"Valentine's Day is our Christmas," says Karen Krasne, chef-owner of Extraordinary Desserts. "It's the busiest day of my year." Her original dessert café on Fifth Avenue has recently expanded into a second, larger location in Little Italy, and both spaces will be adorned for Valentine's Day with romantic decorations. This year, Krasne has created a special Valentine's item called "The Box for Lovers" ($20). An ornate package (with rose petals and ribbons) will contain a pair of black-and-white fantasy desserts: "Folies aux Chocolat" ("chocolate madnesses") is a crunchy caramelized milk-chocolate confection covered with rose petals and gold leaf concealing a center of Valrhona chocolate mousse; "Paradis aux Framboises" ("raspberry paradise") has raspberries wrapped in white chocolate mousse inside a buttery tart shell, covered with whipped cream, white chocolate shavings, and a candied rose. The boxes will be available at both locations on Monday, February 14, only; best to reserve your order by phoning ahead. (But even if they sell out, there's a pastry case full of worthy substitutes.)
Since Valentine's Day falls on a Monday this year, there will also be a brunch on Sunday, February 13, at the new Union Street location, the first holiday brunch that Krasne has done in several years. This will include a passion fruit mimosa, a choice of three pastries, plus a buffet of Middle Eastern spreads, olives, cheeses, and breads ($25, children $13, from 10:00 a.m.--2:00 p.m.). Reservations are recommended.
The vast space of the new café is the opposite of Krasne's original cozy cottage near Balboa Park. The feel here is urban-industrial, with a high, open-beam ceiling and white-painted pipes and ducts. Before you enter the "warehouse," you pass through a gourmet shop that displays cakes and pastries, cookie doughs, dessert sauces and exotic honeys, fruit and vegetable spreads, coffees and teas, exorbitant "designer" olive oils, scented candles, and coffee-table books on subjects of current interest to the owner. About half the non-pastry foodstuffs bear Karen Krasne's imprimatur, while the rest are from other culinary artisans. The latter show up in many of the menu's savory offerings. I make no secret of being a fan of Krasne's ethereal cakes. At the Little Italy location, she's also turned her hand to Mediterranean-style spreads and sandwiches, cheese plates, and salads.
I recently invited some colleagues from the nearby Reader office to join me for a lunch of assorted nibbles. We arrived toward the end of the lunch rush and were seated at a banquette at the back of the restaurant. With no air-conditioning, the room was stuffy (despite an open terrace door) and noisier than was comfortable. Conversations and crashing crockery echoed against the bare floors, the glass-topped tables, and the glass sidewall. Evenings, the sound effects include ambient music pumped way up.
Perusing the menu, we soon realized that the savory dishes aren't intended as substantial meals, but as light breakfasts and lunches, after-work snacks, or post-event pick-me-ups.
We began with selections from the "bruschettas" section of the menu. Some of these meet the standard definition (thick slices of grilled bread and a topping), others arrive as toppings only, to spread on the hearty Bread and Cie table breads. Portions are normally small (priced at $3 each), but since we'd told the waitress we'd be sharing, she brought us larger (but still modest) servings for $5 -- without asking if we wanted them. We loved the Surfing Goat Ping Pong, delectable balls of goat cheese topped with daubs of Krasne's bottled "Maui Mango" spread. We also liked the avocado slices atop truffled artichoke tapenade on grilled peasant bread. But we lost interest in a slab of dry French feta cheese, served with a white truffle honey that, however luscious, couldn't rescue the arid fromage.
A full mezze platter, with hummus, tabbouleh, baba ganoush, etc. ($20) is only available at dinner, but most items can be ordered individually from the "spreads" section of the menu. We chose a knockout called Pantelleria ($8), a dip of crunchy celery chunks, whole pitted dates, basil, and Parmesan, dressed in balsamic vinaigrette. Who'd ever guess that celery and dates could make such a love-match?
Panini (Italian-style sandwiches) start with long slices of peasant bread, their exteriors moistened with olive oil and hash-marked on an electric panini grill. We enjoyed a bacon-salmon sandwich, featuring East Coast salmon cured with bacon spices, served with lettuce, tomato, and avocado. If the tomato was mushy, it was still better than the rock-hard specimens usually served this time of year. Another sandwich theoretically offered serrano ham (resembling prosciutto), buffalo mozzarella, balsamic onions, and a red plum spread -- but the kitchen was out of buffalo cheese and forgot to apply the plum spread. We gave permission to substitute smoked mozzarella, which proved too dense for relief from the salty meat. We abandoned this sandwich after a bite or two each.
When Krasne translates the intense flavors of her desserts to savory dishes, the impact can be overwhelming. No wonder portions are small. A couple of bites may not quell hunger but will satiate appetite. We rated each dish either four stars or no star. The pricing is high for so little food, and few of the savories approach the quality of the cakes. The lunch bill came to $25 per person before tip and tax. Would my ink-stained colleagues ever eat there again at their own expense? Their answer: For dessert, absolutely -- for nourishment, never.
To choose a dessert, you stroll to the pastry cases up front, then return to your table and order from your server. Our slices of cake, lemon praline and chocolate gianduja, were splendid. The regular espresso was so-so, while a decaf arrived so cold that the designer sugar refused to melt in it.
Service is never swift and grew slower as the lunch crowd waned. It took 20 minutes for somebody to cut the cheese plate; my companions, already late getting back to work, had to leave before it arrived. You can choose a plate of one, three, or five cheeses from a list that includes peak-condition goat, sheep, cow, and bleu varieties from at least five nations, shipped down from specialists in Berkeley and Los Angeles. The plate includes an assortment of fruit spreads, candied walnuts, and more slices of hearty breads.
On the way out, I stopped at the shop at the front of the café and picked up a couple of breakfast pastries and two packages of cookie dough. Later, I discovered that the breakfast "cinnamon brioche" wasn't brioche at all, but a tough, lardy-tasting dough shell filled with sugared nuts. A huge pineapple "French Danish" was too sweet for a wake-up meal. The cookie-dough packages ($9 each) had sketchy instructions -- perhaps everybody is supposed to know how to make cookies. Once baked, the cherry chocolate chip cookies were sweeter than I could stand, the mocha macadamia ones passable. Neither was worth a buck per cookie. When Krasne is good, she's extraordinarily good. When she's bad, she's not good at all. Either way, the creations of the princess of pastry do not sell for people's prices.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Karen Krasne caught the pastry bug while she was a student. "I was working at a high-end pastry/wine bar," she said, "kind of a French café that was in Honolulu at the time I was going to school at University of Hawaii. The woman that owned it seemed like she was having the most incredible life. She was flying to Paris, she was successful in what she was doing, and she was enjoying what she was doing. And I thought, 'Wait! I'm going to go get a master's in science? I must be crazy!' I absolutely loved working with her. Once I got my degree -- it was in food science and nutrition, with a minor in French -- I decided to go study in France. I talked to a few different food people here, since I'm a native San Diegan, to get their suggestions for where I should study. They said, 'The Cordon Bleu.' " Krasne received a certificat de patisserie from that institution.
She opened her first Extraordinary Desserts 17 years ago (the Little Italy store is six months old) but has continued traveling the world and returning to Paris to study specific areas of pastry expertise at the famed Ecole LeNotre and the Bellouet Conseil Ecole Perfectionement. "I've spent the last 20 years taking one or two courses every year," she says.
Does she love sweets? "You know -- I think that I must! I adore working around them, and I love what happens when we make something that's really delicious. I look at it more like a color-and-texture kind of palette. I don't enjoy working with food as much. To me, food is just...I enjoy it and I love to go eat at fabulous restaurants, but pastries are more like little pieces of art.
"I get a lot of my ideas from my travels. There's a lot of inspiration out there, but also, traveling is an opportunity for me to just quiet down in my mind, whether I'm on an airplane or a bench in Central Park, so an idea has a moment to enter. When I'm rushing to work and making sure my baby's attended to and running to the gym and grabbing supplies -- those are not very creative moments."
Karen is a petite brunette, and I asked how she manages to stay so slim when her profession involves tasting (as well as baking) pastries every day. "The gym is part of it, and yoga, and running, and never having a moment to actually sit down and have a meal," she said. "It's really a struggle to stay thin, but the answer is, I love fashion. But I must have put on five pounds when I was tasting things to go into the panini here. I could get into a lot more trouble if I was a food chef."
She attempts to use organic products as much as possible and is now working on soups and salads for the menu. "We try to have things there for a person who can't eat wheat, and for vegetarians and even vegans. I've enjoyed being on all those diets. The one thing I haven't gotten into yet is coming up with things for diabetics."