Friday, November 30, 2012

A First Look at Uptown’s Sweet Bar, Home of the ‘Fauxnut’

By Luke Tsai
Fri, Nov 30, 2012 at 4:58 PM

After a sneak-peek soft opening yesterday, today is the first full day of business for Uptown Oakland’s Sweet Bar (2355 Broadway), the highly anticipated artisan bakery from Mani Niall, the man perhaps best known for being a former personal chef to Michael Jackson.

When I stopped by this morning to check it out, who else would be on the speakers but the King of Pop? It turns out that today happens to be the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Thriller — a landmark event for American pop music, of course, but also one Niall credits with landing him that initial personal chef gig, and ultimately helping to launch his career in the food biz.

All and all, a fortuitous day to start this new project.

Selection of baked treats at Sweet Bar
  • Luke Tsai
  • Selection of baked treats at Sweet Bar
As reported earlier in What the Fork, it’s been quite a career that Niall has had, post-MJ: He founded a trailblazing Los Angeles bakeshop (Mani’s Bakery) that pioneered gluten-free and vegetarian-friendly baked goods before that was a trendy thing to do. Then he spent six years as the executive chef for Just Desserts, the San Francisco-based commercial baking company. But opening a bakery of his own here in the Bay Area is the fulfillment of a long-held dream, Niall told me.

On to details: As was the case with his first bakery, just about everything sold at Sweet Bar is organic or otherwise sustainably sourced, and many of the baked goods are gluten-free or vegan or incorporate whole grains and sugar alternatives. There’s a refrigerated display case with cupcakes and a couple of whole pies. Out on the front counter, there are assorted cookies, muffins, and scones (both sweet and savory).

From 11:30 a.m. to 3:00, lunch is a served — a selection of mostly healthy-sounding salads, sandwiches, and flatbreads.

In the end, I went with a banana-chocolate “fauxnut” ($3), which resembles a doughnut from a distance insofar as it’s round and, at least for this version, topped with chocolate glaze. Up close you can see it’s more like an upside-down cake or mini bundt cake — baked rather than fried and pretty substantial. Also, it’s vegan and dairy-free, with an almond-milk based chocolate ganache, and the cake batter itself is even sugar-free — sweetened with agave. (Edit: Niall clarified, via email, that though the cake is sugar-free, the ganache is not.)

Yet, in spite of everything it was "missing," the fauxnut was one of the best banana-bread variants I’ve had in some time — moist, decadent, and sticky enough that it begs to be eaten with a fork (or plenty of napkins, anyway). I loved the not-too-sweet ganache and the hint of gingery spice in the cake itself.

Behold, the fauxnut.
Turns out the fauxnut has a good story to go with it, too: Apparently, Niall invented the cake in the early ’90s at the behest of a Hollywood prop master who needed a doughnut that Danny DeVito could eat for a film he was shooting — and DeVito didn’t eat sugar or fried foods.

Meanwhile, the Sweet Bar space, which was home to a historic sweets shop (MacFarlane’s Candy and Ice Cream) from 1946 to 1976, has been completely gutted — it’s wide open, with high ceilings, exposed pipes, and lots of seating: a big community table on one side and a long window counter stretching along the other, with plenty of two-tops in between: a nice place to spend a rainy day.

Anyway, despite the glum weather, the bakery attracted a decent crowd for its first day of business — friends of Niall’s, but also plenty of curious passersby and laptop-wielders (a few already taking advantage of the free Wi-Fi to conduct a business meeting) and a couple of food-blogger types scribbling notes and snapping away with their cameras.

The location seems slightly disadvantageous in that it’s on the other side of Grand, toward Auto Row — a bit of a hike from BART and most of the area’s day-to-day foot traffic. Then again, it’s also squarely in the wheelhouse of all that Art Murmur madness, which Niall has already taken advantage of with a series of pre-opening First Friday pop-up sales.

Niall, for his part, is optimistic.

“The butcher paper’s off the windows and you can see out,” he said. “Just the fact that we’re open, for me, is so special.”

For now, Sweet Bar will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekend — so it isn’t too late to stop by this evening and see what’s left in the display case. Niall said he plans to eventually extend the hours later into the evening.

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