logical option for an early breakfast and some pastries to take back to my apartment for the following morning when clinical duties would limit my dining options.
Arriving early after a morning run and a smooth drive I found TMB with minimal difficulty and with street parking plentiful I made my way inside to find a short line but cases chock-full and service pleasant. Deciding to sample a number of options knowing I would take some home for the morning I ordered a few standards before asking the server what she would recommend and collecting my four options plus a strong 16oz cup of Peets’ Coffee I made my way out to the heated picnic tables to enjoy.
Beginning first with the English Muffin – an option I first tried on its own and then with some local honey – I don’t know, perhaps I’m just not an English Muffin sort of guy but I just don’t get the hype. Sure the muffin was soft, buttery, and supple but in all reality it was just a good roll, no better than the table bread at any number of Midwest restaurants…and unfortunately as average as it was it actually turned out to be the best of what I ordered including a dry and flavorless Red Velvet Cupcake, a doughy and far too yeasty almond croissant with nary a hint of almond, and a sticky bun that was certainly sticky but
essentially a dense piece of brioche with light hints of cinnamon and not enough sweet to offset the bitterness of the nuts – each item a resounding disappointment when compared to the average, but especially poor when compared to other destinations on my trip.
Continuing north another bakery stop would be fairly predictable to anyone who knows me and taking the exit to Washington Street in Yountville just after 8:45am on Labor Day I was actually slightly surprised that the line at Bouchon Bakery was only approximately ten persons long. Saving the drama (and admitted love for all things Keller) I’ll spare you the long and drawn out details of how I went and wandered the gardens of The French Laundry, snapped pictures of (the unfortunately closed) Addendum, and stood watching the prep crew set tables at Bouchon and skip right to the order – a $24 one provided by one of four ever-pleasant employees stuffed behind the small counter that would serve as part of my breakfast for the next two days.
Always impressed by the variability from season to season and from store to store I was glad to see that my past experiences with Bouchon remained true to this day and with at least ten entirely new items behind the glass my selection of five was boxed and bagged only momentarily before I made my way to the outdoor benches to enjoy my selections, the first two a pair of seasonal Macarons – Hazelnut and “PB&J.” Beginning first with the hazelnut, a large saucer in typical Bouchon fashion the cookie was nicely prepared with lovely notes of the filbert filling both the cookie and the creamy filling, but overall the texture was a bit off…a tad gummy after the initial crackling shell, but tasty none the less and gone in three bites. Fairing far better in terms of both taste and texture, the Peanut Butter and Jelly option proved to be one of the better macarons I’ve experienced stateside with a clean break on mastication leading to an airy and slightly dry crumb juxtaposing thick concord grape jam and dense creamy peanut butter – again gone in three bites my plan of making these choices last seemed to be in jeopardy.
Moving next to something more filling my next two selections would prove worthy of a bite or two now with the rest saved for re-warming the day after to great effect. Beginning first with the “Sweet Monkey Bread with Butter Brioche, Caramel, Cinnamon” and moving subsequently to the “Brioche Pecan Sticky Bun” all of the issues marring the pastries at The Model Bakery were quickly forgotten as both of these options were rife with sticky cinnamon sweetness held aloft by eggy brioche while the bun was so stuffed with candied pecans that the crunchy nuts were literally falling out of both sides of the pastry with each bite.
For my last selection I decided to re-visit an old favorite that has apparently been recently added to the Yountville repertoire after years of Vegas exclusivity – the Red Velvet Cupcake with cream cheese ice cream – and as good as that first experience in Vegas was, this is one thing that happened in Vegas that I’m glad did not stay there. Beginning first with the dense cake – cocoa accented but not overwhelming so and mellowed by notes of butter, vanilla, and something mildly earthy – it was as perfect as I remembered, but this time all the better as the thick slightly sour cream cheese frosting funneled deep down
into the cupcake forming a nearly “wet” base and assuring not only a lovely frosting:cake ratio throughout, but a lovely contrast in textures that places this cupcake atop a pedestal as my best Red Velvet experience to date.
Continuing my cupcake commentary and returning to San Francisco, another impromptu stop on my wandering the city would be at American Cupcake – a shop that despite its uninspired name was recommended to me by the very person who suggested Sweet Revenge in New York largely because of the common theme – cupcake and wine pairings. With the inside somewhere between a rap video and the Sci-Fi channel and a menu featuring everything from a cheese plate to red velvet fried chicken to pixie stick cupcakes I had to give them points for originality and with the cupcakes priced $3/ea with tax and not overly large I opted for two before making my way to the street as Pitbull thumped overhead.
Beginning first with the standard Red Velvet I’m happy to say that my friend’s suggestion was a good one and with a nice cake to icing ratio the classic flavors of cocoa and cream cheese were in good balance as neither the dense cake or slick frosting were too sweet. Moving next to the more interesting of my two options the Butterscotch cupcake also proved to be quite impressive with a base that was mild and buttery with hints of cinnamon and frosting that tasted like the Werther’s Originals I always enjoyed when visiting my grandparents as a child. Overall another great cupcake and given the originality of the store I’d definitely consider going back for more, though my chances of dining are minimal due to the music.
For another snack (actually lunch after clinic one day *don’t judge me*) I made my second “repeat” of the trip – this one to Tartine Bakery – a spot where I enjoyed breakfast almost two and a half years prior but vowed to return to in order to experience two items I passed on at that time. With parking nowhere to be found I did what any logical person would do and stowed my car in a delivery only spot before jogging across the street to thankfully find the line empty and the shelves full. With the smells of vanilla, cinnamon, and butter wafting into the streets my order was swiftly filled by a pleasant young woman and in less than 5 minutes I was back to my car en route for the SFMoMA where parking was admittedly more plentiful (and more expensive.)
Shocked and surprised by the “Free Tuesday” sign at the MoMA I counted my blessings and collected my ticket before making my way to the café where I unbagged and unboxed my bounty to enjoy – first the still warm and oft raved Bostock, an eggy brioche that resembles a portable bread pudding more than it does a simple dessert bread. Dense and moist with layers of complexity both in terms of flavor and in texture this was perhaps the best item I’ve tasted to date from Tartine and although I generally do not love citrus the boozy orange notes married perfectly with the smooth frangipane, sliced almonds, and powdered sugar to form a flavor that was at the same time rustic yet refined – the sort of thing that could be enjoyed with or without coffee, with or without preserves, and at
any time of the day.
Moving next to what may be Tartine’s most famous dish; my second selection of the day was a small version of the Banana Cream Tart – a lovely amalgam of creamy banana pudding mixed with slices of whole banana resting in caramel soaked pastry shell and topped with curls of dark chocolate. While certainly not the world’s expert on banana cream pie (or banana pudding) I will simply say that this was the best I’ve had to date with the crust buttery and flaky (but impossible to cut with Tartine’s eco-friendly knives,) the banana cream tempered in its sweetness, and the light hand whipped cream melding perfectly with the dark chocolate – a great selection from a stellar bakery…even if their cookbook remains nearly impossible to navigate in my small apartment kitchen.
With Bouchon, Tartine, Frogs Hollow Farm, and B. Patisserie all wowing my palate with a multitude of sweets and treats I will simply say here that as accomplished as they all are the best pastries I experienced on this trip to San Francisco (and perhaps the best pastries I’ve experienced anywhere in the United States) were found at a counter tucked in the back of Local Mission Eatery; a counter titled “Knead Patisserie” that I most certainly would have never found were it not for the fantastic @kelseats. How good was Knead? I visited it twice in the same trip, something that has only happened once *ever,* when I made daily trips to Bouchon Bakery Las Vegas because I was staying at the Venetian.
With the counter small but neatly maintained and Shauna Des Voignes plus another young lady working diligently in back my first stop at Knead would be on a Sunday morning just moments after opening – when the shelves were full and the pastries still warm. With at least twelve selections available I decided to peruse the options for a moment and after some deliberation I decided three choices would be enough (I mean I’d just been to Dynamo Doughnuts after all) and with the selections boxed up I made my way to the streets of the Mission to enjoy.
Beginning with what has become Knead’s “signature” my first taste of Shauna’s work was the Palm D’Amore – a bite that carefully straddles the line between a traditional egg custard and a crème brulee all housed in a warm and flaky puff pastry shell. Slightly eggy but mostly sweet, a bit boozy but balanced by butter and yeast, plus a golden crackle to the top giving way to a barely set custard…I really have no idea how she pulls off such a balance, but however it is done I’ve really never experienced anything like it.
Moving next to a more traditional option, the Blueberry Palmier proved to be a rather traditional take on the classic “elephant ear” cookie with the same buttery puff pastry as the Palm baked into a crispy yet pliable curl topped with granulated sugar and layered with rich blueberry compote. While not the revelation that was the Palm or my subsequent selection there was a certain lightness to this cookie that I really enjoyed even as the crackling shell and granulated sugar made a mess of my blazer.
For my final bite during that first fateful day at Knead I enjoyed what turned out to not only be the best thing I ate in the Bay Area, but also the best Croissant I have ever tasted; a pastry simply entitled “Butter Pecan Croissant” that can be best described as a scientific experiment in maximizing the amount of buttery flavor and textural nuance one can fit into a dense yet wispy French pastry. While admittedly prone to hyperbole regarding the things I love, think literally thousands of paper thin layers with an immaculate shell that shattered with the lightest of pressure. Think of yawning air pockets imbued with the flavor of brown butter and candied toasted pecans. Think of each bite punctuated by
a crackling sound followed by top notes of sweetness, base notes of salty butter and the sort of flavors that make you close your eyes and smile. Yeah – its exactly like that, maybe better.
For my second visit to Knead I really did not need a reason considering my first experience, but with a 9 hour (2-layover) flight back to Ohio leaving at 6:00am from OAK the following morning I just couldn’t bear the thought of surviving a whole day on airline peanuts and whey protein when I could instead be enjoying more of Shauna’s handiwork – this time a quartet of options including a Blackberry Fig Turnover with Chicory Sauce, a Cherry Chocolate Chunk Scone, and two cookies – Chocolate Chip Cookie and Snickerdoodle.
Beginning the following day with a quick drive to the airport and a cramped flight to LAX my first tastes from this round of Knead would be the cookies largely because I wanted to wait to warm the others and while the Chocolate Chip was relatively standard fare – good but not great with ample notes of butter and cocoa – the Snickerdoodle was outstanding, the cinnamon sweetness enhanced by something I still can’t put my finger on…perhaps cloves or nutmeg, or perhaps Chinese five-spice…but memorable none the less.
Arriving at LAX with an hour to find a microwave and make it from the Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 I was fortunate to jog past a Starbucks where my agreement to purchase a coffee (a decent 20th anniversary blend with light woody notes) convinced the young lady at the counter to heat up my pastries and although I did not have time to eat until I was seated on the plane my pastries remained plenty warm. Beginning first with the scone as the chocolate had made a small brown puddle on the base of the box I will simply say that warmed up this was hardly a scone, but more like a buttermilk biscuit with pockets of butter, cherries, and dark chocolate beneath crunchy crystals of sugar; in other words if it was a scone it was one of the best I’ve ever tasted and my only regret is that I did not order the brown cinnamon one as well.
Sated but not wanting to miss out on the luxury of the warm turnover my final taste of Knead (at least until I come back to San Francisco) would be another revelation not only because it contained two of my very favorite fruits, but because within this golden and buttery shell was something I’d have never expected – the essence of the campfire – a gift of the subtle notes of chicory and a flavor so bold it temporarily made me, certainly not the outdoorsy type, reminisce of my few experiences with campfire pies and forget that I was breathing recirculated air and sitting next to a man easily two times my size wishing I had a place to put my left arm…yep, again, that good.