Los Angeles, City of Donuts

I typically kickoff my Saturdays by doing the opposite of jogging, which consists of me driving to donut shops while I pass by people running on the sidewalk. After months of strict adherence to this routine, I feel expertly qualified to assess the state of donuts in Los Angeles. In no other city have I seen such an abundance of non-chain donut shops per square mile. I had no desire to try them all, but I did make it my goal to try the most critically acclaimed and to decide for myself which warranted repeat visits and which were inexplicably overhyped.

IMG_8323An assortment of ICDC donuts that all taste…the same?!

To say I was very excited to try a place dedicated exclusively to donuts and ice cream would be an understatement. I expected a lot from ICDC, but was disappointed. The donuts all looked beautiful and came in an interesting array of flavors, but they all tasted like fried pizza dough (with slightly different fillings and toppings). They didn’t seem to have a real cake donut, only the risen kind, and the closest I could get was of the gluten free variety, which was grainy and left a strange aftertaste.

IMG_8985IMG_9001Randy’s Donuts, plain and simple

I can only assume that Randy’s Donuts is famous because of its larger-than-life donut sign after tasting their product. While fresh, the plain glazed was dense, doughy, and chewy. The vanilla cake donut with vanilla icing did not taste as fresh and had very thick, hard icing, and the chocolate old-fashioned donut with chocolate icing tasted nearly devoid of chocolate with perhaps a hint of cocoa powder. The apple fritter was the best of the bunch – cinammony, appley, crunchy, and sweet in all the right ways. If this apple fritter had been fresh enough to be slightly warm, it likely would have joined the ranks of my elite donut list.

IMG_9125IMG_9123A cake donut so good from Cofax that it bears repeating now

The winner for best vanilla cake donut (even after repeat visits) is Cofax Coffee’s birthday cake donut. It looks like a simple vanilla cake donut with vanilla icing and rainbow sprinkles, but it is light and delicate and has a fine crumb. It tastes like a superb vanilla cupcake, but deep-fried.

IMG_8802IMG_8790Sidecar’s pumpkin fool donut, two angles

My favorite risen donut goes to the November 2015 seasonal offering at Sidecar Donuts in Santa Monica – the pumpkin fool. This donut was fresh, had pumpkin mousse filling, was topped with real homemade whipped cream, and my favorite, a sprinkling of chewy ginger molasses cookie chunks. My only qualm is that there were not enough of these cookie chunks! If you’re going to go through the trouble of making the cookies and using them, you should really show them off!

I would also highly recommend visiting Blue Star Donuts on Abbott Kinney Blvd, even though the Portland, Oregon location inexplicably tastes better (see last years blog post about my adventures in the Pacific Northwest). Their glazed buttermilk donut is my favorite. And of course, when fresh, an apple fritter from Bob’s Coffee and Doughnuts at the Farmer’s Market never disappoints.

Clear Flour Bread

Before my first visit to Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, Massachusetts, I did not do my research.  I had heard great things about the bakery while searching online for places to try in Boston, and that was enough to convince me.  When I arrived that morning, I just chose what I thought looked the most appealing, and since I was on a twice-baked almond brioche kick at the time, that happened to be their Bostock.  I was expecting something, buttery, almondy, and custardy, but theirs had another flavor to it – something floral perhaps – that I was not a fan of.

Two years later, I started looking for places to try around Boston that I hadn’t already been to, and again, I came across rave reviews of Clear Flour Bread.  One Yelper even called it “the best bakery in the United States.”  After carefully reading all of the reviews of the bakery that I could find, I decided that I must return a second time to sample more of their menu.  I decided that I would get their morning bun with walnuts, brioche with chocolate and pastry cream, chocolate chunk cookie, and chocolate bouchon.

I arrived about ten minutes before they opened on a Sunday, and the 30-person line that wrapped around the corner confirmed the high caliber and authenticity that I had read so much about.  Upon entering the bakery, which can only fit about eight customers at a time, I was overwhelmed by the aromas of freshly baked bread and warm chocolate.  Luckily, they didn’t run out of any of the items that I had my heart set on, so I was able to try all four.  They have a huge assortment of items that I’d love to try though, so I plan to make another visit soon to taste their canelé and financier.

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The morning bun was made from buttery croissant dough, which was a nice departure from the brioche-based ones that I’m used to, and the walnuts and brown-sugary goo didn’t overpower the flakey pastry.

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The dark chocolate in my brioche was still slightly melted and the pastry cream added a light sweetness to the treat.

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The chocolate chip cookie was enormous, crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside.  This was not just your average cookie, however, and the cookie dough and chocolate were actually layered in the way that pastry dough and butter are to create puff pastry.  This dough-chocolate striation allowed for greater complexity of flavor and notes from both components in each bite.

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The bouchon tasted like a very buttery brownie with dark chocolate chunks throughout, and the chocolate flavor was probably the most pure and intense that I’ve ever experienced in a chocolate cakelike dessert.

I should never have waited so long to give Clear Flour a second chance!  They truly are masters of their craft.

Check them out at http://www.clearflourbread.com

South End Buttery

Originally published 03/01/2014

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You may stumble upon South End Buttery Bakery and Café as you wander through streets lined with idyllic brownstone townhouses in the South End neighborhood of Boston.  I’ve visited it about once per year over the past four years – once for dinner and three times for their weekend brunch.  It’s always bustling with people.

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Buttery Bakery Basket brimming with banana walnut bread, butterscotch scones, and blueberry muffins
Today was a brunch day.  I started with the Buttery Bakery Basket, since I can’t resist a triple alliteration.  It came with pieces of banana walnut bread, blueberry muffin, and butterscotch scone, as well as butter and raspberry jam to spread.  The muffin was full of plump blueberries, the banana bread had whole, crunchy walnuts on top, and the scone contained sporadic* pockets of butterscotch (I wish they had been more frequent) that added staccatos of brown-sugary flavor and richness to an otherwise mild dough.  The butterscotch scone was definitely the most surprising of the three items, and it took several bites to identify it.  I’m a huge fan of butterscotch and recently experimented with making the sauce from scratch, so I would definitely love to see this flavor offered at bakeries more often (or ever)!

*This adjective is brought to you by the movie, Clueless (1995).  As if I would consult another source to expand my vocabulary.
Cher: Sporadically.  It means once in a while.  Try to use it in a sentence.
Josh: [later] Be seeing you.
Tai: Yeah, I hope not sporadically.

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Strawberries and Cream Brioche French Toast

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Chocolate Chip Banana Pancakes (they should really title it, “Pancakes Topped with Bananas and Chocolate Chips” though)

I tasted two of the brunch “entrées” (read: socially sanctioned desserts as a meal), and both were generously portioned and well-executed.  The brioche french toast was topped with strawberries, strawberry-flavored whipped cream, sliced almonds, and powdered sugar, and the pancakes were topped with sliced bananas, chocolate chips, whipped cream, and powdered sugar.  Both were served with a side of real maple syrup to pour as desired.  I was very happy to see that they used real, homemade whipped cream, since many establishments opt for variations of oil-based whipped topping and spray whipped cream.  South End Buttery took it to another level by actually flavoring its whipped cream with strawberries to accompany one of its dishes.  I will say that incorporating the bananas and chocolate chips into the pancake batter would have really kicked this second dish up a notch.  The plain pancakes were fluffy and perfectly acceptable, but cooking the pancakes on the griddle with the bananas and chocolate chips already inside would have given them a stronger banana flavor and assured that all of the chocolate chips began to melt.

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Shelves once stocked with pastry!  (Chocolate Salted Caramel Cupcakes – 2nd row, center)

After I finished my late brunch, I headed up to the bakery area to get a treat to go.  They were sold out of most items by this point, so I had no trouble selecting the salted caramel cupcake.  The chocolate cake was moist and flavorful and the chocolate buttercream was good as well, but the best part by far was the homemade caramel sauce and the sprinkle of sea salt to complete the contrast in flavors.  It would be a great idea to fill the cupcake with salted caramel sauce in addition to the caramel well within the icing swirl, because the caramel is just too good not to be included in every bite.

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Each time I dine at South End Buttery, I notice little changes.  A new location pops up in the South End that confuses me as I walk to the original (Nota bene: it’s conveniently close by if the Shawmut location runs out of your Pastry of Choice).  The cream on the french toast shows up tinted pink and flavored with strawberries even though it was plain the last time I was there.  The cupcakes that were topped with heaps of piped Swiss Meringue Buttercream the last time I checked seem smaller and simpler.  Most of these changes are welcome (Expansion – yay!  Adventurous uses of whipped cream – double yay!), but it is always a disappointment when you return to an old favorite only to find that the elements that made it so special and memorable have been replaced.  For now, South End Buttery has not veered too far from the food and baked goods that keep me coming back.  I’m curious what differences I’ll notice during my next annual visit though!  I suppose that gradual evolution is a natural (and desired) part of a restaurant’s life cycle – even if it’s sometimes to my dismay!
South End Buttery: http://www.southendbuttery.com