Thursday, October 09, 2014

Sandbox Bakery @ Epicenter Cafe

When I first moved to San Francisco, I lived at 4th & Folsom.  My roommate at the time, from whom I was renting a room, insisted that the neighborhood was on the brink of change.  It turns out, he was totally right.  Within a year, we had a handful of new restaurants on the street.  Another year, we had Peet's right outside our door.  Another year, and we got a real, neighborhood cafe: Epicenter Cafe.  I visited it fairly often back then, grateful to have an independent coffee shop with a decent vibe close by.  Then I moved away, and forgot all about it.

Until one day recently, when I was at Whole Foods next door, and I was drawn back in to Epicenter because the sign out front proclaimed "homemade sweets and treats".  You know how much I love sweets and treats, particularly baked goods.

I eagerly walked up to the baked goods case, and peered in.  I could see a scone, along with several types of muffins and croissants, but none were labelled, not with variety or price.  The worker came over to ask what I'd like.  I asked what the assorted baked goods were.  He pointed at the scones and said "scones".  No mention of what flavor it was.  Very helpful.  So I had to further ask, "what type of scone?"  He said he didn't know.  I think I glared at him at this point, so he filled in the details that usually they get sent blackberry, but this looked lighter in color than usual, so maybe it was raspberry.  But he really wasn't sure.  At this point, I asked where they sourced their baked goods from, and he said, Sandbox Bakery.  I am familiar with Sandbox Bakery and do like their treats, but I was a bit put off by the sign proclaiming "homemade sweets and treats".  I took that to mean that they made them there, at Epicenter.

On my recent visits, I've only returned for the baked goods, so I can't comment on the rest of their food offerings, although all the signage boasts that it is organic, comes from local farmer's markets, the beef is grass fed, etc.  The lunch and evening menu has the expected sandwiches and salads, along with a few more interesting dishes like mac and cheese, shepherd's pie, meatballs, and veggie curry.  Breakfast has a few egg dishes, yogurt and granola, and bagels.  And of course, they are proud of their coffee.

The seating inside is very SOMA, with both tables and couches, where folks sprawl out to soak up the free wifi.  I choose to sit outside on the sidewalk on each visit, at one of a handful of little tables.  It is surprisingly peaceful out on the sidewalk, even though it really wasn't private at all.  There was not a lot of foot traffic, despite the nearby Whole Foods, but just enough to not feel sketchy.  And somehow, that little section of sidewalk gets morning sun.  Perfect for enjoying a scone!

The service has always been a bit unfriendly.  I know I was asking a bunch of questions on my first visit, but even on subsequent visits I had the distinct feeling that I was bothering the folks working there by daring to enter their establishment and order something.  If it wasn't for the convenient location, and the sunny sidewalk, I wouldn't be likely to return.  There are plenty of other more friendly cafes in the city.
Blackberry Scone.  $3.50.
On my first visit, I took a gamble and got the mystery scone.  This was actually a really strange move on my part, as it looked fairly burnt.  And I don't like blackberries (the seeds, they just bug me so much!)  And, there was only one scone in the case, even though it was only 9:30am, which made me wonder if it was actually fresh that day.  I generally feel that scones have about a 10 minute shelf life, and rarely like them, even when I get them at nice bakeries.

There was really no reason for me to order the scone, except that I was really, really craving a scone.  I had a scone the day before that really disappointed, so I was still feeling the need for a scone.  Again, a crazy decision on my part, particularly because I like my scones warm, with jam and clotted cream.  I knew this would have none of those elements.

The moment the scone was in front of me, it was obvious that it was blackberry.  Right in the center, a big blackberry.  Seeds and all.  I have no idea how the server didn't realize this was a blackberry scone.

Now, as an aside, a story about blackberries, and why I hate them.  I grew up with a huge blackberry bush in the yard.  And I mean huge.  When blackberry season hit, we had a LOT of berries.  Sure, some of my dislike for blackberries might come from the fact that I had to help pick them, and if you've ever picked blackberries before, you know that this is an activity that is dangerous, if you value your skin.  Those bushes are nasty.  It doesn't matter how careful you are, they will get you.  But, my real dislike of blackberries is entirely based on the seeds.  I cannot stand them.  They get stuck in my teeth.  They are gritty.  I want nothing to do with them.  This is unfortunate, when you have an amazing blackberry patch in your yard, producing huge berries, which seem to have even more seeds than normal.  Further unfortunate is the fact that my grandmother makes extraordinary blackberry pies.  Well, if you like blackberries that is.  Which everyone else does.  So, all summer long, once berries come in, we would have fresh blackberry pie, all the time.  This shouldn't have been a hardship, except that I could never stand the seeds.  So I'd have warm pie, and eat the crust and juice, with plenty of ice cream on top, and pick around the berries.  Or, if I was lucky, my grandmother would have a little extra pie crust and she'd make little tarts, filled just with simple jam, and I'd get one of those instead.  Long story short, I've tried long and hard to like blackberries, but I just despise them.  They are even worse in smoothies.  Gritty little seeds in your drink?  Ewww.  Shutter.

Back to my scone.  My blackberry scone.  My burnt looking blackberry scone.  I still tried it, expecting to take a few bites, turn around, and go pick something else instead.  But ... it was a million times better than it looked.

The blackberry I predictably didn't like.  But besides the one right on top, there was actually only one other berry in the entire scone.  If I wanted this to be a blackberry scone, I would have been pretty upset with this fact, but as it was, this was a good thing for me.  The berries were juicy, plump, and tart, but, they had seeds.  Because, well, they are blackberries.

And the scone itself was really dry and was a bit burnt, particularly on the outside edge.  But inside, it was somehow perfectly moist.  It had a tang to it, perhaps from buttermilk?  I really liked the base flavor.  It was sweet, with sugar crystals on top, but was not too cake-like, and the sweet complimented the tang well.   It was a bit crumbly, but not too messy, as it was actually moist inside.  Really, this was a very good scone base.  If it had another type of berry, I probably would have loved it.

I finished the scone easily, and think I would have enjoyed it even more if it were warm, or served with a little jam or clotted cream.  And obviously, if it didn't have blackberries.  But overall it was a winner, and I'd even be tempted to get one again, although I'd obviously prefer another flavor.

$3.50 was a bit of a high price, although it was a large scone.  I just happen to know that you can get them at Sandbox Bakery directly for $2, so, Epicenter is making quite a profit here.
Strawberry Scone.  $3.
On my next visit, I had the choice of blackberry again, or strawberry.  I clearly went for the strawberry.

This scone was nearly identical to the blackberry.  Same shape.  Same burnt edges.  Same pitiful amount of fruit.  And ... I still really enjoyed it.

Sandbox Bakery gets a few things right about their scones, no matter what other criticisms I have.  First, the texture.  The scones look very dry, but are sorta moist inside, the real winning part being the way they crumble perfectly.  They aren't too moist and cakey, but also aren't too dry.  Texture wins here, even though the edges do wind up a tiny bit burnt.

Second, the flavor of the base.  As I mentioned, both the blackberry and strawberry scones had barely any fruit in them.  In the case of the blackberry, I liked that, but, I really did want some strawberry.  But, it didn't entirely matter, because the flavor of the base scone was just soo good.  They have a fantastic tang.

So yes, the scones are slightly burnt, have barely any fruit, and are only served at room temperature at Epicenter Cafe.  But, I still like them.  This time, I had half my scone at Epicenter, and kept thinking about how much better it would be with some jam (and even better, clotted cream!  Can you tell I just spent time in London?).  And about how much better it would be warm.  So, I used some restraint, didn't finish it on the spot, and walked the 15 minutes home with the rest.  It put it in the toaster oven for a few minutes to warm it up, slathered on my mom's homemade strawberry jam, and, I was a very happy girl.

Thus, my protip: get a scone, from anywhere that carries Sandbox Bakery products.  But bring it home to warm up, and serve with jam.

Last time, my scone was $3.50, and there were no prices listed anywhere.  This time, the price list showed $3.25, but I was charged $3.  This is much better, as I did think before that the $3.50 price was a bit high compared with other coffee shops in the area.
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