Gourmet cupcake shops are popping up all over
I decided to try and find out. A cupcake tasting was needed. Urgently. Have we been missing something? Have our noses been buried so far into our napoleons, pithiviers, and tarte au pommes that we have been overlooking such an elementary delicacy as the cupcake?
Somehow I doubted it.
But! An afternoon of nibbling sweets sounded pretty nice, so I rounded up three of my girlfriends, each a bona fide baker in their own way and none of them watching their weight, and we stoically set out to complete our task.
I think it’s probably been at least a year since I’ve made cupcakes, and even then they were only to donate to a kid’s camp. I may not be a cupcake connoisseur, but I was confident I would know perfection when my tongue encountered it. I was looking for perfection and perfection only, here’s why:
The average cupcake in
These had better be really, really good cupcakes. With a bag of icing sugar retailing around $1.99 and a box of cake mix the same, I can whip up a couple dozen for the cost of one of these designer cupcakes.
New York City's Magnolia Bakery, credited with starting the whole cupcake craze, (popular thanks to regularly screen time on Sex and the City) sells their celebrity cupcakes for $2. Other well known cupcakes shops in Manhattan, such as Sugar Sweet Sunshine, sell for even less, $1.50, so why the huge hike just six hours north? It’s not like we have to fly the frosting and sprinkles in by seaplane or anything. Come on!
Ok, so where are these shops, you ask, and more importantly, where are the photos??
At first glance at the business cards gathered from our tour, one might assume there are universal rules for owning a cupcake shop: you colors must be pink and brown. Either that, or there is cupcake mafia already and they have a hand in all these bakeries. In Montreal, it wouldn't surprise me.
Showcase at Cho'cola
Showcase at Cho'cola
5601 Monkland, 514.485.cola. Open since: June ’07
Price per cupcake: $2.95 Seating: indoor and outdoor. Cho'cola is a nut-free environment.
Cho’cola was our first stop. We passed by the attractive outdoor terrace (which is sure to be a big draw even if the cupcakes don’t work out) and into the ultra-modern, girly-girly pink interior. Under the counter, an army of cupcakes stood at attention, leaving me to wonder about freshness issues. It is 3 PM on a Wednesday, folks, are you really going to sell all these cupcakes? I found the colors of frosting rather dull and the decorations very ho-hum average. (above photo)
We chose four and it’s a good thing I jotted them down at the time of eating, because they were completely forgettable.
Key lime had a pretty swirl of meringue topping it, but the cupcake had about as much of a citrus taste as a Ritz cracker. There was a florescent green blob of something in the middle and I am assuming this was the namesake key lime. The cake part was probably just plain vanilla, but I guess it would have involved actually reaching for a real lemon to change that, and we all know how much work that is!
A carrot cupcake had mixed reviews. The girls used the word ‘muffin’ more than once, however, I was focusing more on the tasty cream cheese icing. It was OK.
A ‘Chocolate Fever’ cupcake was about as low-grade as they get. This was our first stop of the day and I was dying to sink my teeth into something really, really chocolaty. Unfortunately, this light brown, hint-of-cocoa cupcake did nothing for me and its heavy icing was way overkill. Doubling the height of the cupcake, it was a disturbing pile of pasty, overly-sweet frosting that hadn’t even come close to a stick of butter.
Finally a Chai Latte Cupcake helped smooth our ruffled feathers as we pronounced it the best, yet it was hardly more exciting than a plain vanilla cupcake with a few specks of spices.
You have to wonder about a place that has row after row of bottled water with their label on it, but no website to speak of. Granted they have only been open a few weeks, but in this day and age where branding and marketing seem of paramount importance (hence the branded water), you would think that at least getting up a homepage with some contact info would be a priority.
I couldn’t help but get the feeling that if Betty Crocker came back in a time machine from the past, she would have opened Cho’cola, as the cupcakes have that straight-from-a-box taste.
783 Avenue Mont-Royal Est. 514.510.5488. Open since: May ’07
Price per cupcake:$2.95 Seating: yes
Truth be told, I was rooting for this Plateau bakery. We lived in this corner of
The decor is cute enough, minimalistic, modern and fun, but it was here we encountered the worst of our research.
Maybe my friends we just trying to be nice, but I kept scanning the case, desperately looking for temptation and finding none. If you looked closely, past the sprinkles and large rosettes of crusty icing, you could see the hard, cracked edges, signaling a dense, dry cupcake. Red alert! We managed to choose three: banana caramel, coconut and chocolate ganache. The bright blue coconut-quaffed cupcake looked cheery enough, but all the coconut fell off at the first bite and the baking soda taste was too overwhelming to continue eating. Too bad, because it was the fluffiest one. When cut in half, the banana cupcake looked about as appealing as a day-old Tim Horton’s bran muffin. And I hate Timmy’s. As I had predicted, it was very dry. On the flip side, the chocolate ganche cupcake was moist to the point of being messy. It fell apart the second I touched it, and more resembled a brownie than a cupcake. Tip: don’t eat this on a date where you are trying to impress.
With a bright, cheery interior, Itsi-bitsi was very welcoming and the cupcake displays were the best we had seen yet. Each cupcake sat in a round hole in a notched piece of wood that slid out like a drawer for the case. It was impeccably clean and very chic looking. There were enough cupcakes on display to chose from, but not so many that you start to wonder if they have sold any at all that day.
We chose just two to taste, as basic vanilla and chocolate ginger. If you can’t get these two flavors perfected, there's no point in moving on!
I loved the icing on both of these cupcakes. It was generous, yet not overdone; fluffy and creamy with a buttery taste that absolutely has to be there for me! The vanilla cupcake was tasty, very nice, but still not worth the steep price. I would probably go back for their chocolate-ginger cupcakes. Light in texture and dark with chocolate, they had bits of candied ginger throughout that livened them up somewhat.
Still, the chocoholic inside of me wasn't completely satisfied. It was looking for something better, something worthy of the title of Montreal's Best Cupcake. A cupcake that made the world stop turning for a few seconds when you bit into it. An experience.
Something like this....
Price Per cupcake: $3 Seating: a bench
It's interesting how all these new copy-cat designer cupcake shops can't hold a candle to Montreal's own original little bakery. It's not that the other cupcakes were terrible, they were just not worth $2.95 each. The quality of ingredients and the care just wasn't there. Sure there was plenty of pretty packaging, fancy lighting, style and more than one Joe/Jane who knows their way around a piping bag, but ultimately in the end there was always flaws that no amount of icing -or sprinkles- could disguise.
We knew this was the end of the search for the best cupcakes; we didn’t even have to say anything. Seated on the grass at Parc Jean Mance, we collectively nodded our heads, sighed and licked our fingers. Perfection was found. What a relief!
The delicate lemon cupcake tasted exactly as it should: like lemon! With a fine crumb, produced only by a cake made from scratch, and a thinned-out lemon buttercream icing, this cupcake is the ultimate garden party confection.
The vanilla cupcake, usually the most basic of flavors, was actually the most complex. Whatever trick Reema has up her sleeve must be working, because this was the best vanilla cupcake I've ever had!
However, the ultimate part of my day was my first bite into the chocolate cupcake. It was the kind of deep, dark, rich chocolate flavor that makes a chocolate-lover's knees go weak. I wanted to rub that cupcake all over my body. Mmm, let me just sit here for a minute and remember it. Cocoa Locale only uses the best chocolate: Valrhona, and I heartily approve! Also, the subtle chai compliments the chocolate beautifully, taking this cupcake up another level. That now puts it way, way above any other cupcake we tried that day.
Now I know I am not the first to sing the praises of Cocoa Locale. It's been around for a few years, I am just sorry that I am only discovering it now. We were all charmed by this little shop-around-the-corner and agreed that it certainly made a trip up to Mile-End worthwhile.
Montreal is already widely known for its gastronomic strengths, perhaps once our cupcake bakeshops (with the exception of Cocoa Locale) work out their kinks, our city will have yet another feather in it's culinary cap.