3001 University Avenue, San Diego
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.
After that, we tasted some of the simple pastries. This array includes banana bread and zucchini bread, macaroons, oatmeal bars, and "brownies" of various complexion. Some people like dryish, cakey brownies, some like 'em moist and fudgy. Heaven Sent's triple-chocolate brownies split the difference. I'd guess that the triumvirate consists of two varieties of supermarket baking chocolate (e.g., Baker's brand) plus powdered cocoa, since we detected a powdery taste and texture throughout. A chocolate chip blondie was rather dry. A macaroon was so heavy, we found chewing it a chore.
Finally, we sampled the chilled case, which holds some of the desserts I generally like best. The cheesecake is...just cheesecake, sweet and yellow and, well, ordinary. Still, I wouldn't kick it off the table. The Key lime tart is excellent -- a fine balance of sweet and sour. The vegan haupia (a Hawaiian coconut pudding) is built on gelatin. (Is that vegan? What about the old rhyme, "Roses are red, pansies are yellow, horses that lose are made into Jell-O?" Buddhists still use agar-agar instead.) It's a coconutty stiff custard here, topped with a slick of mango coulis, then sprinkled with sugar and brûléed under a torch just before you eat it. Pretty good, but not Hawaii's best.
We also picked up a pair of pastry swans stuffed with tart raspberry mousse. I'd have loved it if only the pastry were made with (you guessed it) butter rather than shortening -- because the other problem with shortening is that it makes pastry tougher -- more durable from the bakery's viewpoint, but also less exquisitely crumbly and fragile than expected. Swans may be tough, mean birds with tough meat (as Medieval eaters knew), but moderns see them as the ultimate in grace and delicacy. As John Ford said, "When truth and legend collide, print the legend." I wish that Heaven Sent baked the legend, too.
ADVISORY: SAN DIEGO SUSHI -- GOT MERCURY?
Speaking of food-health issues, I'm forsaking the chef interview this week to bring you a more compelling recent study of our local sushi bars. This is no reflection on Heaven Sent, but the info is hot off the press, and I wanted to get it to you as soon as possible.
A well-trained sushi chef will never poison you with bad fish -- but even the best chef can't tell how much mercury is in the seafood he serves. Nor can the fish jobbers who supply the fish or the fishermen who catch them. Furthermore, two fish from the same catch and two rolls from the same sushi bar may have widely varying amounts of contamination. Only laboratory analysis can determine which fish are safe and which are not. And cooking makes no difference -- the same amount of mercury is present in that pepper-seared ahi or lunchtime ahi-burger as in the raw version.
Why worry about mercury? Numerous studies have shown that mercury toxins seriously undermine the brain development of children -- both intellectual and motor function development. This is also true of children whose mothers consumed excess mercury during pregnancy. One Finnish study found that the toxins may be linked to cardiovascular disease in adults (like many Finns) who eat large amounts of mercury-contaminated fish.
But the poison can be hard for fish lovers to avoid. According to the National Academy of Science, mercury has become "widespread and persistent in the environment," far beyond its natural occurrence, mainly resulting from human pollution such as coal-fired power plants and industrial wastes. Bacteria transform mercury into an organic neurotoxin, methylmercury, which enters the food chain via sea life. For humans, eating contaminated seafood is the main source of danger.
Fish highest in the food chain -- predators like tuna and swordfish -- build up the highest levels of mercury in their flesh, because mercury can't be flushed in a fish's lifetime: Predator fish eat small contaminated fish, and the mercury accumulates and becomes more concentrated in them. The longer the fish lives, the higher the mercury content.
Since 2004, the FDA has been warning that children and women of childbearing age should not eat even small quantities of swordfish, King mackerel, shark, and tilefish. The FDA has done only limited studies on tuna, but when GotMercury.org (a fish safety group) looked at locally served tuna, they found an average mercury content 136 percent higher than the FDA detected. Some of the local tuna had mercury levels as high as King mackerel, the worst offender.
Since many Californians derive much of the fresh fish in their diets from sushi, and since tuna is the most popular species for sushi and sashimi, GotMercury took samples of the tuna served at ten of San Diego's leading sushi bars and sent them to a laboratory for analysis. They took two samples at each bar: One was a tuna nigiri, a ball of rice topped with a slice of fish. The other was a maki (makizushi), a.k.a. tuna roll, a roll of rice around fish. The tuna came from varying subspecies -- yellowfin (usually called by its Hawaiian name, ahi), and bigeye, bluefin, and bonito (all of which may be called maguro or toro, depending on what part of the fish it came from). Albacore (tombo) wasn't tested, but other studies (i.e., of canned tunas) have indicated a generally higher mercury content than yellowfin. Whatever the species, the results were disheartening.
What's the danger level? Most developed countries set a limit of 0.5 ppm (parts per million) total mercury, and the U.S. did so as well, until 1979, when it decided to allow double that -- 1.0 ppm, for men, women, and children. While none of the samples in this study were above the legal limit, about half of them were in the danger zone, with some samples barely under the limit.
The difference in mercury levels from one local restaurant to another isn't easily explained, since many local sushi bars get their seafood primarily from the same two major fishmongers in Los Angeles. Then, too, it's clear from this study (and from a previous study in L.A.) that bluefin -- the largest, longest lived, and most endangered tuna species -- typically carries the highest risk. Some of the sushi bars that did well in the test happened not to have any rare and costly bluefin toro available at the time of the sampling but may serve it at other times. For whatever reason, the tuna at three of the sushi bars was remarkably lower in mercury than at the others.
Until the FDA and EPA awaken to the dangers, there's little that susceptible individuals can do to protect themselves except to stop ordering fresh tuna (raw or cooked -- canned yellowfin is generally safe). Sushi restaurants should post warnings. (California Proposition 65 requires them to do so, but it's not being enforced.) New technology allows for rapid mercury screening of fish, and conscientious seafood restaurants of all types ought to demand that their suppliers test tuna and other affected species before selling it. Beyond that, look at the chart above and decide for yourself. Basically, don't feed your kids tuna rolls or eat them if you're pregnant or might get pregnant -- there are plenty of other fish in the sushi case.
(This report derives from data provided by Eli Saddler, public health analyst for GotMercury.org.)