Monday, June 18, 2007

Montreal's Best Cupcake and then some...

Montreal seems to be one of the last major North American cities to catch the cupcake fever. Perhaps it is because we have such a fine selection of standard French pastries available at every corner boulangerie, that cupcakes tend to fall into the category of kindergarten birthday-party sweets.

Not anymore.

Gourmet cupcake shops are popping up all over Montreal as fast as potholes on Decarie Boulevard, already three in just the last six months! Surprising for a city where until recently, (unless you shopped in the bakery section at Loblaws) if you wanted a cupcake, you had to make it yourself. Now that there are four bake shops scattered over the city where you can pick up one of these trendy little cakes, there is bound to be one close to chez vous.
Google ‘cupcake New York’ and you will get about 1.3 million hits, where ‘cupcake Montréal’ will give you a little over one hundred thousand. Why is there such a cupcake craze south of the border, and how did we Montrealers end up with three new ‘boutique de cupcakes’ in a matter of a few months?
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 Montreal sells for $3. That’s three dollars and forty cents with tax, thank you very much. It is the equivalent of a sublime Vahlrona chocolate brioche at Olive et Gourmando, two flawless croissants from the Fromentier, or about five Polish prune paczki from Wawel.
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

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.

Petits Gateaux.
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 Montreal during the first few years we were married and it will always hold sweet, sweet memories for me. Unfortunately, Petits Gateaux didn’t help me make any new sweet memories.
The decor is cute enough, minimalistic, modern and fun, but it was here we encountered the worst of our research.

“You ladies choose which ones to get.” I offered, (usually the first to make my selection loud and clear.)
“Oh, I don’t know, you decide.”
“No, YOU!”

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.

Itsi-bitsi,
2621 rue Notre-Dame Ouest, 514.509.3926. Opened:December ’06
Price per Cupcake $2.50, Seating: limited

Itsi-bitsi was a slight encouragement to our sinking spirits. So far we were not finding the perfection we were looking for and our stomachs were starting to churn from the large doses of gummy icing.
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....

Montreal's Best Cupcake: Chocolate-Chai from Cocoa Locale


Cocoa Locale.
4807 Park Avenue. 514.271.7162. Opened: Summer ’05
Price Per cupcake: $3 Seating: a bench

I knew our mission was accomplished the second I bit into one of Reema Singh’s cupcakes at Cocoa Locale. Owner of the teeny-tiny Mile-End shop, Reema does all the baking herself and alongside other assorted baked goods, offers three kinds of cupcakes: vanilla, lemon and chocolate-chai. Of course we took one of each.
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.

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.
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.

31 comments:

Anonymous said...
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Little Foodie said...

Great post! I love cupcakes, fairycakes, however I don't think I've ever had one, not homemade, that I wasn't a little disappointed with. I also loved your little cork board as we used to have one made of all the wine we'd drunk. It got thrown away but I'm now feeling all nostalgic and want it back, along with all the memories of drinking the wine. Amanda

Michelle said...

You are hilarious! It was an enjoyable day for sure!

Nora B. said...

Aimee, I like your sense of humour. You've been working hard testing/tasting all those cupcakes. I have to say that I can't part with my money for cupcakes, just because I have been so very disappointed before with the taste of store bought cupcakes, no matter how pretty they look.

Helen said...

What a thorough cupcake investigation! Ok,ok, I might give them another chance...!

Aimée said...

Hi Amanda! Thanks! Funny you noticed the cork board. It was fun to do and it a great way to recycle to corks.

Hi Michelle- why so hilarious? Again, thanks for the input and for modeling - hehe!

Hi Nora! Thanks! Yep it was a lot of hard work. :)

Hi Helen! Le us know if they were worth the second chance!

Michelle said...

I just love your sense of humour... the dry sarcastic comments. :) I think there might be a little over kill of pics of me in there though....

Tammy said...

There are good cupcakes to be found? I never knew. I guess you have to stick it out, eh?

~ Elizabeth said...

LOVELY blog entry...but now i have a hankering for cupcakes. . .

Amanda at Little Foodies said...

Made of all the wine we'd drunk! I think I must have been drunk when I actually typed that! I obviously meant with the corks from the numerous bottles of wine we'd drunk... But I suspect you probably guessed that! It's the braincells I lost having two children!

Ivan Brown said...

I agree with your comments about Cho'Cola. The muffins were disappointing, especially at that price. We're not a repeat customer, that's for sure.

Ivan Brown

The Flower Pot said...

You can now order Montreal cupcakes online for delivery right to your house!

The Flower Pot is a florist located in Montreal on Notre Dame Ouest, and we will soon be offering cupcakes on our popular website.

You can order Montreal cupcakes fresh from Itsi Bitsi and we'll deliver them for your party or just to satisfy a cupcake craving!

For more information, please visit www.theflowerpot.com

Geneviève said...

This is great! I wanted to bring my girlfriends to a cupcake boutique for our monthly meeting, this post is helping me to make my choice! :) I with that the last one (your favourite) had enough seating, because I'd go there for sure. I'll pick one of the others, but at least now I know that a) they have seating and b) the type of cupcake I can expect. Thanks!

Mealnie said...

I'm a bit late on posting.....but I do remember that day well! I must take Kevin to the shop on Parc!! I've gone on about it now....all he wants is just a bite/proof for himself! Great article! :D

Stéphane said...

Thank you so much for that post. My girlfriend loves cupcakes. Its her birthday today and I'm also looking for the perfect cupcake just for her. I guess I'll go check out that last one.

Thanks again.

Stef

Aimée said...

Hi Tammy- Take my advice and bake them yourself!

Hi Elizabeth- Thanks! Sorry about your hankering, that happens to me all the time!

Hi Amanda- Of course we understood what you were saying! :)

Hi Ivan- Welcome! It's a shame, isn't it? The place is so cute and the perfect place to meet up with friends..except for those darn cupcakes.

Hi Genevieve- Thanks for reading! Hope your meeting was a blast and you all enjoyed a fabulous sugar high.

Hi Melanie- I can't believe you have deprived K for so long. What gives?? ;)

Hi Stephane- Welcome to UtHC! Happy birthday to your friend and happy cupcakes shopping to you! Thanks for reading.

Jason said...

I found your blog through a post on Chowhound regarding cupcakes in Montreal. You see, I am coming to Montreal for my very first visit and trying to find the best places to visit.

So you should know, I am coming from NYC, the epicenter of the cupcake craziness. I used to live right down the street from Magnolia, in the early years when you could actually sit down at a 50's style table! Now the line goes roud the block, the cakes tend to be dry and the staff kind of sour. But those cupcakes look far superior to every single on in your photos.

Next came Buttercup Bakeshop, which was basically a spin off using many of the same recipes, but the owner added her own flavor variations.

For my money I now recommend Billy's Bakery to all NYC visitors...wonderful! Not too moist (to fall apart) and not to dry (also falls apart). I wish I could bring a dozen for you all to check out when I visit!! But if you ever come down to Manhattan I recommend you check them out, on 9th Avenue near 22nd street.

Thanks for your blog...

Anonymous said...

Its true Cho' cola's cupcakes were forgetable. Except, their red velvet cupcakes which were yummy. The packaging was very cute.

Casey McKinnon said...

Wow... THANK YOU for this post!!! I found it when I searched Montreal Cupcakes on Google. I'm so happy that you did the research for me... now I won't get sick on cupcakes! :P

Infinitely grateful :)
Casey

Casey McKinnon said...

Btw, the Java U on Sherbrooke in Westmount has a delicious Danish Cupcake. SO GOOD. I WISH I had the recipe...

ALSO btw, you're my new favorite local blog... I'm currently deciding which of your recipes I should make first!

Aimée said...

Hi Casey-
Thanks! BTW, stay tuned for a Montreal cupcake update coming soon!I'll have to try your Danish cupcake...

Nicole S said...

If you want delicious nostalgic cupcakes for a really good price, go to www.mtlcupcakes.weebly.com
This girl makes the best cupcakes in the world. I ordered from her a couple of times and I have absolutely no complaints.

Anonymous said...

You should check out www.bakesalegirl.com with delivery in MTL. They are tasty!

peaches said...

www.louloucupcakes.com
AMAZING!!! best I've ever had

bing said...

how many cupcakes can that cupcake stand hold? thanks!!!!

Anonymous said...

Whatever you do, do not order a cake at Cho'cola. The owner is incredibly rude and the staff is polite but clueless/disorganized (which is probably the fault of the owner). I ordered a cake over the phone and told them a friend was going to pick it up, and so I gave them both my name and my friend's name. It took several phone calls to get this straight because I needed a specific cake (nut/dairy free) and staff didn't know their cake offering. When my friend showed up to pick up the cake, they were unable to locate the order or the cake, and so we never got the cake. When I spoke to the owner about this, she blamed me, completely refused a refnd, and didn't excuse herself one bit. I was speechless. She told me I should have provided a bill number (which she never gave me) or the description of the cake (which I hadn't given my friend, not thinking it was necessary since they had our names). I've ordered cakes over the phone like this several times at serious bakeries, and it's always worked perfectly. Other detail that threw me off: staff don't know the list of ingredients for their products and the owner doesn't understand why I would want a written list of ingredients to go with the cake (which is downright weird considering allergies are her business).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post! I actually find Cocoa Locale great, but for me, what she makes while delicious, is a cake the size and shape of a cupcake, not a bona fide cupcake. The closest I have found that works for me is Itsi Bitsi. Especially while having a fantastic, and I do mean fantastic espresso coffee at Lili and Oli on their quirky back terrace, a few doors away from Itsi Bitsi. I agree with your points/shortcomings at Itsi Bitsi, but alas, no one else works for me in Mtl. Cocoa Locale is fantastic for cakes though, she even supplies the Afgan Pudding and a couple of other yummi desserts to Rumi on Hutchison and Fairmont on the other side of the street from Figaro.

Anonymous said...

I also wanted to mention Les Glaceurs in the old port to try out. I love their cupcakes, especially their red velvet and the decor is extra cute

Anonymous said...

I've done a cupcake crawl around Montreal and the best are without hesitation Cocoa Locale, the others you visited can't hold a candle to hers! I also own a decorating company, I make the decorative bits on cupcakes come see my selection at cupcaketoppies.com see you soon!!!

casperboost said...

Thank you so much for writing this and posting those pictures! Those look like the most delicious cupcakes in the whole world! Where exactly are these located? I am going out to find a florist this afternoon and would like to come take a look!

Anonymous said...

Hey you should should review les glacieurs I'd love to hear your thoughts on them. Their customer service sucks and their cupcakes are almost 4$!!

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