San Fran Chow: Sweets From Beard Papa's, Melt & CeFiore

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Westfield Shopping Centre
865 Market St., San Francisco, CA 94103
Web: Westfield Shopping Centre
Phone: 415.512.6776
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"The gelato is the reason Melt's here, and believe it or not, the sheer beauty of Melt's Westfield Food Emporium location is one reason Buffalo Chow is here."

As we looked back recently at our archive of photographs from the past year, we found old pictures of two out-of-town restaurants we had wanted to tell you about earlier: the semi-famous Japanese pastry shop Beard Papa's, and the less famous but visually stunning San Francisco gelato parlor Melt. Luckily, we had the chance this week to revisit both of these places, as well as the Italian-style frozen yogurt shop CeFiore, all in the Westfield Shopping Center on Market Street in San Francisco, California; our discussion of Westfield's impressive Food Emporium is in a separate entry.

If there's any single out-of-town dessert shop that's been absent from our pages for too long, it would be Beard Papa's, one of the most photographed restaurants in our extensive collection. We first came upon this place years ago in Osaka, Japan, oddly enticed by its cartoony logo: a Santa-like bearded man with a yellow cap and little pipe. "How odd," we thought, perusing the display case full of cream puffs in varied flavors, then ordering a couple - one vanilla, one green tea. We didn't really know what we were getting. The girl behind the counter took two baked choux pastry shells ($2.25 each, today), stuck them into separate, clean metal pumps, and injected each with a generous dose of cool, similarly fresh flavored custard. Think Bavarian Cream donut, only colder, fresher, and heavier on the cream, which is either milky and light, or with a nice infusion of matcha green tea powder. By comparison, the shell is crispy and dry, as the fresh cream hasn't had time to soak through its body.

That first visit was when we were hooked, and it would be hard to tally the number of Beard Papa's cream puffs we've eaten since then - pretty much everywhere we've visited, safe for Buffalo. While they're most easily found in Asia, with equally excellent locations in Japan, Singapore, and Thailand, they've also spread to China, the United Kingdom, Hawaii, California, Seattle, and even New York City. In an effort to expand the menu, parent company Muginoho has added everything from cheesecake sticks ($1.75) to cookie-style choux puffs, eclairs, and horn-shaped coronets (generally $2-$3 each) to the menu, most with their own small spins on the obvious formula. We've tried them all, and though they're generally fine to good, none matches the traditional cream puff. Beard Papa's now offers the puffs in a number of flavors, with vanilla and chocolate always available, and a third flavor of the week alternating between green tea, coffee, strawberry, pumpkin, and Earl Grey tea. Years later, green tea's still a favorite when we can find it.

On this trip to San Francisco, we had three cream puffs: two coffee flavored, and one vanilla, the former at different locations due to the Yerba Buena store's superior freshness and the Westfield mall's runnier coffee custard. As it turns out, not all Beard Papa's locations are created equal; there are now franchisees, some mediocre, all over the place. Orange County's Marukai Market location, for instance, was pitiful - so bad that no one would ever leave understanding what the big deal was about. Hopefully, Western New York will wind up with both a good location and a faithful franchisee; these treats could easily be the area's next big dessert craze.

Beard Papa on Urbanspoon

Beard Papa on Urbanspoon

Melt Gelato & Crepe Cafe is another story altogether - an chain of American gelaterias with locations in seven states, notably including more than 15 in California and one upcoming store in Manhattan. For those who haven't tried it, gelato is a dense, creamy Italian version of ice cream, generally made with all-natural ingredients and less buttermilk fat; Melt also serves crepes and paninis, though we've never seen anyone ordering or eating them. The gelato is the reason Melt's here, and believe it or not, the sheer beauty of Melt's Westfield Food Emporium location is one reason Buffalo Chow is here: it was so visually appealing by ice cream store standards that we found it impossible to walk past without wanting something on display. At that point, we realized what a gulf there was between Western New York's culinary strengths and its ability to attractively present them to customers - that struck us as worth writing about, though it took until now to mention Melt itself.

Melt's beauty comes from two sides of the four-side, freestanding store, little more than glass cases loaded with 35 or so glistening, oversized lumps of creamy gelato and fruity sorbetto. Two-thirds or more are the former, their colors, size, and proximity collectively beckoning for you to try them. One, labeled Toasted Almond Coconut Fudge, is such a perfect visual orange, brown, and white melange of the expected ingredients, gently swirled, that you'll want to stick your finger in and try it. That's why everything's behind glass.

Led by one especially passionate fan of the place, our group managed to sample no fewer than 20 of the flavors during our meals at Westfield. And despite the pricing - noted in a moment - the flavors won our repeat business: Double Dutch Chocolate seemed to contain more cocoa and richness than literally any ice cream we've ever tried, while less intense flavors such as Caramel Chocolate Crunch, Double Espresso, and Mint Chip were still plenty appealing and strong enough in their core flavors. Nut-based gelatos, including the Mascarpone Caramel Pistachio, had generously sized chunks inside, while the Stracciatella, a gelato variant on chocolate chip ice cream with thin chocolate shavings, was more delicate. The only misses were the Strawberry Cheesecake, which like so many other cheesecake ice creams went down less than smooth and left a bad, lingering aftertaste, and the Creme Brulee, which while fine wasn't distinct enough from a traditional vanilla ice cream.

As tastes vary and some people will surely like even the "off" flavors, Melt's only real problem is its price-to-portion ratio. All of the serving cups are on the small size, and Melt doesn't exactly make them overflow: four-flavor samplers and two-scoop dishes are sold for $5 each, both with just a little gelato poking over the tops of their roughly four-ounce cups; one-flavor dishes go for $4. This isn't cheap, and isn't even a good deal - you'll get more frozen goodness for the buck in a Starbucks Frappuccino. Here, you're paying for the quality of the ingredients, unique flavors, and presentation, and there's no doubt that they're all memorably good.

Melt Gelato & Crepe Cafe on Urbanspoon

The last of the dessert places we visited at Westfield was CeFiore, which we previously discussed briefly in an article on Italian-Style Frozen Yogurt. We won't repeat most of that article here, but it suffices to call this style of yogurt - recently popularized by Korean entrepreneurs - one of our very favorite "healthy" treats, as it starts with a typically tart and sweet yogurt, then gets coupled with the customer's choice of fruits or other toppings. At the right places, it's truly awesome enough to prefer over ice cream. Seriously.

CeFiore is one of a number of businesses that have tried to capitalize on the growing popularity of this new frozen yogurt, rapidly setting up shops in major cities all across the United States. Like the others, it draws inspiration from Korea's fountainhead chain Red Mango, offering a more limited variety of both yogurts and toppings than our favorite shop Yogurtland. Like Pinkberry, the best-known of the Red Mango clones, the yogurt flavors at CeFiore are generally sweeter and less tart, though still just tangy enough to let you know that there's yogurt inside.

It needs to be said that the CeFiores we've visited - first, in Huntington Beach, then in San Francisco - have struck us as Pinkberry wannabes with just enough appeal to satisfy first- or second-time Italian yogurt fans but not enough to hook more experienced customers. Our small-sized cup, shown here, was pricey at $5 and not exactly generous in the toppings department; the cost included three dollops of our choice, so we picked from the mere nine fruit options, bypassing another nine candy choice. The employee assembled our dish with a grand total of two litchis and perhaps 5 or six blackberries alongside a pile of tiny pineapple flecks, repeating the same formula with other members of our group. We had way more yogurt than toppings to enjoy it with, and noted that successively larger cups added more yogurt - probably not much more topping - at additional $1 increments. But as plain as our cup was, we still enjoyed it, and found ourselves realizing that even having one of these wannabes around would be better than the nearly-nothing-at-all yogurt situation Western New York is in now. We'll continue to hope against hope for a Yogurtland, but potential CeFiore franchisees should take note: you too would be welcome here.

CeFiore on Urbanspoon

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