Given Hawaii’s seeming love of desserts — which I base on random chats and social posts — it’s curious that Honolulu lags behind most major cities when it comes to dessert bars.
These are usually pretty cafes that offer a place to hang on girls’ nights out, a delectable reward at the end of a long day, a place to relax over luxurious bites, tea and coffee, after a film, theater event or concert.
Happily, this situation is being corrected as more step up to fill the void. And with the holiday season’s arrival, these shops offer a place to catch up with old friends, relieve stress or pick up treats for your next get-together.
808 Center, 808 Sheridan St., third floor; 722-5302
Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays
Megumi Albrittonstudied baking in Tokyo before arriving in Hawaii in 2009 and working for Satura Cakes, a patisserie in Ward Centre.
Eventually, she left to raise a family and found jobs in other industries, but continued to bake for friends and family, not knowing whether she wanted to continue in the business. In 2014 she found her resolve, and after searching two years for a location, found it at the 808 Center in 2016.
She had planned to operate it as a commercial kitchen for her work with wedding planners, restaurants and other companies in need of specialty items, but then thought, “I might as well open, since I have the space.”
Hers is a small shop with a shabby chic theme and beautiful spots of sunlight oh-so-perfect for those foodie shots.
A communal table is set with leaves, feathers and other elements that set the stage for beautiful plates of pastry and desserts. The most popular is a mini strawberry shortcake ($6). And pastry can’t be that bad for you if — like her fruit roll cake ($5.50 per slice) — it is studded inside with fresh fruit such as strawberries, kiwi and grapes, right?
Other confections include a caramel crunch eclair ($4.75), chocolate cheesecake ($6 slice), and peach tart ($4.25). Standards include tiramisu ($5.75) and cream puffs that, at $2 each, make a popular omiyage item.
If you’re overwhelmed by sweets over the holidays, mini quiches are available in such savory options as one with Canadian bacon, kabocha and corn.
Thirst quenchers: Hot and iced coffees and Kusmi Tea selections — jasmine, detox or Bouquet de Fleurs No. 108, a black tea with essential oils of bergamot, ylang ylang and four kinds of citrus.
MISS CHEN’S CAKE
808 Center, 808 Sheridan St.; 492-1723
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Tapping into the sensory nature of consuming cake, Miss Chen’s Cake has taken the art of cake one step further by adding a fluid, Instagram- worthy and interactive component to two of its most popular cakes.
A deep purple ube crepe cake comes with a matching ube cream sauce meant to be drizzled across its surface. Lava boba cakes come encircled by a sheet of plastic twice their height, ready for a pour of cream sauce up to the brim of the plastic. The sauce is then topped with boba and when the piece of plastic is removed, “lava” and boba ooze out to blanket the cake.
Although they look as if they may be extremely sweet, in Asian style they go light on the sugar. Matcha “lava” is full of true green tea notes, while the popular brown sugar version has a pour of luscious milk tea-flavored lava.
Cake slices are $5.95 to $7.50. Lava cakes range from $15 for a 4-inch round, to $65 for 8 inches. Whole crepe cakes start at $50 for 6 inches.
Creating the desserts was a matter of trial and error, said owner Jai Cheung, whose wife, Summer Chen, and her sister Ling Chen, create the confections based on what they all like to eat.
“I always loved desserts,” Cheung said. “I’m the kind of person who has to start with dessert for dinner, then have another one at the end.”
He admits that working in a coffee, tea and dessert cafe has dampened his enthusiasm somewhat. But that hasn’t stopped him from coming up with ideas based on ingredients he sees or requests from customers.
“I like to have things no one else has,” he said, which was the impetus for offering a durian roll cake.
“It’s one of our bestsellers,” he said. The love-it-or-hate-it pungency of the famously malodorous fruit was enough to send people running when it was brought into the Star-Advertiser office.
Also not found often is a black sesame pudding ($2.95) full of ground goma for those who appreciate a bit of texture in their desserts. Their newest creation is a layered taro mochi, capped with a savory layer of pork floss, a fine dry jerky popular in China and Taiwan.
But what most captivated me was Chen’s Portuguese pastel de nata. These were the predecessors of the dan taat, or egg tarts, commonly offered as desserts in dim sum restaurants.
Originally the product of Portuguese monasteries, they made their way to the Portuguese colony of Macau before arriving in Hong Kong in the 1940s. From there, they made their way to Hawaii with chefs who found work in Chinatown.
Different from the Hong Kong version, which has a pie-style crust, the Portuguese pastel de nata has a light, buttery and flaky pastry crust and a milky, rather than eggy custard.
In Portugal, I loved the crust but found the custard often too runny for my taste. Miss Chen’s marries the best of both worlds with the pastry crust and creamy egg custard.
Interestingly, when I got lost finding my way to the pastel de nata specialist Pasteis de Belem in Lisbon, Portugal, two Chinese girls, fellow travelers, pointed me in the right direction and we ended up spending the whole afternoon together, sightseeing and dining.
They told me that the pastry was rarely seen in much of China until McDonald’s introduced it as a breakfast item. Chen, originally from Fukien, bases her tarts on what she remembers of the McDonald’s version! Isn’t globalization grand?
Thirst quenchers: Hot and iced coffee, iced teas, milk teas.
HALEKULANI BAKERY & RESTAURANT
Halepuna by Halekulani, 2233 Helumoa Road; 921-7272
Open 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily
The goliath in this story is the newly opened Halekulani Bakery and Restaurant in the renovated Halepuna by Halekulani hotel (formerly Waikiki Parc Hotel). It delivers all the star power that comes with the brand, with pastries, desserts and breads created by Halekulani executive pastry chef Mark Freischmidt and new head baker Tatsuhiro Kaneshiro, from the Imperial Hotel Tokyo, known for his bread expertise.
You can witness some of the work being done via a display kitchen within the restaurant, open for buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a focus on bringing the bakery’s breads to the table via lunchtime sandwiches, and little touches like the Emmental and Parmagiano- Reggiano-coated crouton floating atop its French onion soup.
Pastries, sandwiches and savory laulau or crab-and-onion confit quiches, can also be enjoyed at a communal table inside the bakery, where you will be surrounded by beautiful golden brown baguettes and breads, such as ciabatta, sourdough and fig-nut loaves.
Viennoiserie, a category of pastry that includes croissants, puff pastry and small breads, is represented by such items as kouign amanns, plain ($5) or flavored with Kona coffee or banana-coconut ($5.50 each), lilikoi brioche ($4.50) and savory bacon- asparagus croissants ($6.50).
Then we come to the more colorful items that send dessert lovers’ hearts racing. These include a raspberry-pistachio tart ($8) crowned with the Christmasy red and green of those two ingredients, and the lush deep purple of cassis chocolate mousse ($8) with the delicate crunch of a sable cookie crust, every bite as good as it looks.
Full cakes are mirror-glaze wonders bearing names like Berry & Nut Infinity ($55) and Chocolate Lilikoi Bombe ($55).
Close any meal with bite-size confections of bonbons in flavors of golden Assam tea, double sea salt caramel, Kona coffee hazelnut or mai tai.
Thirst quenchers: Standard coffees or coffees with caramel, vanilla or tropical fruit flavors, iced teas, coconut water, and a small selection of local beers.
NOTE: The restaurant is offering a Thanksgiving buffet, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, with turkey and ham carving stations, and all the trimmings at hot and cold bars. Cost is $69, $35 for children ages 5 to 12.
WAIKIKI TEA HOUSE
234 Beach Walk Ave.; call 886-6000
Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; small parking lot available next to the tea house
In this country, Lady M is the grand dame of crepe cakes, introduced in the early 2000s by Kumi Iseki and a friend from Europe, who had a family recipe for a mille crepes cake he thought might do well in this country. The cake’s origin was in mille-feuille (a thousand leaves) pastry and became a mainstay during the Napoleanic wars.
At the time, Iseki was known for having opened a string of restaurants, from Tokyo Tokyo in the Kahala Mandarin Oriental (now Kahala Hotel) to Moshi Moshi Tei in the Ewa Town Center to restaurants in Asia. Now, a few steps away from her long-standing Wasabi Bistro, she has quietly opened Waikiki Tea House to serve her world famous Lady M cakes.
When Iseki offered her friend some needed capital two decades ago, she had no idea Lady M would start a craze, written up in every major culinary magazine. All she knew came from her senses. “The cake was so beautiful and it had a wonderful taste,” she said. It was a no-brainer to support the endeavor.
The company started by wholesaling the cakes to New York’s top restaurants in 2002, then the First Lady M cafe opened on the Upper East Side in 2004. The following year, New York Times food writer Amanda Hesser proclaimed Lady M’s mille crepes the second best cake in the city — only because, she wrote, “It’s impossible and foolish to claim that something is the best of anything in New York.”
“That cake was very, very unique and elegant, and we were in the right place at the right time, so lots of media talked about the cake, like the New York Times and Martha Stewart,” Iseki said.
By 2010, Iseki’s friend wanted out of the cake business, so she took over. There are now 31 Lady M boutique cafes around the world, from Los Angeles to Taipei.
In New York, most of Lady M’s business revolves around selling 9-inch whole cakes for $90. Whole cakes are also available here, starting at $55 for 6-inch cakes, but at Waikiki Tea House, you can also sample the cakes by the slice, choosing from about a dozen daily offerings.
Her most popular cakes comprise 20 layers of thin crepes, each separated by a layer of pastry cream, adding up to a satisfying mouthful of moist, flavor-saturated cake. Among them are chocolate and green tea mille crepes, plus newer introductions of passion fruit, pistachio and citron cake, the latter featuring lemon custard, ginger and candied lemon zest.
Also available are cheesecakes and standard cakes. Slices sell for about $8 to $9.50 each.
Flavors and cakes are seasonal, and in time for Thanksgiving is a pumpkin cheesecake, which should be available through the end of December. Set to arrive in December is a chestnut mille crepe cake that will be sold through the end of January.
Thirst quenchers: Hot and iced coffees, plus green, oolong, black and herbal teas, and island-flavor teas such as jasmine-mamaki, Waianae mango and Kauai passion fruit.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.