I like to play with my food. Not in the traditional sense, although a good food fight is fun once in a while-rather, I sometimes like to pit new food places against longtime favorites to see how they stack up. It's like my own private Iron Chef competition, where stalwart champions defend their title against challengers that I throw into the ring, with my taste buds acting as the judges panel. Yes, I live in a very food-centered world.
I recently held such a contest for the title of Best Spot to Enter Sugar-Induced Coma, with Sage French Cake, a tiny but mighty dessert shop in Kearny Mesa, as my reigning gladiator. The owner and pastry chef is Korean but was raised and trained in Japan, where there's a long tradition of perfecting desserts in the European style while keeping an Asian sensibility.
Sage's cakes are decadent and indulgent, but they also seem lighter than their European counterparts. Dense crusts and sometimes tooth-achingly sweet fillings are replaced by ethereal sponge cake, light-as-air mousse and subtle, just-sugary-enough fillings. The flavors of Sage's cakes are nontraditional, too. Among my favorites are the Tambouran, a light chocolate-cake base topped with fluffy waves of coconut custard and chunks of fresh orange. Chestnut purée is sandwiched between sponge cake and a snowy mound of custard in the Monblang cake. The Teaimo layers pistachio mousse with blackcurrant purée and milk chocolate. And the Elby is a multi-leveled wonder of rich chocolate cake and dark, white and milk chocolate mousses. There's also a three-layer strawberry shortcake and one of the best fruit tarts around.
Each cake is delicate but satisfying and so artfully created that if they weren't so darn delicious they'd be a shame to eat. If you've ever had that dream where you're surrounded by piles of the most perfect cakes ever, these are the conscious realm's version of those desserts. If I love someone a lot and I don't have time to bake a birthday cake from scratch, they'll get one from Sage because I definitely couldn't make one any better. Get a slice of one of these beautiful cakes for a loved one and you're guaranteed some sugar.
The contender for Sage's throne this round was Stephanie's Bakery in Ocean Beach. Granted, it didn't start out as a fair fight, exactly. I mean, Sage has some of the world's most luscious ingredients in its corner and Stephanie's is a vegan bakery. That means no butter and no cream-both ingredients I considered essential to any decent dessert, let alone a crave-worthy one. Still, I try not to discriminate against any foods and I'd been hearing good things about Stephanie's, so I thought I'd make a visit, albeit a skeptical one. I certainly never thought it could be worthy of a spot on the Sweets Hall of Fame. But one bite of the bakery's still-warm-from-the-oven Black Forest Strudel, a velvety mix of dark chocolate, tangy cherries and non-dairy cream cheese wrapped in rich, flaky pastry tempted me to sneak into the back to see if they were swapping out the vegan ingredients with contraband dairy products. It was the certainly the best vegan dessert I've ever tasted and the finest strudel I've had in San Diego, period.
Maria, the warm and bubbly owner of Stephanie's Bakery, bakes more than 10 equally tasty varieties of strudel, including the traditional apple and apricot and the strangely tasty prune and poppy seed. The key is the strudel dough, which Maria somehow manages to make taste authentic using vegetable oil instead of butter. Her Tres Leches cake is an enigma, too. This buttery cake is usually doused in evaporated, condensed and whole milk for a creamy goodness, but her vegan version is missing almost none of the rich moistness of the original. The frosting that tops her specialty birthday and wedding cakes, which include carrot, lemon-coconut and chocolate, has a silky texture that won over this dairy devotee.
Stephanie's Bakery certainly rose to this challenge. I would happily eat these pastries anytime, not necessarily for health reasons or ethical concerns, but because they're just really good. Stephanie's is also said to serve the greatest vegan pizza, but that's for another food competition and another day.
Stephanie's Bakery is located at 4879 Voltaire St. in Ocean Beach, 619-221-0285. Sage French Cake's at 3860 Convoy St., Suite S112 in Kearny Mesa, 858-571-3484.
Want to nominate your own favorite spot for a food battle? E-mail Candice at firstname.lastname@example.org.