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Green tea chiffon, red bean beignets

New wave Korean bakeries are turning out some of the most exciting pastries around.

June 21, 2006|Barbara Hansen and Susan LaTempa | Times Staff Writers

THE confection-filled bakery case sparkles in the combined light from a crystal chandelier and sunshine slanting through a graceful two-story bank of windows. Inside the case, cakes sit coquettishly in a row: a tall green tea chiffon cake, its whipped cream frosting tamed into sculptural swoops, or a dome-shaped strawberry cake, fresh berries peeking through the frosting to give an effect of a meadow under snow.

This is Wien Konditorei und Cafe, also called Wien Bakery & Cake House and Wien Panaderia y Casa de los Pasteles, a Korean bakery that six months ago relocated from its original L.A. location to its new, specially built home, a pastiche Mittel Europa chalet with an exterior awning that suggests a mansard roof and a polished contemporary interior with a few Old World touches.

It's one of a small wave of Korean-Euro bakeries that express a fascinating new aspect of L.A.'s food zeitgeist. With their refined but tradition-busting creations, these bakeries -- independents as well as recently arrived outposts of upscale Korean chains -- target a sophisticated, well-traveled clientele within the Korean community.

And non-Korean Southern Californians are quickly picking up on the appeal of cakes, pastries, cookies and breads made with European baking techniques adapted to Korean tastes.

At these new wave bakeries, ingredients familiar to lovers of fusion desserts -- green tea, red bean paste, chestnut and sweet potato -- bring an air of innovation to beautifully executed European classics. Not incidentally, some new Asian classics-in-the-making are front and center.

Did we mention the red bean doughnuts?

Just as American-Euro bakeries such as the pioneering La Brea Bakery and its offspring romanticized rustic European baking, these Korean bakeries for the most part romanticize super-refined forms of European baking, including viennoiserie, the French baking style that focuses on puff pastry creations.

For all its charm, Wien, the brainchild of Hae Duk Kim, a Korean-born baker and Austriaphile, is located on a gritty block on Olympic Boulevard. The signage identifies pastries not only in Korean but also with a unique mix of English, French and Spanish ("green pea pan"). A few trilingual fliers stacked near the coffee announce that Wien has added another branch and "now opens its door to happiness for you in downtown Los Angeles."

Well said. The place is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the flow of customers served by the neatly uniformed counter women never stops. It's a good place to get superlative examples of Korean-bakery favorites: green tea chiffon cake and breakfast pastries with fillings such as green pea paste. But their specialty might be the bite-size cakes and cookies: madeleines and financiers, along with green tea butter cookies and black sesame tuiles.

The specialty at Paris Baguette on Western Avenue is viennoiserie, and if the shop's baskets of nicely browned, wonderfully flaky croissants and pastries are inviting at first glance, they're doubly so once you notice the inventive fillings. Here's one with small slices of glazed fresh banana; here's a twist embellished with black sesame seeds that has a delicate layer of sweet potato puree. Diced chestnut glazed with fruit gelee is a terrific topping on croissant dough; a bear claw is filled with sweetened green pea puree and sprinkled with sliced almonds.

Signboards in Korean and English outside Paris Baguette delineate the day's hour-by-hour fresh-from-the-oven schedule: Selected pastries appear at 7 a.m., followed by baguettes and green tea chiffon cakes at 8 a.m. and red bean doughnuts at 9:30. Come back at noon for a glutinous rice baguette, another Korean bakery specialty, essentially a French baguette with a layer of rice within.

This small bakery, with just a few tables and a young, capped and aproned staff, is a test bakery, opened by a Korean chain in October 2005. Its success has led to the opening of a larger branch in Fullerton.

Jayson Choi, Paris Baguette's head baker here, studied at l'Ecole Lenotre in Paris. Choi has developed recipes for the American market including sourdough breads such as small multi-grain loaves, a walnut-raisin loaf and a scrumptious dark chocolate-cherry bread. But he turns to French techniques for croissant and Danish dough, as well as mousse cakes and pound cakes.

Another Korean chain, Tous Les Jours, has opened bakeries in Northridge, City of Industry and Torrance. It sells a more extensive line of cafe foods than most bakeries, but at least half the floor space in its stores is devoted to self-serve baked goods, and there are elaborate cakes too.

As at other Korean bakeries, many pastries are individually cello-wrapped and the overall setting is pitched to be hygienic and modern. Breads are baked fresh every day with dough shipped from a central kitchen in Monrovia. An olive bread underlines the Korean-Euro approach: It's soft, white and delicately flavored compared with the rustic artisanal American version.

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