Friday, November 28, 2008

Los Angeles: Vanilla Bake Shop

Chocolate topped Vanilla cupcake baby with flower.

I always find myself in this predicament: walk into a shop and wish that I had done this.

After cruising around Abbott-Kinney and exploring the bakeries there, Mom, Polly and myself headed onward to Santa Monica to visit Vanilla. Cupcakes are a side project at Spro and Mom does 80% of the baking for the shop. Our adventure today was part reconnaissance, part education and part nutrition.

I think it's important to see how other people do things and taste their offerings. It educates both the mind and the palate and, hopefully, gives one insight into how things might be done better. It's a major reason why I spend so much time traveling and write so many words on merely visiting places and eating.

Cakes and desserts

There's only one way to describe Vanilla: cute. It's such a cute little shop and bakery on Wilshire. I loved the decor and the little VBS baby jumpers that were for sale. The decor and the presentation is so well thought out. Where Chantilly's presentation was for the Japanese crowd, Vanilla's is decidedly for rich, white people - er, people from Santa Monica. It's the kind of place that garners media attention. The kind of place celebrities are spotted and chased after. And while typically, that would be a bad sign, Vanilla's just too cute not to visit.

In the case, they've got baby cupcakes and regular cupcakes, and at $3.25 per cupcake (3 babies for $5), they're not cheap. They're downright nouveau riche.

Little desserts to tempt you.

At The Spro, we sell our handmade cupcakes for $2 each - and I still have customers who complain that it's "too much." Never mind that we use the best quality ingredients we possibly can source and it costs us a lot more than Tastykake to make - sometimes I'd like to choke these people who protest too much.

But that's neither here nor there. Although, I always wonder just how many people come into places like Vanilla to complain about their prices...

To be honest, the 2000s hype over the cupcake has me a bit baffled. They're not impossible to make, and so many of them are kinda meh. I can't tell you how many have actually disappointed me - and these were from some of the most famous of cupcake bakeries. Dry, crumbly - one was even undercooked. While I'm not as weary of cupcake bakeries as I am of coffeeshops, the alert meter is on the rise.

A Box of Babies.

Vanilla's cupcakes are like the shop: cute! Very cute. I like the molds they're using to bake them in. They stand high and vertical instead of the wide and flared like typical cupcake molds. Most of the icing is merely piped on the cupcakes out of a bag. And while it is pretty and attractive-looking, I find it disappointing. It takes real time and skill to apply icing on individual cupcakes with a spatula and create designs and patterns. Simply piping on icing and adding a topping is cute and attractive but it doesn't take skill or craftsmanship.

Inside the display are full sized cakes. They are gorgeous. They are expensive ($55 for a 9" red velvet), but they are quite pretty. Vanilla also offers parfait kind of desserts. Basically big mason jars (with flip top lid) filled with parfait. It's attractive, amazing and enticing all at once. I think we bought one but I don't think we ever ate it. It must have gotten pushed to the back of the fridge. Damn.

Little Gingerbread Man about to die.

We ended up taking an assorted box of cupcake babies with us. Happily, they were good. Moist cake and tasty. I think I ate three. I think I need more....

Vanilla Bake Shop
512 Wilshire Boulevard
Santa Monica, CA 90401

Los Angeles: Caffe Luxe

A very nice macchiato on the bar at Caffe Luxe.

Next up on our West Side Bakery and Coffeeshop Tour was Caffe Luxe. Over the past year, Luxe has been quietly making a name for itself within the specialty coffee community. The space itself is quite nice. Lots of white. Lots of black granite countertops. Low granite countertops, I should add. And the staff is quite friendly.

When it comes to Third Wave coffeeshops, Luxe has got all the factors down. Three group Synesso Cyncra, grinders and nice baristas making nice drinks. At a loss for what I should order and on the verge of heart palpitations due to over-caffeination, I went for a simple macchiato.

The Synesso Cyncra - the Third Wave espresso machine poster child.

We were only at Luxe briefly but the macchiato was good. The milk was a little bubbly but the espresso had a rich dark chocolate flavor with slight bitter notes. Wish we could have stayed longer but we had a nice time checking out their place.

Caffe Luxe
925 Montana Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90403

Los Angeles: Urth Caffe

Number 84 Gets A Bird.

For many years I've been hearing about Urth Caffe in Santa Monica from coffee friends all over. "Go and visit Urth," they would say. But I never did. Just never did. Until now.

As we were making our way down main street, there it was. And it is huge. I had been expecting some sort of small, funky little coffee joint, not some huge, towering, atrium-esque kind of coffee palace. And it was jam packed.

In the world of specialty coffee, it's still unusual to find places that do the volume that Urth does. The line was easily fifteen deep - and it's the middle of the afternoon. Of course, Urth has been here for years, it's well established and it's a fashionable looking and fashionable place to be seen. Celebrities come and go. Bimmer owners come and go. Typical L.A. dickheads come and go.

In fact, one of those typical L.A. dickheads was there while we were there. Whatever slight the staff may have caused ended up with him shouting at the top of his lungs for a "manager." Evidently, a cake he ordered was missing and he wasn't getting satisfaction.

While I can sympathize with the Dickhead, looking around I can't help wonder why anyone would ever special order anything in a place that's as busy as Urth. It's absolutely crazy in there. The pace looks furious. Oh no, if I needed to special order a cake, I'd go somewhere where it was a little bit saner. Vanilla Bake Shop maybe?

Not feeling very hungry and not really knowing what to order, I went for something "safe": a cappuccino. For here.

At Urth, you fall in line, choose a pastry (if you desire) and tell the staff your order. It's busy enough that there's a guy in the line writing down your order so the cashiers can process it faster. Once paid, you're given a number and proceed to find an open table. Since we're just getting a drink and there's an Italian style bar by the espresso machines, I go there.

Obviously, it's not chic to stand at the bar and drink your coffee here at Urth (and possibly L.A.). The barista tells me that it's okay to find a seat and they'll bring the drink to me. I tell him that I'd prefer to stand (and gawk).

Throughout the restaurant business, Hispanics have been infiltrating the kitchens. Eat just about any cuisine at restaurants across America and chances are that it's being prepared by someone who was born speaking Espanol. Even in suburban Columbia, Maryland there's a kitchen full of La Raza preparing Vietnamese Pho that you'd swear came from some Vietnamese grandmother who lived through the French Occupation and Viet-Cong.

Los Hombres making Gringo Baristas look wimpy.

I've been wondering when we'd start to see Hispanics in the ranks of specialty coffee baristas and at Urth I found them.

Here were two Mexican guys (I'm presuming considering the accent of their Spanish) cranking out really nice espresso drinks on par with those Third Wave Baristas you read so much about in Barista Magazine. The difference with these two were that they were multilingual, dressed nicely, had no tats, didn't put a lot of "flare" in their technique, and didn't base their attitude and service on the amount you tipped or whether they thought you were a democrat or republican. in other words, these guys were professionals, and they were drilling out the drinks like nobody's business.

To be honest, Urth looked like a stylish indie coffeeshop. A coffeeshop built on style not substance. I wasn't expecting noteworthy coffee. I was expecting pretty much what you'd find at coffeeshops all across America. I was expecting dreck, or some form of dreck.

Instead, I was served a tasty cappuccino with latte art that even I couldn't produce. The milk was textured perfectly. The shots looked brilliant and they came together in that proper combination that baristas worldwide seek to create with the perfect milk foam Yin to the espresso crema's Yang.

As he was pouring the milk, the design looked a bit sloshy. Oh well, I thought, everyone messes up their latte art pour every once in a while. What I didn't realize then was that the pour wasn't a mistake, it was by design. And that Pinche Loco Hombre topped my cappuccino off with a fucking bird! Gracias, mi amor.

A bird. damn bird. I've seen birds on the Internet but never in real life. Birds were something that a guy in Japan screws with and puts up a video on YouTube. It's something that these guys do for fun. For show. Something that's done in a lab or afterhours as a party prank or way to show your balls.

Oh, but these guys weren't pouring birds afterhours. No. They were pouring birds ON THE LINE in the middle of service while drilling out hundreds of drinks.

La Raza has finally infiltrated our ranks.

I must recruit them for The Spro.

Urth Caffe
2327 Main St
Santa Monica, CA 90405

Los Angeles: 26 Beach

Chicken Curry Pasta - Thai Red Curry simmered with chicken breast, peas and linguini.

It shouldn't surprise me, but it does. Every time I visit Los Angeles I'm continually amazed by the breadth of food this metropolis has to offer. Maybe I'm "too mainstream" but when I think of "L.A." the "hip" places come to mind. Places like Providence, Mozza and Spago. Luckily, Al, Polly and my friends live here so I get to experience an L.A. removed from the hype.

With Mom in tow, we're cruising around Venice Beach visiting more pastry shops, like Jin Patisserie, and seeing just what else L.A. has to offer. It's about 11:30am, which means it's time to each lunch.

Me? I would have gone to places that I know about. Places like Father's Office in Santa Monica or Lilly's on Abbott-Kinney. I never would have thought about the place Polly took us: 26 Beach in Marina Del Rey.

Located on Washington Boulevard, getting into 26 Beach's parking lot can be a bit tricky. As you're approaching the restaurant (by car, with the restaurant to your right), the entrance to the back lot is immediately to the right of the restaurant - which means for us, it's NOW. A hard and quick turn to the right and you squeeze your car down a very narrow lane to a small parking lot in the back. Don't come in too fast because some fool might try to come out the way they came in (wrong), or some L.A. soccer mom is sitting in the middle of lane just because, and you don't want to hit any of the kitchen help as they schlep bags back and forth from the dumpster.

Squeeze into a space and you're good to go. Walk around to the front entrance and all is good.

Polly's Ginger Salmon Salad - Fresh Sauteed Salmon with asparagus, mushrooms in a soy dressing on a bed of greens and cilantro.

The restaurant is divided into two main sections, the sort-of outside part and the inside. The sort-of outside part features ceiling height walls with overhead coverage but is otherwise open-air. The set up and decor is eclectic and funky. To the right is the inside part of the restaurant. It's much more chic looking with supple fabrics, wood furniture, soft lighting and a small bar. Surprisingly, Mom chose to sit in the pseudo outside part of the restaurant.

With a name like 26 Beach, you'd think the name has something to do with the restaurant. Maybe it's on the beach? No. Maybe the address is 26? Nope. I checked their website, but there's nothing there either, but it does state that they're celebrating their 26th year in business. Maybe in 2009 the restaurant will be called "27 Beach."

Once seated, service starts out a bit on the rocky side. Where's our waitress? Maybe a drink order? Who knows what's going on but we sit for at least ten minutes before our waitress comes to greet us and take a drink order. Normally, I'd be a bit perturbed but I'm technically on vacation and I supposedly work in foodservice - I really don't want to get worked up unless something really egregious happens. Plus, I'm with my Mom and I just don't want to make an issue of it. But certainly ten minutes is beyond reasonable.

Finally, our waitress comes and she's nice. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and guess that perhaps they didn't assign her to our table but she did greet and take the order of the two ladies seated next to and after us before getting to us.

Mom and PB&J Burger - Creamy Skippy peanut butter & Knott's Strawberry Jam.

The menu, like the setting, is eclectic. On the menu are eggs, burgers, salads, Asian noodles and chilaquiles. God knows I would never begrudge a restaurant for offering chilaquiles but to my East Coast eyes, it's kinda odd. But the word is that the food is good so I'm game.

As we look over the menu, Mom surprises me asking about the chilaquiles. I know I have to have them but the only small order of chilaquiles they offer is the sinister sounding "Chilaquiles Diablo" where the menu states: "...if you are afraid of heat, stay away!"

My Mom isn't one to tolerate much in the way of spicy foods. Even black pepper can be too powerful for her. With such a message about the chilaquiles, I'm not worried about her handling it as much as I'm worried about whether or not I can handle it. I decide to go for it anyway and if it's too much, we can order the other chilaquiles that's not as hot.

When it comes, I tentatively give it a taste. It's good. The Diablo Salsa is light and delicious, but there's no heat. I'm sitting there waiting for the late onslaught of heat, pain and endorphins but it never arrives.

Years ago, during one of our paintball trips to win the Canadian National Stockgun Championship, we ate at a Mexican restaurant where we mindlessly ordered the Camarones Diablo. The heat was so intense and searing that I couldn't finish one shrimp. The pain was excruciating and the shame lives with me until today.

I was expecting that level of fire and pain from the chilaquiles but it just wasn't there. I asked Polly to try it. Nothing. Even my Mom, who cringes at the sight of Tabasco from a distance tasted it. Nothing. In fact, she really liked it. It wasn't just me. If my Mom could chow it down, there was no heat in this Diablo Salsa.

We asked our waitress if this indeed was the right order. She assured us it was. Stumped, I reflected back to a dinner we had in the summer at Thai Landing in Baltimore. We ordered some dishes "Thai Hot" just to prove we could but the owner stated up front that he doubted they could deliver because the chiles they had in stock just didn't have the heat. Their kitchen loaded up our dishes with the chiles but in the end, the heat never rose to uncomfortable levels. Tabasco would have been hotter that day.

And I suspect that's what happened with the Diablo Salsa on that day. Devoid of the fatal heat, the flavor was delicious. Mom loved it. It surprised me because I had made chilaquiles on a number of occasions and she never liked it before. Maybe it was too hot. Whatever the case, these chilaquiles were truly delicious with the right amount of crisp offset by the permeation of the salsa.

Moving onto our main courses, Polly had campaigned hard for me to try the Chicken Curry Pasta and I'm glad she did because it was damn good. And I do mean damn good. Rich, nutty tasting red curry on top of pasta with chicken - who would've thought? Oh, it was good. So good. It's thick. It's rich. Oh, heavenly. But there's never enough curry sauce. I had to ask for more. Some to finish the dish and the rest to drizzle over my body and absorb the tasty goodness through as many senses as possible.

Chilaquiles Diablo - tortilla chips pan sauteed in Diablo Salsa with queso seco, mozzarella, red onion, cilantro, guacamole and sour cream.

Polly went for the Ginger Salmon Salad, of which I had a bite (or two). It was good but I've been a bit fatigued with salmon over the past year so I find it hard to get enthusiastic about it.

Mom, swayed by my "suggestion", went with the Peanut Butter and Jelly Burger. It sounds odd. It sounds weird. It even sounds nasty but it's quite unbelievable. Peanut butter, strawberry jelly and a hamburger patty. You need to try it for yourself. Words fail. Sweet? Yes. Savory? Yes. Tasty? Oh yeah, baby.

The rest of our time at 26 Beach went by nicely. Our waitress took care of things and there were no more glitches in service. Sometimes you'd wonder just where she was - especially when I needed a side of the curry sauce, but it wasn't too long before she'd reappear.

Back out onto the parking lot, we were on our way to check out the bakeries of Abbott-Kinney and beyond.

26 Beach Restaurant
3100 Washington Boulevard
Venice, CA