Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Tour de L.A.: Bakeshops and Sunshine

Bypass the Getty and forget lurking for celebrities at Fred Segal. If you are heading to the Los Angeles area this summer, make sure you make time for a tasting tour. No, not just of wine bars but of bakeshops! Here are a few to get you started from several of my recent trips to the area.

First stop, Joan’s on Third located on West Third in L.A. a few blocks east of the Beverly Center and west of The Grove/Farmer’s Market. Although Joan’s is also a café offering breakfast and lunch as well as a retail gourmet marketplace, they offer some of the best baked goods in this area. The bakery case is loaded with cupcakes, cookies, coffeecakes, and their famous lemon bars.

Get your goodies to go and stroll down the few blocks that make up this trendy stretch of W. Third. See if there are any celebrities having lunch at Toast or see if you can resist the gallery quality house wares and funky ceramic offerings at OK and Zipper. The Cook’s Library, a bookstore specializing in cookbooks for chefs and the rest of us, is worth a few minutes of browsing time.

Finish your treat and tear yourself away from the rest of the shops and head to Culver City. Long a hub of the film industry, Culver City is now home to the hottest boutiques and restaurants in L.A. But we are bypassing all this trendiness – our stop is the Grand Casino Bakery.

Grand Casino Bakery has been in this area long before it became trendy and judging by the lunchtime rush – it will continue to hold its own against its hipster neighbors. Grand Casino offers the best medialunas outside of Buenos Aires – these sweet croissants are small enough that five or six go down easy. Butter cookies sandwiched together with dulce de leche and membrillo (quince paste) spill out of baskets just asking for you to grab a handful. And if you want to pick up one of their savory empanadas to go, no one would blame you.

There are many sites to see in this rejuvenated section of Culver City but the favorite of any baker has got to be Surfas – the most amazing restaurant supply store I have ever seen. I still pine for it and I live in the San Francisco area – another mecca for cooks. Surfas offers not just your typical restaurant supplies like dinnerware and cookware but also hard to find items like edible silver petals and sugars in every color of the Pantone color chart. And the building isn’t one big drafty warehouse like some of these places can be. Surfas also brings together some of the luminaries of the cooking and restaurant world for technique classes and product demonstrations. And they even have an onsite café so you can take a break from shopping. Their oatmeal cookie is outstanding. I tried to take a few photos of some of their amazing wares but was caught in the act. As the manager patiently explained as he berated me for taking photos, “we have a lot of celebrity chefs in here and they don’t want their competition to see what they are buying. “ Ok, I still like this place even though that was a bit pretentious.

Next stop, Vanilla Bake Shop in Santa Monica located on Wilshire Blvd. -- a few blocks from the Third Street Promenade. This tiny shop with its brown and white color scheme offers cupcakes, cakes and confections with a contemporary twist. Their designs remind me of the style of clothing of designer Vera Wang – sweet but hip. But their treats are not just all look and no taste. Although they have become known for their fancy sounding chocolate cake with Fleur de Sel caramel filling, don’t pass up their cupcake babies – three mini cupcakes in a variety of flavors. My favorite flavor is Mom’s Birthday Cake – an all American yellow cake with milk chocolate frosting. In a “this is becoming hilarious” moment – I was warned not to take photos when I whipped out my camera to take a few snaps. I guess illusions of celebrity grandeur or perhaps fear of competition is rampant in L.A.

A short drive to boutique lined Abbot Kinney Blvd. in Venice Beach gives you two bakeshop choices. If it is Friday, your first stop has to be the Three Square Bakery and Café before they run out of their famous Berliners. Offered only on Friday, a Berliner is a German donut made from a secret family recipe. The donuts are filled with sweet seedless raspberry jam and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar. This labor-intensive pastry is made in small batches so the store limits one dozen per customer. I was sad to see that there were only two left but not as sad as the person behind me.

Walk off your Berliner by strolling the few blocks that make up Abbot Kinney Blvd. The Street, as locals know it, is home to many art galleries as well as funky and eclectic shops but there are two shops not to be missed.

Taj Taj Jewelry pulls together a unique combination of items including intricate wirework, beautiful gemstones and Irish linen to create necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Down the street a funkier store but no less passionate about design is Surfing Cowboys. I love their tag line: Vintage, The Original Green! No one will blame you if you start humming an old Clash tune as you browse this eclectic furniture and design store. After all, Charlie don’t surf…….

All this strolling will leave you needing a nice cup of tea so cross the street and open the gate to Jin Patisserie for entry into a Zen-like state. This is just the place to end your tour of L.A. bakeshops. Perhaps just one of their exquisite artisan chocolates flavored with lemongrass or black sesame with a cup of tea might soothe you but for me it was one perfect French macaron.

And I took all the photos I wanted.

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