Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Beautiful Sunday Morning (at a Premium) - The Sunny Breakfast, Fresh Pastries and More at Huckleberry Bakery and Cafe

It's always a delight when you come across a restaurant that embodies your ideal for a certain situation, whether it be that perfect French Bistro for a date night, or classic Ice Cream Parlor for a hot Summer afternoon. Or the quintessential "Sunday Morning," which for me involves a beautiful, clear sky, with sunlight gently pouring through the windows. Add some fresh flowers, a simple breakfast in bed made with farmer's market fresh produce and fresh-baked Pastries, and voila! (^_^) Sure, it's a bit of a highly romanticized, Hollywood-esque ideal, but it's even nicer when you actually find your Sunday Morning image embodied in a restaurant (minus the bed :), in this case at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe.

Stepping into Huckleberry during our first visit - on a sunny, early Sunday morning - I'm immediately greeted by notes of cinnamon and the scent of fresh baked pastries coming out of the kitchen of Pastry Chef and Co-Owner Zoe Nathan, who runs this cute, simple eatery along with her husband Josh Loeb (both of Rustic Canyon fame).

It's a straightforward system of ordering at the counter (which also allows you to pick out your favorite Pastries, Teacakes and more on display, while ordering savory dishes off the menu), paying immediately, and then finding a table to await your order. This simple system, however, can also lead to some frustration if you get there too late in the day, as the restaurant tends to get crowded at times, which leads to people hovering over tables, and hoping to claim a spot as soon as the current occupants get up to leave. For my first 2 visits, we arrived early on the weekend (around ~8:30 a.m.) and there were still a few tables open. But for my 3rd visit, getting there a bit later (around 9:30 a.m.), there was one couple ahead of us waiting for a table, but we managed to get a table pretty quickly (within 10 minutes).

Huckleberry serves a wide variety of teas from Art of Tea, including an Organic English Breakfast Black Tea: Fragrant, hearty, but light, with a nice, clean finish.

Our first two items were things I was most looking forward to trying: The Croissant and Maple Bacon Biscuit.

The Maple Bacon Biscuit is something that has gotten so many recommendations to try (from bulavinaka, mollyomormon and many others) that I feared I would start having dreams about it if I didn't try it soon. :)

While bulavinaka's absurdly detailed and wonderful exposition gave me some inkling about what to expect, it still didn't prepare me for the utter delight my taste buds would receive when I took a bite for the first time: A buttery, flaky, crumbly Biscuit with notes of Maple and a genuinely satisfying porcine undertone of little bits of perfectly cooked, crispy, fresh Bacon! (^_^) This is a hearty Biscuit, but it's unlike any Biscuit I've had before. Its subtlety is part of what makes it so beautiful: The Maple thankfully doesn't overpower the baked wonder, and neither does the Bacon. Both combine for just the right amount of flavors to really celebrate the Biscuit itself. Wonderful! :)

A great Croissant is something I'm always on the lookout for, but if there's one pastry that falls a bit short at Huckleberry, it'd be their Croissant. It tastes very fresh (baked that morning), but it's just a bit too soft with more of an airy, chewy bread-like texture, instead of the crispy, flaky quality I prefer. It's not bad at all - a good, well-made pastry - but it doesn't dethrone Anisette or Amandine's versions.

One nice aspect about Huckleberry is that all their baked goods are made with real butter only (no partially-hydrogenated oils or margarine).

When glancing at their menu, there was one item I just couldn't resist ordering: Green Eggs & Ham (with La Quercia Prosciutto on House-made English Muffin). :)

I was curious to see how close this would be to Dr. Seuss' original, and thankfully Chef Zoe's version looks much healthier and more enticing. (^_~) The House-made English Muffins exhibit a beautiful crunch and fragrance that only fresh baked bread can impart. The Eggs are topped with a colorful green Aioli, and then finished with a nice bunch of Baby Arugula from the local farmer's market.

It ends up being just a touch too salty, but it has more to do with the generous amount of delicious Prosciutto that's provided with this dish. Otherwise, the light peppery, vibrant *greenness* of the Baby Arugula is a nice complement to the "Green Eggs," Prosciutto and English Muffin.

The Rotisserie Duck Hash (with Fried Eggs, Sweet Potatoes, Spring Onions & Swiss Chard) is even better.

Served with 2 sunny-side up Eggs, I break the yolk and take a bit of the Egg and Duck Hash itself: Delicious. :) The Sweet Potatoes are a bit too prominent in this dish; very fresh and tasting of the earth, but its inherent sweetness has a tendency to overpower the dish at times. But eating past that, the pepperiness of the Baby Arugula, the creaminess of the Egg Yolk, and the absolutely delightful taste of freshly cooked Rotisserie Duck more than make up for the sweetness. :) It's become far too common seeing poultry dishes taste like the kitchen was using leftovers (with the 1-2 day funk), but here, the Rotisserie Duck meat tasted like it was cooked just for this dish when I ordered it. Lovely. :)

On another visit, I start with their Prosciutto Gruyere Croissant. This time, with the Prosciutto and Gruyere Cheese baked into the pastry, the Croissant turned out much better than their plain version: A crispy, porky, and lightly salty quality is balanced out nicely by the Gruyere and the Croissant itself.

The Whole Wheat Fruit Bar sounds like a potential "boring healthy" item, but it comes out more like a sinful dessert than anything else: Gratifying, nutty and fruity.

It looks and tastes more like a beautiful slice of a fresh fruit pie, with the Blackberries and Blueberries really making the homemade Granola crust shine.

Their Cinnamon Sugar Doughnut is rather straightforward, however: It's a well-made Doughnut, tasting of clean oil (no overly reused oil here), and it's not too oily or greasy tasting, but at the end of the day, it tastes like a good, simple Doughnut, but a touch on the dry side.

Their Egg 'Huck' Muffin (Maple Bacon Biscuit Filled with Scrambled Egg) looks to be a playful take on the McDonald's Egg McMuffin, only 10 times better. :) Huckleberry takes their excellent Maple Bacon Biscuit and as the menu states, they cut it open and fill it with Scrambled Eggs. The result is like getting a classic American breakfast (Bacon, Scrambled Eggs and Bread) all in a convenient form. It's a far more subtle version than a typical breakfast sandwich, with the lightly sweet, Maple-laced Bacon bits, crumbly crust of the Biscuit giving the proper backbone to the Scrambled Eggs for a great combination that's never too salty or greasy.

We finished off this visit with the Warm Goat Cheese Salad (with Mixed Baby Greens, Multigrain Crostini and Sherry Vinaigrette).

The oddest thing about this dish was that the Goat Cheese wasn't "warm" at all, not that it mattered because beyond the crisp, bright Mixed Baby Greens that were minimally dressed, the Laura Chenel's Chevre was the absolute highlight! The Laura Chenel Goat Cheese is *so* fresh, *so* creamy and soft (with a light, playful pungency) that I couldn't stop eating it with the Greens and Crostini. I could eat this salad every day. :)

On my 3rd visit, my guest and I arrive and are greeted by a new array of pastries and flatbreads that I hadn't seen on my previous 2 visits. I love the seasonality reflected in these breakfast items. :)

The Rosemary Potato Flatbread had just finished cooking and was still very warm (nice). The Onion, Garlic, Potato slices add a satisfying heartiness to each bite, but it's the bits of Rosemary that adds that aromatic piney note to this warm bread and it's simply wonderful! :)

Peanut Butter is another favorite of mine, so I couldn't resist ordering the Chocolate Peanut Butter Tart with Candied Peanuts. :)

The Peanut Butter Tart is airy and not too sweet at all (very nice), with a Peanut Butter Crust filled with a light Chocolate Mousse. I still prefer Craft's Peanut Butter Cup more, but this is a very good version.

The Zucchini Teacake is another winner, being nutty, fragrant and so moist. The touch of Orange Zest also really brightens up the dish.

But probably the biggest surprise out of all my visits is Chef Zoe's Blueberry Corn Cake. I'm not usually a fan of Corn baked into anything, but the Blueberry Corn Cake had just come out of the oven and they were just putting it out to be ordered at the counter. I could smell the enticing aroma and I'm glad we ordered it. :)

Taking a bite: An extremely moist, soft, lightly sweet fragrant cake, with light accents of Corn and fresh Blueberries made me a convert to Corn Cakes. (^_~) Of course the earlier you order, the better the results with this dish. It's currently one of my favorites at Huckleberry.

I notice their Duck Hash has changed on the menu (due to what's in season), and I decide to try their Duck Confit Hash (with Corn, Market Potatoes and Roasted Torpedo Onions).

While the previous version's Sweet Potatoes tended to overpower the dish, this new seasonal variation is spot-on! Now using a Duck Confit preparation, the Duck meat is just tender and luscious and very fresh (again), and when mixed with the Eggs and 2 types of Potatoes, it just brings a big smile to my face. Wonderful! (^_^)

The Fried Egg Sandwich (with Sunny-Side Up Eggs, Niman Ranch Bacon, Gruyere, Arugula & Aioli on Country Bread) arrives soon after. It's a well-made version of a good Breakfast item, with the fresh Arugula, Egg and great crunch with the Country Bread, but it's nothing spectacular. It's just a very good version of a classic (nothing wrong with that). :)

The final item for this visit is their Heirloom Tomato, Burrata & La Quercia Prosciutto.

It's a classic pairing, and the Burrata Cheese is gorgeous as to be expected, with the natural sweetness of the Heirloom Tomatoes really coming through with a drizzle of the Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil. The La Quercia Prosciutto is a nice touch, but I'm happy just with the Burrata and local Heirloom Tomatoes. :)

Service is a bit hit-or-miss: At the counter, the servers have been just fine, taking the orders promptly and smoothly. Once seated, trying to get a server to get more hot water for tea, or other needs is a bit more difficult. It's usually easier to get up and just go to the counter and ask for whatever you need. You wonder if that should be protocol (since you order at the counter as well), or if their servers are just too busy / understaffed, and therein lies one of the biggest challenges at Huckleberry (and source of some complaints online).

For the price (which ranges from ~$0.75 - $9.50 for Bakery items; $5 - $15 for Brunch Menu items (we averaged about ~$25 per person including tax and tip)), one might expect a different level of service than what is being given at the restaurant, and that's understandable. You stand in line and order at the counter up front, then sit down with a Number and your food is brought out to the table, but you have to hunt down and claim your own table as well. To make matters worse (depending on your luck), it's a very casual restaurant, so there may be a chance you'll encounter plenty of families with their newborn babies in tow (or children playing around). I was lucky enough on my 3 visits to show up early and only had 1 Family + Baby (who was crying only once in a while). But as we were leaving on my final visit (around ~ 10 a.m.), there was a line out the door, people hovering over tables waiting for people to leave, and 3 different tables now seated with babies (2 tables with crying babies). I could see how a great Breakfast could be ruined under these circumstances.

Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe is a cute little restaurant and a charming place (at times) to grab some fresh Pastries and Breakfast / Brunch. From the excellent Duck Confit Hash to the lush Blueberry Corn Cake, to the subtle brilliance of the Maple Bacon Biscuit, Chef Zoe Nathan delivers some wonderful reasons to stop by if you're in the area. There are some rather straightforward menu items mixed in with the hits, and the prices are at a premium compared to some other local favorites, but Huckleberry captured my ideal "Sunday Morning" better than any place I've been to recently. It's not a destination restaurant, and your experience can be dramatically different depending on when you go and luck itself (with the clientele eating at the time), but Huckleberry has enough bright spots on the menu to make me happily stop in for a bite to eat,
before visiting the Santa Monica Farmer's Market. :)

Rating: 8.1 (out of 10.0)

Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe
1014 Wilshire Blvd.
Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tel: (310) 451-2311

Hours: Tue - Fri, 8:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
Sat - Sun, 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Closed Mondays.


weezermonkey said...

So expensive for a counter place! But some of this looks so irresistible!

I don't think I ever answered your aquarium question. I thought the New Orleans aquarium was better than our aquarium in Long Beach but not even close to as good as the one in Monterey. I still have yet to find any place that can beat the Monterey Bay Aquarium. :)

Anonymous said...

Diana, here, exile-banned from CH but still allowed by the oh so beneficent ones to READ. Came here to see your pics! I LOVE your posts and reviews. I crave Huckeberry. Did you try any of the cinnamon bun looking things?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi weezermonkey,

Definitely. I think that's the tough part. One of my guests during my 3rd visit had commented that the pastries were "tasty and delicious" but also couldn't stop thinking about the prices compared to many other counter places she goes to around town. Whether it's worth it is going to be up to each individual. :)

Thanks for the answer on the aquarium. Good to know! :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Diana,

Thanks for stopping by; hope you're doing well. :)

Thank you for the kind words as well.

The Cinnamon Bun pastries at Huckleberry? No, I wanted to try those on each of my 3 visits, but sadly I never got to order it (there were too many other items that everyone wanted to try first, and it got pushed back). I'll be sure to try it next time. Thanks!

Gastronomer said...

I like to get a lot of bang out of my buck, but the bacon maple biscuit looks worthy of a splurge. I've said it before -- I really appreciate your multiple visit reviews!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Gastronomer,

Thanks. :) If you ever find yourself in the area, definitely give that Maple Bacon Biscuit a try. :)

Mike said...

I've always loved the combination of maple and bacon, being a bit too liberal with the sugary syrup on my side orders of bacon on family breakfast outings growing up.

Lately I'm more and more intrigued by bacon being baked into things, particularly waffles.

While I've yet to try a bacon biscuit, (I do plan on rectifying that) if I see bacon waffle on a menu that's my go-to order. I've yet to be amazed, but I keep trying. Anyplace you can send me?

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Mike,

Wow, Bacon Waffles? I've yet to run across a place that bakes their Bacon into the Waffles. :) But it sounds intriguing.

If I find a place I'll be sure to post back here on it.

Let me know what you think of the Maple Bacon Biscuit. :)

Pinkfoodie said...

The pastries look amazing. I'm definitely interested in trying the blueberry corn cake. It sounds like this place can really be a hit or miss depending on the crowd. Thanks for the heads up. Maybe I'll just stop by for a corn cake to go :)

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Pinkfoodie,

Yes, there are definitely some good pastries here. Don't forget the Maple Bacon Biscuit if you go. :)

Cafe Pasadena said...

"A great Croissant is something I'm always on the lookout for..."

Your opinion on the croissant, as an example, is just a reminder that food taste is in the taste-buds of the beholder. Someone else could Prefer the "airy, chewy bread-like texture" to your preference for "the crispy, flaky quality I prefer", and come out with the opposite verdict as to who/what is better.

I appreciate your foodie reviews, exiled kiss. Continue on!

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Cafe Pasadena,

Definitely! :) Everyone's taste buds and tastes are different, and that's what makes food so wonderful and interesting. :)

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