3001 University Avenue, North Park
CORRECTION: Quite some time ago I reviewed Heaven Sent Desserts in North Park. Upon sampling many pastries and noticing no butter flavor, I thought that some of them might be made with shortening (i.e., Crisco or Spry), and I called to ask what fats were used. I identified myself merely as "a customer with health problems," since I've learned from experience that restaurant personnel do not always tell known reviewers the absolute truth. The counterperson who answered connected me with someone he identified as "one of the bakers." This rather gruff and suspicious (male) person (who seemed concerned that I might be from a rival bakery trying to steal their recipes) stated that some pastries included shortening. This seems to be untrue. The owners of Heaven Sent aver, first, that none of their bakers are male, and more important, they emphatically deny that any of their pastries include shortening. (Perhaps the person I spoke with was a disgruntled counterman only pretending to be a baker.) In any event, please do not keep asking Heaven Sent about shortening or worrying about it. The owners swear they use no such thing.
The reopening of the North Park Theater has turned a struggling blue-collar/boho neighborhood into an evening hot spot, setting the stage for a new "restaurant row" of casual but distinctive little eateries. Whether the fare is Italian, Mexican, vegan, Cuban, or something else, few of these places put much energy into desserts. (As one local restaurateur told me, "Nobody wants to stuff themselves with dessert when dinner is just the start of their evening.") Another option largely lacking until recently was a place for theater-goers to enjoy a cup of coffee and a serious sweet after performances, or for folks to finish an evening of rambling with the ballast of a light bite. That's why Heaven Sent deserves its name -- the bakery answers a pressing neighborhood need.
It looks as it ought to -- clean, bright, and attractive, with well-spaced round tables and graceful chairs of shiny dark wood and interesting paintings on the wall. Facing the entrance is an L-shaped pastry case displaying the day's wares -- cookies and breakfast pastries to the right, elaborate cakes in the main case at the juncture of the "L," then to the left of that, items like brownies, blondies, and macaroons. Finally, left of the cash register is a case of composed desserts best eaten on the spot, after the kitchen gives them a final fillip -- among these are haupia brûlée, Heaven Sent smores, and "paradise pockets" (filo pouches stuffed with raspberry- pineapple compote and chocolate cake, served warm with chocolate-rum dipping sauce).
My partner and I visited at noon to catch the morning pastries as well as the evening desserts. We brought home a baker's dozen mix-and-match sweets to share with our neighbors, after taking a preview nibble of each and quickly discovering that even if the bakery is heaven-sent, its pastries are hardly ethereal. Rather than the "sweetened air" of, say, Karen Krasne's best cakes, or the Gallic buoyancy of the croissants at St. Tropez, these are more in the standard American style, with substantial -- even heavy -- textures.
We began at the breakfast end. It soon became apparent that a weighty brioche bread, rather than supernal (and more labor-intensive) puff pastry, is the staple here. Instead of an almond croissant, for instance, there's a slab of brioche topped with almonds and marzipan. It does not fly into your mouth, but it's not bad if you warm it up. Unfortunately, what it lacks is real butter flavor -- a vital element missing not only in this pastry, but in all the others we sampled.
At that point in the tasting, I phoned the bakery (anonymously) to ask whether they used butter, shortening, or what. "We don't give out our recipes," said the baker, suspiciously. I explained that I simply had health concerns about certain fats. The answer is that shortening (a transfat, the worst artery-clogging substance, although he didn't say that) is present in most of the pastries. (Butter is also used, but in smaller quantities.) If you're concerned, check "Need to Know" for the healthiest choices.
We didn't mind the lack of butter with the raisin-cinnamon swirls, which had a moist filling to offset the chewy pastry. A peach muffin with puffs of fruit inside might have been a charmer but was underbaked -- pale outside, pasty inside. On the other hand, a pair of pistachio cookies resembling crunchy ladyfingers with pistachio icing at the tips, proved as satisfying as treats from an indulgent grandma's oven.
The cake case is rightly the centerpiece: Here's where the bakers exercise their creativity. We tried two of the four cakes that were available that afternoon and liked them both in different ways. The tres leches con crema is a classic: Mexican vanilla sponge cake soaked in "three milks," layered with cajeta, caramel cream, and topped with a blessedly unsweetened whipped cream. Light, moist, and sweet -- not cloying -- it suits my tastes to a "T." (Don't ever think that the icky-sweet tres leches cakes you find packaged at Smart and Final and in some Latin groceries are the real thing. This is what a tres leches should be.)
"Green Teaser" is more in the experimental vein -- a fudgy chocolate cake layered with green tea-infused crème brûlée, topped with poison-green buttercream frosting and toasted black sesame seeds. The tea flavor is subtle -- in fact, it gets lost in the fudginess, lending only a subtle backbone of bitter herbage. The cake is outrageously rich; the buttercream seems to include a hefty share of shortening, since it's stiff and doesn't taste buttery. The advantage to the baker is that once beaten with sugar, shortening doesn't melt as butter does. The best part is that the slice comes with a scoop of black sesame seed ice cream -- what a great idea! -- that reminded me of deconstructed frozen halvah.