Monday, November 17, 2008

Seattle Bakeries, Part I

November gray has been driving us to visit our favorite bakeries more often for our sugar/fat/caffeine fixes (although the past couple of days have been gorgeous). Listening to the kids weigh the pros of different bakeries ("How about Top Pot this time and Dahlia Bakery next time we get a treat?"), I thought I’d do a few posts on our favorite Seattle bakeries, and their strong points.
Another reason for bakery posts: I can’t bring myself to talk about Thanksgiving foods. As much as I love food (and stuffing. I love stuffing.), and thinking about food, when it comes to Thanksgiving… you could serve roast cardboard with gravy and I’ll still be pretty happy, as long as I’m with the people I love (okay. I would make a tactless snot-face for a second about the cardboard). Also, regardless of my opinions on food, my mom and sisters conspire together to box me out of the kitchen on Thanksgiving, so that I don't wear myself out at a time of year when I am apt to get sick (and yes, it's absurdly sweet of them, even though I admit, I totally bob and weave and try to butt in). They don't serve cardboard anything, but... nagging at them not to wear themselves out has also helped me see that I care a whole lot less about the food than them. So open up the scary canned cranberry sauce, chuck the bird in the oven until it’s more desiccated than King Tut, and relax on food prep anxiety enough to enjoy the company of the people you’re with.

Whoa, sorry. That cornball digression didn’t come with a barf bag or a warning you’d need one. My bad. Back to bakeries.

Madison Park Bakery. 4214 East Madison Street. This is our neighborhood bakery. It is deeply old-fashioned, but you cannot ever, ever go wrong with their doughnuts on a gray winter morning. Or on a fine summer morning, for that matter, when you can carry it down to the nearby beach, sit on a bench and enjoy the view of the lake and mountains while getting a nice sugar high. Their cinnamon sugar and chocolate frosted cake doughnuts are fantastic, as are their chocolate bars (which are better than Top Pot's). They also make maple bars and tiger bars (maple and chocolate frosted), which, for people who like maple frosting (not me, despite being a child of the Midwest), are heavenly. The kids are fond of their thumbprint cookies (pretty good, actually) and sugar cookies, which are usually in cute, seasonal shapes, sparkling with colored sugar. Their pies and cakes (to me) are a little too one-note sweet. However, their plain croissants are surprisingly good, and there is a wide array of stuff with nuts that we’ve never tried. All in all, there is a stout, old-fashioned satisfaction to the treats from this bakery, which we mostly use for the doughnuts and the after-school treats.
And tacked on after the fact: the owners and staff at the bakery are really welcoming and nice, without ever seeming falsely so. I debated mentioning it before, because... it doesn't have a great deal to do with the quality of the baked goods. When Curly was small, my dad took her there, and was going to buy her a frosted cookie as big as the kid's head. The woman behind the counter, I am told, quietly observed that I usually bought Curly a plain croissant. My dad said he was the grandfather, and Curly came home triumphantly smeared with frosting. There's a feeling that you just landed in Mayberry - in a good way - when you walk into this bakery.
Volunteer Park Café and Marketplace. 1501 17th Ave E. This was an instant hit favorite with, it seems, half of Seattle. The neighborhood needed a café, no doubt, and I like this one fine, but am somehow… not wild about it. It could be because they serve a cookie with macadamia nuts in it (and at least one menu item with my abandoned love, Nutella), which gets them a black mark in my account book of petty and never-forgotten grudges. However, they make an outstanding chocolate bundt cake, deep, warm umber, moist without being greasily so, light enough to not feel like a brick in the belly after eating, and dense with dark chocolate flavor.
North Hill Bakery. 518 15th Ave E. I really, really like this bakery. Espresso and hot chocolate can be gotten here, but there’s a Café Ladro almost across the street, so… I don’t really bother with their meh espresso drinks. The baked goods are deceptively simple- it’s like a store full of the Platonic ideals of home-baked goods. Their grandma’s chocolate cake is what you wish your grandma had made. The flavors hit the old-fashioned comfort receptors in the mouth, but tasting it again, you’ll realize the flavor balance has been adjusted for current tastes. The cookies are simple and well-executed (and they usually have a cute, seasonal cookie, which is appealing for grade-schoolers and those of us with grade- schooler mentalities). Simple pleasures— like eating something that makes you feel like your mom just took something fragrantly delicious out of the oven and gave you a kiss as she set it before you— should never be underestimated, and this bakery provides those kinds of pleasures.

Cupcake Royale. (locations in West Seattle, Madrona and Ballard) Excellent espresso drinks (not as good as Vivace, true, but Vivace doesn’t have fresh cupcakes). Quiet, lovely cupcakes with just the right amount of frosting. I understand the feelings of people who hate the cupcake trend. It’s unquestionably a little precious. It’s pretty dumb to buy something so easy to make. And yet (tell the truth), on a gray November day, doesn’t sitting in a café with a fantastic cup of coffee and a cupcake sound pretty alluring? Ex-actly. My personal favorite is probably the vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. I’m not crazy about their chocolate cake. But I still have it sometimes, and even though it’s not my personal ideal of chocolate cake, it’s still pretty tasty. Curly has one of their gigantic crowned pink cupcake stickers on her ice hockey helmet.

Sweet & Savory. 1418 31st Ave S. Tiny, charming, a bit quirky— the neighborhood café of imagination that very rarely comes into actual existence. It may also be the smallest bakery in town, and the street it is on is classic Seattle, tracing the knife edge of a ridge. As you drive, glimpses of the enormous, regal landscape flash through the power lines, houses and trees: the Olympics, the Cascades, the lake, the sound. Nearby, in classic Seattle fashion, several streets end at hillsides so steep that they become... staircases. With street names. The selection inside varies, and once they’re out of something, that’s it. Their hot chocolate is much-vaunted (my kids are always happy to have it). I’ve never tried anything of theirs with nuts (which they use, but not macadamias, so... no grudge-driven black mark), but everything I’ve had there has been really, really good. Quiches, cookies, pain au chocolat. And a small but interesting selection of books for sale on Parisian food spots and a couple of cookbooks.

And that’s it for today. Next 5 up: Trophy Cupcakes, Bakery Nouveau, Columbia City Bakery, Dahlia Bakery and Café Besalu.


franki durbin said...

Oh how sweet! I love the little row of cupcakes in the window... so adorable. Isn't it funny how the past few years have been "the moment of the cupcake" in baking? So funny to see such a 'common' food elevated to rockstar status!

matt wright said...

Madison park bakery is great I have to say - that is pretty much our neighborhood as well.

There is a stand at the university farmers market that does just amazing pastries too.. I forget the name though.

Meg said...

Franki- it has been funny watching the cupcake trend snowball. I admit, I've been torn about it, because it seems like kind of a crazy thing to be able to build a business on, but... I love a sweet treat now and then.

Matt- it is a really nice neighborhood bakery, isn't it? We don't go to the park as often as we did when the kids were smaller, but they used to love being able to get a cookie now and then after a morning at the park.

cook eat FRET said...

i live 2000 miles away and i still read the damn bakery posts.

we have like one bakery in nashville that is worthy... ok maybe 2...

Meg said...

Claudia- we're lucky in our bakeries, that's for sure. I think the deep gray of the winters probably fosters an espresso/bakery friendliness.