Several new sweet shops have opened in Berkeley, as well as one in nearby Albany, that offer pastries and desserts for a variety of tastes. The following spots include a traditional French pâtisserie from a baker who honed his skills in Paris; a Hong Kong-style dessert bar offering many fruity, gelatinous treats; a brand new dessert kiosk at UC Berkeley serving cakes, cookies and more; and a showroom of desserts from the bakery that invented mochi muffins.
You may need to loosen up your belt buckle or put in a few more hours at the gym after visiting all these places, but it’ll be worth it.
Since it opened at the end of July, residents in and near Albany have been delighted with the area’s new French bakery, Pâtisserie Rotha. Rotha Ieng, a pâtissier who studied at Parisian pastry school, Ecole Ferrandi and who trained with famed French pastry chef, Pierre Hermé, has been offering scratch-made traditional French pastries made with great care and skill at his small storefront on San Pablo Avenue.
My first visit to Rotha was a lesson in timing. I arrived at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, on its second weekend in business, and most of the offerings were already sold out. There were three types of pastries left — bostock ($4), canelé ($3.50) and a meringue ($3.25) — and I tried them all. My favorite of the three was the canelé, which had a beautifully dark caramelized exterior crust that acted like a protective shell to its soft custard interior. It had a deep flavor of vanilla and rum. I also liked the strong almond flavor of the bostock, that comes through in its frangipane and the bounty of sliced toasted almonds topping it.
I wasn’t taking any chances on my second visit, which happened on a Thursday morning, soon after the shop opened its doors. This time, I found a good supply of croissants ($3.25), pain au chocolat ($3.50), pain aux raisins ($3.75), pasteis de nata ($3) and Kouign-amaan ($3.50). Ieng could be seen preparing pastries in the background and I was told a second round of bakes would come out at 10 a.m. A Facebook post on Aug. 14 from the pâtisserie explained that it’s still figuring out how to meet the demand of customers, especially of its most popular items, like croissants and pain au chocolate. On a recent Sunday, Ieng made six batch, or 180, croissants to ensure there were enough for the day.
The croissant I tried at Rotha was light and airy with a nice buttery flavor and plenty of layers, but it wasn’t quite as flaky as ones I’ve had at Fournée, which shattered with croissant flakes on every bite. Of the pastries I tried on my second visit, my favorite was the Pastéis de Nata, a custard tart based on a Portuguese pastry (which is also the inspiration of those Chinese egg tarts you can get at dim sum spots). The quivering yellow custard was caramelized and had a warm nutmeg flavor that came through; a light delicate puff pastry surrounded it like a flakey bird’s nest.
There are now two benches out front to enjoy your treats, but Pâtisserie Rotha does not have indoor seating and is more of a place to grab and go, rather than eat on site. Hours are 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Pâtisserie Rotha, 1051 San Pablo Ave. (between Marin and Dartmouth), Albany
Berkeley’s first Hong Kong-style dessert café opened in Sather Lane this month, offering a rotating menu of puddings, soups, jellies and glutinous treats. If you’re not already familiar with this style of sweet, it might be a bit of a learning curve at UME because, although there’s a menu written in both English and Chinese, the individual placards next to each dessert are written in Chinese. The desserts are pre-packaged in disposable wares and placed in display cases, making it more of a dessert bar than a café. On my visit, I asked about each dessert before choosing the Ume #1 ($6.99) and Mango Pomelo Sago Sweet Soup ($6.99).
Ume #1 comes in three parts — a plastic container with mochi and boba in a cold soup is emptied into another plastic container holding black gelatinous grass jelly and red beans, which is then topped with a small container of creamer. Grass jelly is made from a Chinese herb that’s related to mint; the plant is dried, then boiled with starch, until it’s thick and gelatinous. Although it’s sometimes cut into cubes, at UME the jelly was left in big globs, to be cut with the spoon as you ate it. Cold grass jelly soup is a refreshing treat eaten on hot days; its bitter, almost medicinal caramel flavor and wiggly-jiggly texture match well with the chewy rice balls and tapioca balls. But I admit, it’s an acquired taste.
A version of Mango Pomelo Sago Sweet Soup can be found at many Hong Kong and Taiwanese dessert cafés, since the dish, also called yeung zhee gam luk, was invented in the ’80s by Cantonese restaurant chain Lei Garden. The dessert combines a chilled mango puree with milk and/or coconut milk to create a pudding base, with added diced mango, chunks of juicy pomelo fruit and gelatinous sago pearls, which are kind of like small, clear tapioca balls, but made with the pith of the palm plant. This is a much more approachable dessert than Ume #1 for first-timers, especially those who like mango and chewy, glutinous textures.
Other desserts that were offered the day I stopped in included coconut purple rice, durian pancake, purple glutinous rice pudding, a mocha and chocolate jelly cream roll, coconut milk jelly and a dessert UME calls “Chinese Healthy Soup,” a version of a Chinese chilled or hot soup made with snow fungus and dried jujubes that’s said to have medicinal properties.
UME Desserts is open noon to 9:30 p.m. daily, except Saturday. UME Desserts, Sather Lane, 2433 Durant Ave. (between Telegraph and Dana), Ste. D, Berkeley
A Girl Named Pinky
Baker Tina Stevens grew up in San Francisco and Oakland, but moved to Berkeley about 30 years ago, following her sister who went to Cal. She got interested in the art of baking desserts after making her own wedding cake, which turned out so well that she knew she had to start a business. In 2016, Stevens started A Girl Named Pinky out of La Cocina in San Francisco and has been offering special occasion made-to-order cakes and desserts. Last year, she had a four-day-a-week pop-up at E14 Gallery in Old Oakland. Today, you can find A Girl Named Pinky at the ASUC Student Union, where she is one of five new semi-permanent vendors at La Cocina’s Cantina at UC Berkeley. A Girl Named Pinky will be at this location for at least the next two semesters.
I stopped in earlier this week at about 2 p.m. and found Stevens had almost sold out of her goods. Stevens recommended the fruit tart ($3), and I’m glad she did. The personal-sized tart had a buttery shortbread shell filled with a vanilla pastry cream, then topped with blueberries, strawberries and blackberries. It was fresh and light, and not too sweet.
Other offerings that day included chocolate chip cookies with sea salt, yogurt parfait, brownies and slices of chocolate cake. Steven said she has more treats in mind to serve at the kiosk, including a vanilla cake with lemon curd and Swiss meringue buttercream, a green tea cake and a lemon blueberry cake that she’ll offer by the slice and maybe as small six-inch cakes. Stevens said now that school’s back in session, she’s testing the waters about what customers like at this location. A glance at her Instagram account, though, reveals her true passion and talent — creating full-size custom cakes. For those interested in A Girl Named Pinky designing their dream cake for a wedding, birthday or other occasion can contact her directly.
Third Culture Bakery
This summer, Berkeley’s Third Culture Bakery went from a two-person wholesale operation to a 12-person business when it opened its new retail space to the public in June. The change came just in time, as demand for the bakery’s mochi muffins and other sweets has been ever-growing, and its Eighth Street showroom, located at the Berkeley Kitchens, is a perfect space to not only sell products but experiment with new concepts. For example, co-founders Wenter Shyu and Sam Butarbutar have tried out ticketed brunches here, and have been testing mochi donuts with café customers before they go wholesale.
I’ve enjoyed Third Culture pastries at several of its wholesale locations, but this week, I finally visited the showroom. This is the way to go. Not only will you find the freshest treats here (sometimes hot from the oven), but the shop offers some exclusive menu items here.
The ube custard cake ($3.75) was recommended by Shyu, who said it’s one of his favorite current offerings. The cake is a deep caramelized brown color on the outside with stripes of decorative purple ube drizzle, and a bite into this spongey cake reveals a bright purple interior to match the drizzle. The cake is somewhat reminiscent of a canalé, but without the wet custard interior, and of course, it tastes of ube (purple yam). Shyu said cooking the ube with pandan leaves (a fragrant plant used to flavor food throughout Asia) and shredded coconut elevates its intensity.
Mochi waffle offerings are seasonal, and on my visit, there was one with summer berries, but I got the banana espresso mochi waffle ($9). Like Third Culture’s mochi muffins, its mochi waffles are gluten-free, but for those who normally discount gluten-free desserts, you don’t want to pass this one up. My waffle was topped with organic bananas, a generous dollop of espresso chantilly cream, a burnt sea salt caramel drizzle, TCHO cacao nibs and Maldon sea salt. All of the components work together to form a perfect union of flavors and textures, and all without being overly sweet. It’s a pretty big waffle, so it’s a good one to share, especially if you’re trying multiple treats in one sitting.
I had the green onion cheddar scone ($3.75) warm from the oven, and I recommend you try it this way too. Shyu said a customer once described it as a cross between a Cheez-It and a Red Lobster cheddar biscuit. Next time, I plan to try Third Culture’s other savory bake, a Japanese curry scone, topped with nori and made with curry powder, corn, scallions, and a blend of three cheeses — sharp cheddar, French Comte, and pepper jack.
Eating all those pastries made me thirsty, so I also tried the lychee matcha sparkler ($3.75), which is a refreshing soda made with Third Culture’s housemade lychee raspberry puree, rose water and a scoop of matcha powder. Third Culture Bakery is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Third Culture Bakery, 2701 Eighth St. (between Carleton and Pardee), Berkeley