(Published by South Bay Accent magazine in October 2015.)
An airy cake crowned by thick swirls of silky, intensely chocolatey icing. Right-out-of-the-oven bread with a crunchy exterior that contrasts with a warm, soft crumb as delicate as baby skin. Since we eat with our senses, carbs have an absolutely unfair advantage. They entice us away from stringent diets and are so often the centerpiece of major events. Just inhale the voluptuous aromas inside a bakery and your body will instantly respond regardless of your intentions.
The food renaissance that has blossomed in the South Bay in the last couple of decades has recently — to the delight of most of us — been expanding in the pastry and bread arena. Today, our restaurants are better than ever, farmers markets seem to be everywhere, grocery stores are upscaling their wares. And finally, sophisticated baked goods have been proliferating like our flourishing economy.
San Francisco and Berkeley/Oakland might still be ahead of us, culinarily, but we’ve been catching up. Sure, our northern neighbors have renowned places like Tartine, La Farine, b. patisserie and Craftsman & Wolves that get written up across the nation but the carb-delivery scene in the South Bay has been simmering of late, including a slew of new micro-bakeries, high-end pastry shops and recent bakery spinoffs of upscale restaurants.
“The time was right,” says spokesperson Marilyn Skinner from the Alexander’s Steakhouse Group about the launch last year of Alexander’s Patisserie in Mountain View. Proprietors of four gourmet steakhouses and a swanky seafood restaurant, the group wanted to capitalize on “the growing influx of new tech workers” who appreciate posh cuisine, she explains. Plus, “people are always interested in baked goods!”
ManresaBread, the offshoot of the Michelin two-star in Los Gatos, had a more leisurely gestation. Head baker Avery Ruzicka started producing phenomenal carbs after hours in the restaurant’s kitchen in 2013 that were sold experimentally at two farmers markets. With fans lining up to buy her breads and pastries before the markets opened and quickly snapping up every crumb, it was soon clear that this project was a winner.
However, a production facility and cute little retail shop near the restaurant didn’t open until early this year. Now assisted by a young team of bakers, Ruzicka is selective in what is created. “None of us are super excited about doing cakes, éclairs or cupcakes,” (in other words, the standard fare at most bakeries), she explains. “We’re more interested in flavor,” notes Ruzicka, as well as doing just a few perfectly executed bread and individual-pastry items that show off superb ingredients and painstaking technique.
While ManresaBread is exploring milled-in-house flours and crafting unusual dessert treats, there’s still a market for time-honored recipes. Many South Bay residents continue to buy the classics — layer cakes, cookies and the like — from longtime establishments such as Dick’s Bakery and Aki’s in San Jose and Prolific Oven, with four locations, while newer, multi-site cupcake and cake shops that beef up retro items, making them larger and fancier, appeal to both traditionalists and foodies. The best such chains with local outposts are Kara’s and Sprinkles for cupcakes and SusieCakes, selling luscious versions of pies, cakes, bars and brownies like grandma wished she used to make.
Meanwhile, the demand for baked goods that were once esoteric to middle America keeps chugging forward. Macarons — those colorful, meringue-based French confections featuring rich fillings — have become so popular that aficionados hunt for the best iterations around. Years ago, most people couldn’t even pronounce kouign amann (for the record, it’s “queen-ah-mahn”), a croissant-like pastry suffused with caramel, but now this delicacy pops up frequently in upscale local bakeries.
Not surprisingly, French-type patisseries fused with modern sensibilities have been replacing the old-school bakeries of yore. Operations like Sugar Butter Flour, launched 11 years ago by former Manresa pastry chef Irit Ishai, Voyageur du Temps, opened last year by an ambitious Japanese-American, longtime local fave Bijan Bakery, founded by an Iranian-American, and Asian-inspired Satura Cakes all present picture-perfect pastries that are almost too pretty to eat but that have flavors to match their lovely visuals.
Culinary-school training is much in evidence at these popular spots, but it’s clearly not a requirement for local success when one considers Icing on the Cake in Los Gatos and Studio Cake in Menlo Park. A much-lauded patisserie that has been fulfilling dessert cravings for a few decades, the Los Gatos shop was started by Lynn Magnoli, who loved to bake but had no pastry education or experience before diving in. Driven by the goal of making everything taste incredible, her shop has expanded over the years and has become the source of addictions for virtually anyone biting into one of her treats.
Up in Menlo Park, Bethann Goldberg went from rocket science to baking. She earned engineering degrees from Stanford, then worked at NASA and in high tech but she decided in 2000 she wanted to chuck it all and make specialty cakes. She had no training besides being a home baker but after founding Studio Cake, she taught herself how to create truly miraculous wedding and party cakes, along the way becoming a three-time Food Network medal winner.
Ironically, as the consumption of high-end carbs has been booming, so has the gluten-free movement that eschews the use of wheat. No worries. Gluten-free baked goods are increasingly available at farmers markets and elsewhere and operations like Icing on the Cake and Studio Cake have a wide repertoire of wheat-free desserts.
Making gluten-free pastries isn’t as challenging, taste wise, as producing bread with the pleasing properties consumers are used to in regular bread. A newly minted bakery in San Mateo called Ducks & Dragons has perfected a recipe and special techniques that result in delicious gluten-free baguettes and Montreal-style bagels with a fine crumb and moist texture. Currently available at some Peninsula farmers markets and through Farmigo, these products overcome the usual yuck factor in gluten-free bread.
With so much activity among local bakers, carb nirvana is within reach in the South Bay. Here’s our guide detailing some of the area’s enticing starch purveyors, where miraculous bread, stunning pastries and eye-popping special-occasion cakes show off the artistry and passion of our baking stars. As Ruzicka explains it, “It’s so easy to go to work even on the hardest day when you love what you do.”
Just a few exquisite bread and pastry offerings are available at the small retail store and the farmers markets that still sell this bakery’s fine products. The hand-crafted breads burst with flavor, highlighted by an amazingly seedy pumpernickel that’s a personal favorite of the head baker, along with addictive pastries like chocolate brioche, monkey bread laced with cinnamon and superb little tea cakes punctuated with a squirt of chocolate ganache. Or inhale a flaky kale scone, savory puff-pastry tart with onion and cheese, a perfect croissant or caramelized kouign amann. None of the pastries — which come in individual portions — are overly sweet, thus don’t distract from sublime ingredients and complex flavors. No cupcakes, birthday cakes or standard items here, just sophisticated baked goods that show off careful techniques.
276 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; (408) 402-5372; http://www.manresabread.com
Looking like a minimalist art gallery, this new bakery offers more than just pastries, selling high-end levains, epis and flavored breads that include some phenomenal rolls stuffed with nuts, fruit and chocolate. The Belgian head baker was snatched from famous chef Joël Robuchon’s eponymous restaurant and turns out sophisticated baked goods as well as handmade chocolates. The many-flavored macarons are popular, as are some remarkable tarts like caramel with sea salt and an out-of-this-world vanilla iteration. Given the perfect looks and nose-bleed prices of the pastries here, patrons often compare Alexander’s to Tiffany’s or Cartier but nobody slams the great taste. Need to bring something to a party to wow a host? This is the place. It’s also a cafe that serves breakfast and sandwich items.
209 Castro St., Mountain View; (650) 864-9999; http://www.alexanderspatisserie.com
Sweets & Loaves
Icing on the Cake
The go-to bakery in Los Gatos, Icing on the Cake is known for decadence.
Although the founder had no culinary training, this kitschy-looking pastry shop attracts professional chefs as well as slews of self-indulgent consumers. Pleasure is the driving principle, with amazing-tasting cakes, cupcakes, cookies, pies, all-butter pound cakes, brownies, loaf cakes, breakfast pastries and even doggie treats. Bake-at-home cookie dough is available (much of it probably gobbled up prior to cooking) as well as “icing shots.” Fans drool over the amazing banana cake with cream cheese frosting, the best-around carrot cake, deeply lemony pie, seasonal cheesecakes, irresistible brownie flavors and an enticing cookie selection covering every favorite and more. There’s even biscotti based on a family recipe, rice crispy treats, a slew of shortbreads and a repertoire of cupcakes containing 68 versions. Cookie dough cheesecake cupcake, anyone?
50 W. Main St., Los Gatos; (408) 354-2464; http://www.icingonthecakebakery.com
Fleur de Cocoa
Founded by a Frenchman in 2000, this popular French bakery cafe got new American owners a few years ago, who wisely kept things much the same. The dessert counter could have been lifted from a Parisian patisserie that specializes in chocolate-flavored items, so visitors should expect to be helpless to resist trying something. The impossibly rich hot chocolate alone is worth a trip. The cakes and tarts are divinely decadent, like a combo of chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and caramelized bananas, or extra-dark chocolate mousse cake flavored with Grand Marnier. A big seller is the dark chocolate tart with hazelnuts. This is the place to find obscure but wonderful French treats like galette des rois, bûche de noël and croquembouche. Handmade chocolates are also available, along with some French lunch items.
39 N. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos; (408) 354-3574; http://www.fleurdecocoa.com
Voyageur du Temps
Asia isn’t known as a dessert mecca but there are some gifted Asian-born pastry chefs who produce exquisite French-style desserts tempting diners in the South Bay. Opened last year by a Japanese-American who imported some Paris-trained Japanese pastry chefs, this swanky, modern bakery cafe is located in a former Craftsman-style train station and is mostly French with some Asian twists. Visitors can watch all the breads and pastries being made behind a glass wall and will be impressed with the quality of the macarons, cakes, tarts, breads and other offerings. Munch on winners such as some of the region’s best croissants — including a version made with French butter and one with matcha flavor — outstanding, crunchy coffee palmiers, and house creations like the “cubes,” which are little pastries filled with caramel or dark chocolate and raspberry.
288 1st St., Los Altos; (650) 383-5800; http://www.voyageur.com
Cafe La Tartine
A pretty little bakery cafe serving a limited, simple dinner menu as well as the other two meals, this spot features European-style desserts that are well executed and often cost a tad less than these items elsewhere. On the savory side, there are well-executed quiches, foccacia and meat-filled pastries but it’s the sweets that get patrons smiling. Quite popular is a wedge of dense bread pudding smothered in caramel, nicely tart lemon bars and an orgasmic triple-layer chocolate mousse, just sweet enough, that shows off dark, milk and white chocolate in pristine layers. The bakery has a way with meringue, especially in a nicely done lemon meringue tart, and the cream puffs and éclairs are quite satisfying with perfect custard inside. Fans also like the mini cheesecake topped with a chocolate-covered strawberry.
830 Middlefield Rd., ,Redwood City; (650) 474-2233; http://www.cafelatartine.com
Brides & Birthdays
Founded by a former NASA engineer, this is the place for the ultimate in custom specialty cakes — not just the usual tiers found elsewhere but just about any shape a customer can think of. Imagine a tray of sushi made of cake, a cake-based world globe, a cake baby carriage with wrapped presents, an edible Scrabble game, and, of course, edible animals — donkeys, sharks, even Shrek — to delight kids at birthday parties. Maestros of fondant and “cake carving,” the team here doesn’t just produce eye-popping desserts but they also taste great. They developed a white-chocolate-based fondant recipe that is world away from the usual oily, yucky stuff and the cake flavors now include more than two dozen kinds, like chocolate decadence, almond orchard and lemon blueberry twist. This custom-cake shop is open by appointment but layer cakes and cupcakes can be ordered for those who want something delicious and simple.
104 Gilbert Ave., Menlo Park; (650) 326-1019; http://www.studiocake.com
Another example of the artistry being shown by some French-trained Asian chefs, Satura Cakes was started by a Chinese pastry chef who had been the top guy at Japan’s leading wedding cake producer. The spotless little store offers gorgeous-looking cakes, cookies, pastries, macarons and more with a French-Asian bent but wedding cakes are a specialty. The cloying sweetness that is a frequent flaw in American desserts won’t be found in these treats. Patrons rave about the strawberry shortcake, which is a frosted cake that captures the essence of this dessert, along with lusciously rich kouign amann, a creamy mango coconut mousse and some interestingly flavored cakes like choco-misu. Macaron fanatics flock in here for tasty iterations like salted caramel and passionfruit/mango.
200 Main St., Los Altos; (650) 948-3300; http://www.saturacakes.com
Sugar Butter Flour
The founder earned raves for the imaginative desserts she made as pastry chef for David Kinch’s Manresa as well as his previous restaurant. After the entrepreneurial bug bit, she launched the first location of this now two-site, high-end patisserie, eventually turning the operation over to like-minded owners Mojgan and Kevin Zahedi, who also specialize in flawless European-style desserts including cakes, cupcake, pastries, cookies, individual desserts and chocolates. Gorgeous wedding and specialty cakes are a highlight but Sugar Butter Flour is a first-class patisserie worth visiting for any number of sweets — which aren’t overly sweet here. Patrons rave over the macarons, memorable carrot cake, other cake flavors and killer cheesecake. Don’t pass up single-sized desserts like wondrous flourless raspberry cake wrapped in chocolate or key lime mousse cake. Informative cake decorating classes are now offered for those hoping to become passable home pastry chefs.
669 S. Bernardo Ave., Sunnyvale; (408)732-8597 *** 1875 S. Bascon Ave. (The Pruneyard), Campbell; (408) 371-5485 *** http://www.sugarbutterflour.com
Around since 1986, this family operation offers cakes, cookies, pastries and light meals in two locations, focused on French desserts that sometimes have a Persian bent. Wedding and special event cakes are a specialty but the display counters at both shops are bursting with enticing edibles such as fan-favorites raspberry chocolate mousse cup, princess cake and flaky, multi-layer Napoleon cake. The bakery makes sure its cakes are moist and the frosting not too heavily applied. Bijan Bakery also has a way with mousse, offering pastries made from thin layers of chiffon cake filled with mousse in 10 flavor choices including mango, guava, pistachio, wild cherry and hazelnut. Many other temptations are available including chocolate-covered strawberries, tarts, cheesecakes and old-fashioned apple strudel.
170 S. Market St. #110, San Jose; (408) 971-8000*** 41 Saratoga Ave., San Jose; (408) 247-4888*** www. bijanbakery.com