Sunday, June 9, 2013

Palatable Pastries

My Mom has a sweet tooth, and she definitely passed it on to me. That's OK, because pastries are a thinking man's dessert (Yes, I just made that up.) It doesn't take a genius to appreciate a truly amazing Napoleon, or a bavarian cream-filled chocolate eclair; so who better than yours truly to offer the following opinions...

7-Eleven: The "price is right" at just $1.19 for 7-11's Fresh to Go Brownie. Mine had a Best By date of 6/23/13 (tomorrow) but managed to live up to its fresh moniker. Tipping the scales at 3.7 oz., it's well-sized with a taste of chocolate fudge. That said, it's sold at a 24-hour convenience store; so keep your expectations in check.


7-Eleven's Fresh to Go Brownie

Aroma Espresso Bar: Aroma gets an A for presentation, but their Halva Pastry is a bit small to be taken too seriously. Just $2.70, this combination of sesame, wheat flour and whipped cream manages to stay crunchy and delicate at the same time. I like its dusting of sugar and well-textured pastry; but I'll stick to Aroma's strudels and tarts in the future.

Grade: C

Aroma's Halva Pastry (right)

Bayou Bakery
: Talk about buzz: Bayou could be No. Virginia's most-hyped bakery... but I left relatively unimpressed. Pickings were slim; so I settled on a fairly priced ($2.55, including tax) Seasonal Crumb Cake. Unfortunately, it was dry as a bone and lacking in flavor. Customer service was stellar; and Bayou has a nice enough atmosphere, but not enough to overlook a tasteless dessert. Next time, I'll come early.

Grade: D

Seasonal Crumb Cake at Bayou Bakery

The CakeRoom: Formerly known as Sugar Daddy's Bakery, not much has changed inside: Cupcakes are still mini, but thankfully the cake slices are plenty big. At $5 per slice, it ain't cheap; but the "Rolls Royce of chocolate cakes" is definitely warm and gooey, with a sinfully rich icing. Super friendly service too.

Grade: B

Chocolate Fudge Cake

Corner Bakery Cafe: Made a rush decision, and chose the Sweet and Tangy Lemon Bar ($2.69.) Instant regret? Not exactly, but I'll be sure to consider all my options (i.e. Cinnamon Creme Cake) next time. Very tart, with lots of lemon and an appropriate dusting of powdered sugar. Not enough crust for my liking (micro thin layer at the bottom) and taste = far from inspiring. In a word... average.

Grade: C

Sweet and Tangy Lemon Bar

Danielle's Desserts: You can't beat the surroundings at this Tysons Galleria "sweet haven," and it doesn't hurt to have Oprah's stamp of approval either (their Caramel Bundt Cake made Me? I was literally seconds away from leaving empty-handed. I stood for more than three minutes, while a half-dozen employees (and the owner herself) busied themselves with cake prep, sorting, etc. Note to anyone in retail: Help the customer first. It happened again (to someone else) while I chomped down on a surprisingly ordinary Southern Caramel Cake. $5.75 per slice ($64 for a whole cake) should produce more than just great caramel icing. Three layers of yellow cake bordered on dry; but I'd lick the icing bowl, if they'd let me.

I'm not cheap by a long shot; but I draw the line at almost six bucks for sublime icing. With shoddy customer service + almost dry cake, Danielle's is lucky to get a grade of C.

Grade: C

Southern Caramel Cake

Giant Food: I've dished out my fair share of praise for Giant Food's underrated bakery; but their Chocolate Eclair leaves a lot to be desired. Available in a pack of 4 for $3.99, you can't beat the price; but I found the crust too doughy, and the bavarian cream filling generic and blah. Just proves that nobody's perfect.

Grade: C-

Giant Food's Chocolate Eclair

Firehook Bakery: There's nothing worse than bad customer service... especially when it's deliberate. I waited in line on a Sunday afternoon to purchase what I thought was a small apple strudel... 'You mean apple tart,' said Firehook's disapproving and smug cashier. You know the type: The kind of guy who thinks he's above being a cashier, yet there he is... behind the cash register. His greeting? A nod of his head upwards (no words.) His closing? Not a peep, as he looked away while almost missing my hand with my change. Jerk. Thankfully, the guy doing most of the work behind the counter, couldn't have been nicer as he delivered my tart before Mr. "Surly Cashier" could finish my exhausting $4.35 transaction. The counter employee also knew how to say "thank you" and "have a nice day." Note to Firehook at Cleveland Park: Swap out the cashier, and give his job to the guy who knows how to deliver good customer service.

As for the tart? My disappointment continued with my mini pie. I say pie, because a tart doesn't look or taste like this. Doughy to a fault, there's barely any taste of apple to speak of. It looks good (even great) but you still have to eat it, don't you? $3.95 + tax for disappointment and bad service? What happened to the Firehook I know and love?

Grade: F (If I call someone a jerk, it can't be good)

Firehook's Apple Tart

Harris Teeter: It's a stretch to include a grocery store in a pastry competition; but DC Outlook is all about giving everyone a fair shot. Unfortunately Harris Teeter doesn't do much with its opportunity. We tried their mini Coconut Cream Pie, which tasted suspiciously like a dessert you'd find in the frozen food aisle of... a grocery store. Affordably priced at $2.99, this pie has three equal parts (though not necessarily equal in taste.) The coconut topping is smooth and creamy with a slight taste of coconut. The crust is way too thin, giving way to its eggy custard middle which dominates the overall taste (to the pie's detriment.) I wouldn't eat another one, if you paid for it. Ouch. P.S. It looks like a bowl of rice.

Grade: D-

Coconut Cream Pie at Harris Teeter

La Madeleine: I love the abundance of choices and quality of La Mad's desserts. Delicious tarts, mouthwatering cheesecakes and Napoleons keep most folks like me from leaving without one last bite. They were out of plain Napoleons, so I opted for the strawberry kind pictured below. Believe it or not, it was free (courtesy of a completed survey from yet another satisfying lunch the week before.) My only complaint? It was a little softer than normal (easier for the fork, but I like mine cold.) Otherwise, de·li·cious  Note the generous amount of almond slices on top.

Grade: B

Strawberry Napoleon at La Madeleine

Le Pain Quotidien
: Not only does the Dark & White Chocolate Mousse Cake look the nicest; It might also be the best tasting pastry in DC. It ain't cheap ($5.95) but you get your money's worth and then some. Perfectly sized, this 450 calorie gem is layered with smooth dark & white chocolate mousse under a crunchy chocolate dome, sitting atop a hazelnut cake base. OMG delicious.

Grade: A-

Dark & White Chocolate Mousse Cake

Marie's Bakery & Cafe: Depending on which entrance you use, you could actually miss one of Maryland's best (and affordable) pastry shops. Tucked away on Halpine Road (just off Rockville Pike) this popular Chinese cafe doesn't look like the type of place you'd find dozens of the most beautiful pastries for dirt-cheap prices. Walk to the back, and prepare to fall in love. It's impossible to choose just one: I narrowed it down to four (left to right, pictured below) Black Forest, Vanilla, Coffee Cream and Chocolate... only $1.60 (including tax) each. They look amazing and are incredibly light and airy. If you're expecting sweet, you may be disappointed; but Marie's cakes are literally to die for. Great teas too.

Grade: B+

Nando's Peri Peri: I've had authentic Pastel de Nata (a Portuguese egg tart pastry) on more than one occasion; yet few compared to what I had at (of all places) Nando's. Tiny to a fault, it takes only three bites to devour; but each bite is pure bliss. From its impossibly delicate crust to its custardy interior, Nando's Naughty Nata might be the best tart in Washington. $2.25 each (I recommend buying more than one.)

Grade: B+

Naughty Nata at Nando's Peri Peri

PAUL: This French Patisserie isn't cheap; but they sell a wide assortment of top-notch baked goods. Their Chocolate Beignet ($3.25) is exquisite with a great texture and a generous, velvety chocolate filling tucked inside. Dunkin' who?

Grade: B

Chocolate Beignet at PAUL

Peet's Coffee & Tea: Exemplary customer service paves the way for Peet's Frosted Gingerbread ($2.50.) It tastes similar to a pumpkin bundt cake I used to make from scratch, substituting a tangier ginger for pumpkin. The cake is just moist enough; but the icing is bland and adds little to the equation, except for a change in texture. Well-sized and tasty. Improve the icing, and I'll bump up the grade accordingly.

Grade: B-

Frosted Gingerbread at Peet's Coffee & Tea

Sweet Diablo: When you claim to sell "the best chocolate cake in the world," it better be darn good. This Dupont Circle cafe, specializing in Portuguese fare makes a nice cake with a delectably delicate crust; but it fails to live up to its lofty (outrageous?) claim. The chocolate (available in traditional and bittersweet) is creamy and light, with a sweet aftertaste that eases the pain of its $4.75 price tag. Still hungry? An 8" cake runs you $28.50 (ouch.) The crust alone is worth a fiver, but the company's false claim caps its grade at B.

Grade: B

Tivoli Gourmet-Deli: Key lime pie has long been a favorite of mine; and Tivoli does it justice with their Tart version, available for $3.82 (tax included.) Tart, thick and creamy, Tivoli's filling literally melts in your mouth. By the time you get to the fresh raspberry, you're either in love... or full: I was somewhere in between. I could do without the whipped cream, which adds little to the mix; and even if it's not the best key lime anything I've ever had, it's still pretty good.

Grade: B-

Key Lime Tart at Tivoli Gourmet-Deli

Wegmans: It's not a colossal failure, but I couldn't help but feel disappointed by Wegmans' Napoleon. Priced at a tidy $5, this combination of puff pastry and light pastry creme looks nice; but it was missing the added texture of a proper topping (i.e. a hardened glaze, vanilla, nuts... something.) It's plenty tasty (what Napoleon isn't?) but I expected more.

Grade: C+

Wegmans' Napoleon