Sweet San Francisco

Kouign amann

Since the time I left, San Francisco has become a much sweeter place. I hope that’s just a mere coincidence, but I have been surprised at the spate of new bakeries and sweet stops that have sprung up in the last few years. How nice would it have been to have visited them all? However my euro-jeans are starting to buckle under the weight of all the butter (of course, all the chips and guacamole, and other Mexican food, had absolutely nothing to do with it) and after finding myself unable to power through an entire San Francisco burrito, I realized that I had lost my SF-cred and will likely be escorted back to the plane for my return flight, as I hang my head in shame.

Still, I did manage to sneak in a few places that are newer on the scene. One was 20th Century Café. My friend Heidi* had recommended the knish, which sounded like an unusual recommendation because that’s something you usually get at a savory place, or a specialty address (any old-timers remember The Knish Konnection in San Francisco?) But I had just scored the perfect Christmas present for someone back home (which was 25% off – go USA!) from the Timbuktu store (go San Francisco!), and when the map function on my phone (go T-Mobile prepaid SIM card plan, so I could use my iPhone while traveling!) showed that I was just a few block away, I hoofed it over there.

20th Century Cafe

Since it was mid-afternoon, in the peace of the subdued café, I sat down with a dainty chocolate cookie flecked with bits of salt, and a creamy-smooth cappuccino. And while I was sitting down, minding my own business and watching the bakers spread cake batter methodically on parchment sheets (and posting to Instagram), cheerful pastry chef/owner Michelle Polzine jumped in and slid in across from me, giving us time to share a mutual admiration “moment,” Me, admiring her, because she had the fortitude and talent to open a café. And for her, well, I’m not sure what she admired about me. Maybe because I’d be smart enough to be a regular customer for afternoon coffee there if I lived in San Francisco?

According to the site, the bakery is meant to evoke the style of “early Twentieth Century Budapest, Vienna and Prague.” So I was curious when someone on my Instagram feed commented “Only in America” about the Crazy Cake, a multi-layer caramel cake, because to me, it screams “Eastern Europe” with all those layers and cream. But no matter, it shows that cake (and pastries) can easily cross cultures and borders, which 20th Century Café does so well. (And yes, do get the knish. It’s excellent, too.)

Recchiuti chocolate

Over in Dogpatch, one of those neighborhoods where us old-timers are still kicking ourselves for not buying a house when they were $39,000 (I also wanted to live in South Park, and my friends said I was crazy to want to live in such a marginal area), Michael Recchiuti Confections has set up in the previously neglected area near the warehouse where he makes his fine chocolates. It was a little too early for lunch, although folks were starting to sit down; there was a gun buyback program going on nearby, so perhaps in addition to his fans flocking to the area, a whole new sub-niche of chocolate-lovers are also choosing ganache over guns.

But I ain’t new to Michael’s treats and when my friend offered me some scant offerings from a bag of Asphalt Jungle Mix, one of my all-time favorite things, then quickly shut the bag after I’d only had a few pieces, I was thinking some sort of chocolate buyback program may need to be put into place. But instead, I laid down the law – David’s law – the one that says that no one can close a bag of chocolate until I decide that it can be closed. And yes, you are welcome to invoke that whenever you feel the need, too.

lemon tart macarons

To finish up my San Francisco sweet stops, I ended up at b. patisserie. I’d had some of the cookies earlier in the week that a friend had brought me – an astoundingly rich, jumbo chocolate cookie, and a salted chocolate chip number that was just the best thing ever. But I wanted to see what else was on offer.

And indeed, I was glad I hadn’t lost my SF parking karma when we found a space just in front, and soon found ourselves gazing at beautiful, sleek lemon tarts, as nice as anything you’d see in Paris. Which is no wonder, because pastry chef/owner Belinda Leong worked in some of the finest pastry shops in Europe, (including stints at Pierre Hermé in Paris) and teamed with French baker Michel Suas, who established the San Francisco Baking Institute – which explains why everything is simply top-notch here.

Sugar brioche tart

The croissants are excellent. And the kouign amann, shown way up at the top – a buttery pastry from Brittany, where Michel Suas is from – were better than most versions I’d had in France. And even though I refuse to eat macarons in America (not because I’m a xenophobe or a snob, but I can get them in Paris, thanks), I broke my long-standing rule for Belinda’s mocha macaron, which was close to perfect. And was the prefect way to say a sweet goodbye to San Francisco.


*In addition to the bakery tip, Heidi was also sweet enough to drop off a jar of the Honeydew that she offers through Quitokeeto. It’s something I’ve been admiring ever since she introduced it, and I’ll call the delicious product of some pretty extraordinary bees my first birthday gift of the month. (But the rest of you still have a week or so to go. So don’t worry – you still have some time.) I was going to take a picture of it, but it’s now packed securely in my suitcase, cushioned with 5-pounds of whole pecans – but if it breaks, expect a rather dear honeydew-pecan dessert on the site shortly.

38 comments

  • Haven’t been in SF since September of 2011, when I ate myself absolutely bowlegged on wonderful sweets from several of the aforementioned, as well as many others. Thanks for the tip on the 20th Century Cafe – I will certainly seek it out next year, when I return.

  • Yes, I have to agree with top notch statement about the San Francisco Baking Institute and Michel Suas, awesome school , teacher, !

  • San Francisco really has been harboring some of the best pastries in the country. Thanks for sharing!

  • Yeah I am not sure I would want to leave if I were you. Oh wait, you get to go back to Paris. I guess that’s not too shabby.

  • Did you have time for a visit to Michel Suas’s Thorough Bread on Church at 15th? Or maybe you’ve stopped in on previous visits. Right now, they have their annual Christmas tree up, real-life sized, made entirely of bread, and decorated with cookie and bagel ornaments. Adorable. It’s my neighborhood spot. Excellent pastries and always-sweet service!

    • I didn’t make it there because I had limited time (and tummy space!) but was happy to meet him at B. Patisserie and sample their treats. I didn’t mention their granola, made with purple wheat, which was so good, I ate the whole bag when I got home – right away!

  • A) Have never seen sugar brioche tarts before are they just brioche with caramelized sugar in the center? What a nice idea.

    B) “Ganache over guns” has such a nice ring to it, I too would choose chocolate over weaponry…haha

  • Hey David…great places all though wonder if you made it to Fournee by the Claremont, their chocolate caramel tart is magnifique! BTW, thanks for the tip re: toast at The Mill…we ventured in to SF from the east bay this AM…what a treat and great excuse to drive on the new bridge.
    Safe journey back to Paris.

  • Is it possible to get the recipe for 20th Century Cafe’s Crazy Cake for those of us not in SF? Looks amazing!!

  • So glad you had a great time in S. F, and loved all the pics. But please get home pronto and start giving us holiday recipes! Christmas baking and cooking is almost upon us! :)

    Feliz Navidad, David.

  • Thank you again David for keeping SFers in the know. So many new places to explore!! Wish you would visit more often but then we would miss out on Paris. Hard to choose. Maybe we could clone you, your humor and good vibes about life.

  • If you haven’t gone to neighbor’s pop-up on Thursday mornings, you’ve missed out. They have a brioche bun wrapped in croissant, filled with passion fruit cocoa butter curd that is TO DIE FOR. Their croissants are the best I’ve ever had and they are beautifully shaped. Greg Mindel, check him out!

  • Mmmm, so many new bakeries I need to explore now! Thanks for all the recommendations.

  • “Ganache over gun” – brilliant!

  • I still dream about the knishes from the Knish Konnection! Left SF 20 years ago and really have enjoyed reminiscing and getting your updates on San Francisco today. As an expat in Brussels I also really enjoy your Europe posts. Thanks for all of it! Great stuff.

    • I thought I was imagining the Knish Konnection, because I was trying to find info about them on the web and none showed up. It’s like they just vanished. There were places in SF like Shaharazade bakery that made filo dough (the best!) and there was a place that made excellent crumpets on Clement Street, which are no longer around. I guess I am showing my age…but glad a new group of bakers are around to take up the slack.

  • David, did you try Le Marais in the Marina/SF? It’s the closest baguette to France I’ve had in the States.

  • Hmmmm, it’s a gluten-gasm! Sometime please do a gluten free bakery tour.

  • I can’t believe I missed your visit here to SF…I live just south in Santa Cruz, and when I saw you were here on book signings I was certain to make my way north…you’ve become like an old friend to me with your witty banter and insightful take on cuisine de’ Paris….I honestly can hear your voice in your writing. Oh me..well, I’m sad to see you leave without an introduction…c’est la vie! Can’t wait to visit some of the places you mentioned..at least these ones I can get to without a plane flight…thx for all your witty and charming, as well as interesting dialog…bonjour! june

  • The SF Baking Institute and Michel Suas are amazing teachers in baking. I’ve taken a few 3-day workshops (baguettes and holiday pies & tarts) that were enjoyable if somewhat intense. A lot of great bakers and bakeries have come from SFBI and Michel Suas has been a consultant on more than a few artisan bread companies.

  • You shouldn’t be surprised that they had to open purveyors of sweets after you left. They had to replace you somehow!!

  • Omg! Your pics are gorgeous.
    I’m wanting all of these sweet treats and will definitely make a trip to SF to explore these fabulous places. Thx for sharing

  • Ganache over Guns…..too funny. our new band name for sure.

  • I saw that cake slice, and thought of Doberge, but it’s got even more layers. Sounds like a wonderful trip, now I need to check all the links you thoughtfully provided and fantasize.

  • The cake at 20th Century Cafe is as amazing as it looks. And it’s huge! Its official name on the menu is Russian Honey Cake Krasinski Tortchen. Crazy Cake for short, I guess?

    • My Russian isn’t very good, so thanks for the translation. Those kinds of cakes show up in Eastern European bakeries and they’re a lot of work (when I was at the 20th Century Café, while drinking my coffee, I was watching the bakers carefully spread all those layers on parchment sheets.) I don’t have the patience, but glad someone else does! : )

  • Thank G-d we have all these hills in San Francisco. Otherwise, we’d all be porkers. There are so many good restaurants, new and old, bakeries, chocolate shops and other kinds of eateries I barely can keep my pant size stable.

  • Heidi is the best! I hope your honeydew made it back to France.

  • David I so love your posts!! I just returned from Paris and was a bit shy about trying out too many new things; however, I DO love San Francisco, perhaps I will be able to get out there before long. Also, I love your understated wit and absolutely astonishing recipes. I am NOW hooked on your books and never miss a post!! It sounds like San Francisco is soon to be in your “rear view mirror”, but I do want to thank you for the fabulous insights and ideas. I’m making YOUR recipe of madelines for a family get together this week and can’t wait!!

    Have a wonderful Christmas and thanks again for your spectacular posts and ideas!

  • These are some serious drool worthy pastries and bakeries. I wish I had known about some of these when I was traveling to the bay area every week.

  • I purchased the same style of honey in France once, in Provence. It was called forest honey however, but apparently is the same phenomenon. I remember it being quiet spectacular.

  • I’ve lived in the Bay Area most of my life and I live a few blocks down from b.patisserie! 2013 to me was the year desserts really began to take center stage and pastry chefs became a league of their own. Of course, we have the classic people like Chef Bill Corbett and Chef Emily Luchetti, but there are a whole new crop of extremely talented people cropping up like Nicole Krasinki and of course, Belinda Leong. As a former pastry cook and current pastry enthusiast, I can’t wait to see how this evolves in 2014 and how the city will re-embrace desserts once more.

  • You made it to b. Patisserie! Delightful. That kouign amann is amazing, my favorite though are the leftover bits from them, Belinda sometimes sells those bagged and they are more addictive than a bag of chips. Hope you got to see (read: eat) all that you planned to in SF.

  • David,
    I just came back from a weekend in SF with my daughter (looking at colleges) and we searched out the One Ferry Building to visit Recchiuti Chocolate. First, let me tell you that One Ferry Building was a treat we never expected… it was beautiful and, in a way, I am lucky I live in LA and NOT SF, because I would go broke at that “food court”. Everything looked great: we bought chocolate and cheese at Cowgirl Creamery.

    I am always grateful for your recommendations… we are a family of chocolate lovers and really enjoyed all of the different chocolates we tasted/purchased.
    Thanks for the tips! Merry christmas.

  • Rereading past blogs and I have a sugguestion for the next time you are in the SF area.
    When I visit SF there are two things I always try to do…get to the Famer’s Market and do a day of chocolate trying the artisanal chocolate source in the bay area.
    Last visit I was lucky enough to find
    Feve Artisan Chocolatier
    2210 Keith St San Francisco, CA 94124
    (415) 418-4657
    fevechocolates.com

    We did not realise that the Keith Street location was the chocolate factory. My lucky mistake. We stopped by in route from the airport to the hotel, expecting a chocolate store front. The owner/artisan Shawn was go great. He gave us a complete tour of the factory, showing us what he was doing, what he was currently creating and best of all having us taste everything. Heaven. This is what good chocolates should be. It is well worth a visit.

  • I see I’m not the only person that makes the pilgrimage to M. Recchiuti when in S.F. I adore the Rose Caramels.

  • When I see those pictures, oh boy. It looks like that layer cake is called Honey cake and it’s widely spread all over the Europe, as far as I remember eating those there. They do offer it a lot of bakeries in Prague but it’s actually originally an Armenian recipe. I tasted it many times and then found the recipe and make it home (US) since then. It looks like lot of work but it’s actually very easy once you know how to do it, little bit time-consuming but not more than any other cake. If anyone isinterested about recipe, let me know. It’s dense and rich and caramely creamy, and often can keep in fridge for about 2 weeks – the longer it sits, the better it gets.

  • WOW cannot wait to visit my daughter in Napa and then go bakery hunting in SF