Friday, February 20, 2009

Vanilla Bake Shop, Santa Monica CA

In the ongoing treck to find the best cupcake shop my last trip to California saw me visit Kara's, Love at First Bite, and Citizen Cake in the San Francisco area. Previous cupcake rendezvous took me to Sprinkles, Yummy, Crumbs, Mrs. Beasley's, Magnolia...and I've had some damned good cupcakes at non-"cupcakeries" too…Amy’s, Ruthy’s, Eleni’s in Chelsea…and the Red Velvet at Bounchon Bakery is still the best cupcake I've ever tasted.

With that little intro out of the way, after our plane landed in LA on a short trip from San Francisco we made our way to Santa Monica - or more specifically to Vanilla Bakeshop to see what the hubbub was all about. A husband and wife operation with unique options in addition to the everyday essentials I was quite intrigued when I first read about Vanilla’s options after they won the in 2008. Walking up to the shop I smiled at its quaint nature compared to the over publicized long lines of Sprinkles and Magnolia – walking in the door I smiled at the smell.

Wanting to keep it light due to our early afternoon lunch reservations at La Botte, my mother selected a single Chocolate Vanilla Bean cupcake featuring dark chocolate cake, creamy Madagascar Bourbon, and Vanilla Bean Frosting. Flawlessly moist cake – light yet thick and textural was topped with the lightest and creamiest frosting I’ve ever tasted outside of Bouchon – remarkable and flawless for a typical chocolate cupcake which was anything but typical!

Wanting a more full experience of what Vanilla had to offer, yet not wanting to fill up before lunch, my aunt and I each decided to choose three minis – plus one more treat.

With regard to the minis, the most impressive aspect to myself was the fact that they had the exact same perfect consistency as the larger cupcakes – something you often don’t get since the smaller cakes cook faster and if the wrong pan, temperature, or timing is used they dry out. With that said, 4 different cakes and one tarte were tasted and each pleased to varying degrees – high degrees.

Blackberry Passion Fruit - Yellow Cake, Passion Fruit Center, Blackberry Buttercream – ordered by my aunt and flawlessly light with a frosting that can’t be described with words other than to imagine the tartness of blackberries in air that balanced perfectly with the tang of passion fruit jelly inside.

Banana Chocolate Chip - Banana Chocolate Chip Cake, Cream Cheese Frosting – selected by myself, another great choice and better than the version at Kara’s earlier in the week. Impressively banana flavored cake without a hint of artificial taste, semisweet chips, and a creamy yet airy frosting.

Chocolate Peanut Butter - Peanut Butter Cake, Milk Chocolate Frosting – the worst choice of the day – but still pretty darn good. Selected by both aunt and self, the high quality (non-oily) natural peanut butter was simply too dense within the cake and unfortunately made the cupcake itself a little dry. The frosting itself, however, was quite similar to the cream cheese frosting on the Banana Chocolate Chip, but infused with cocoa.

Southern Red Velvet - Southern Red Velvet Cake, Sweet Cream Cheese Frosting – ordered whenever it is offered, I use Red Velvet as my benchmark and outside of Bouchon this is the best I’ve tasted. Distinct cocoa flavor without being overwhelming, a sublimely sweet and airy cream cheese frosting, perhaps the only thing keeping it from matching Keller’s option was the lack of filling and the size.

S’mores Tarte – Vanilla Marshmellow, Buttery Graham Cracker, Milk Chocolate, and Caramel – Ordered in addition to the cupcakes, this beauty was the best of show and a mindblowing product that almost made me forget lunch and indulge my sweet tooth further. A buttery crust, dense chocolate gnache, and a fluffy marshmallow perched atop a liquid caramel with hints of either lavender or cardamom or both – when the caramel leaked onto my hand after the first bite I had no hesitancy to lick it off.

Prices are not cheap, but unlike Citizen Cake, Sprinkles, and some of the NYC options I felt I got more than I paid for. Service was chipper and coffee was bold and potent to cleanse the palate after each glorious cupcake. Until something better comes along, this is the crown jewel of the LA cupcake craze for me. Next trip will surely see one of the dessert shooters, the tiramisu, or the banana pudding grace my palate.

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