Monday, March 07, 2016

Specialty's Cafe & Bakery

When I moved to San Francisco, I was not familiar with the Specialty's bakery chain.  It didn't take long for Specialty's to get on my radar though, as their shops are located all over town.  There is one area of the Financial District where they seem nearly as common as Starbucks, and all have rows of baked goods lining the display cases.  You know how much I love baked goods.  The real kicker though, is whenever you walk by, the most delightful smelling aroma wafts out, drawing you in.  Impossible to resist.  And they really do bake fresh in the shops daily, making the "bakery" part of the name accurate.
Workday Revival Kit!
My first impression of Specialty's?  ZOMG everything is huge!  Seriously.  The cookies, muffins, and scones are all monstrously large.  They are basically meals (and, with cookies clocking in at 500 calories each, scones and muffins at 600 each, they kinda are).  Oh, and the pecan sticky bun? 770 calories!  The actual meals, sandwiches, can be 1000+ calories too.  Wowzer.  They go big here.

Anyway.  Specialty's is a chain mostly with locations in California, but they have a few in Seattle and Chicago.  In addition to the enormous baked goods (muffins, scones, croissants, coffee cake, danishes, cookies, brownies, bundt cakes, mini pies), they also make sandwiches, soups, and salads, standard cafe fare.  They seem to do a huge catering business, along with serving the needs of office workers nearby.  Some of the shops have seating, but, for the most part, this is somewhere people grab a sandwich or treat, and go.  No ambiance, not a destination to spend time in.

Over the years, I've tried a number of items from Specialty's, some that I picked out and purchased, others at events where they catered.  My overall impression is that Specialty's is ... good, but not particularly special (except for the Zucchini Bran Muffin, which is totally incredible.  But they no longer make it).  I wouldn't ever seek Specialty's out, and it doesn't compare to a smaller, independent bakery, but there goods are better than what most cafes sell.

Cookies ($2.89 each)

As I mentioned, the cookies are insanely large, and, insanely bad for you.  Not that a cookie is usually a healthy treat, but, 500 calories in a single cookie?  Crazypants.

Anyway, as you know, cookies are not usually my treat of choice, but, they are also the item folks tend to bring in to the office the most, so, they have a habit of finding their way to me.

Specialty's has an amazing feature: the warm cookie radar.  You can, from the website, search for the warmest cookie nearby.  Or, find out how many minutes it has been since your cookie of choice was pulled out of the oven at all the shops in town.  And, if you want to replicate the cookies fresh out of your own oven, they sell some baking mixes.
Milk Chocolate Chip Cookie. 
"Every bite of our fresh-baked classic chocolate chip cookie is filled with smooth and creamy Guittard® milk chocolate chips."

This is probably their most famous cookie.  A total monster, very thick, somewhat cakey, soft.  The chocolate chunks are huge, and the milk chocolate very creamy.  If you like creamy milk chocolate, you'll love this.  The cookie itself is sweet and buttery.

A fairly good version of a chocolate chip cookie, but, not mind blowing.  Ojan was a fan.  The shape is a little funny, not quite round, not square.

I also tried the Semisweet Chocolate Chunk, the same style, just with Guittard® chocolate chunks rather than milk chips.  It was again, a very thick cookie.  I only had small piece but it seemed like decent cookie.
Black and White Cookie. 
"Our unique take on this cookie combines creamy white chocolate and dark Guittard® chocolate chunks in a rich, dark cocoa cookie dough to fulfill a chocolate-lover’s dream."

This was another very heafty cookie.  It weighed a ton.

It was a very dense cookie, with a rich chocolate flavor from the Guittard® dark chocolate.  The thickness and the rich flavor made it almost like a brownie.  It was loaded with huge white chocolate chunks, super sweet and creamy, and a nice contrast with the deep rich chocolate.   This variety was crisper than some of the other cookies, not quite as soft.

My turned out to be my favorite of the cookies; I loved how chocolatey it was, and although quite generic, the sweet white chocolate was tasty.
Peanut Butter.
"Our rich peanut butter cookie brings tons of peanut flavor with chopped peanuts and pure Jif® peanut butter. You’ll clamor for milk."

This one looked like it had potential, tons of little chunks of peanuts inside.  Yet the peanut flavor somehow wasn't very pronounced, and it was hard and oily.  Also, Jif®  seemed like a funny choice of ingredient quality, particularly compared to Guittard®.

I really didn't like this one, but Ojan did.
Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookie. 
"Our soft, fresh-baked cookie is rich with roasted peanut flavor from Jif® peanut butter and loaded up with smooth Guittard® semisweet chocolate chunks and chopped peanuts."

And, putting together the previous cookies, you get the peanut butter chocolate chunk.

It was another large cookie.  Just like the peanut butter, there were lots of peanut chunks, but no real peanut flavor.  The chocolate chunks were the same as in other cookies.

So, basically exactly what you'd expect from mixing the above cookies, but a missed opportunity, since chocolate and peanut butter are such a great combination!
Oatmeal Raisin Cookie.
"We load these moist and chewy fresh-baked oatmeal cookies with plump raisins to produce an old family favorite."

This was a different style than all of their other cookies, square shaped rather than round-square.  It was still thick and heafty though.

It was very spiced, far more than I expected, which was kinda nice, a bolder cookie.   I didn't love the flavor though, nor the raisins, nor the oats.  I did appreciate the heartiness.  But ... meh, who really wants oatmeal raisin?
"This irresistible sugar cookie puffs up as it bakes and provides a tender center with a crisp exterior finished with crackled cinnamon sugar."

And yet another huge, thick, cakey cookie.  It was far more round than the others.

It was sweet and buttery, with lots of cinnamon and sugar on top.  I don't really like snickerdoodles though, so this was pretty meh to me.
Snickerdoodle (July 2017).
I didn't love the snickerdoodle the first time, but, I had slim pickings when I made it to the cookie box one afternoon, when a co-worker brought in cookies.  Plus, it looked better this time.

It was better in some ways, very soft, a nice texture.  But really just a plain sugar cookie, that really lacked a homemade taste.  It also had much less cinnamon and sugar on it this time around.
Ginger Molasses Cookie. (Seasonal)
"A traditional New England holiday favorite. We combine rich blackstrap molasses and ginger and bake this cookie to sugar-crackled perfection."

This was even softer than the others, almost gooey inside.  It had a strong ginger flavor.   And tons of sugar on top.

My second favorite Specialty's cookie, I really liked how soft it was, and the flavor popped.  I could do without all the extra sugar on top though, it didn't highlight the flavors in any way.
Pecan Tea Cookie (Seasonal)
"Incredibly tender tea cookies are loaded with finely ground toasted pecans then dusted with powdered sugar in this crunchy, sweet and satisfying classic."

This was a huge shortbread, with bits of pecan in it, covered in glaze, and covered in powdered sugar.  Another monster, like all of their cookies.  The size seemed even more crazy for a tea cookie, it was very heavy, very dense.

I almost liked this one.  It was crumbly and softer than all of the other Specialty's cookies, which I liked.  But it wasn't buttery enough for me.  The pecans added a nice crunch, and the powdered sugar made the whole thing nicely sweet.

Overall, just not as flavorful as I'd like.  It would pair nicely with tea though, hence the name I guess.  I think it was basically a Mexican wedding cookie.
Oatmeal Wheatgerm Chocolate Chip.
"The classic combination of chewy oatmeal and creamy Guittard® milk chocolate chips is joined by the positive health benefits of wheat germ. The result is a delicious and wholesome fresh-baked cookie." 

Hearty from oats and wheatgerm. I really liked how hearty it was, yet rich too. Buttery and decadent, yet healthy tasting? Who knew that was possible! Much better than the other hearty choice, the oatmeal raisin. 
White Chocolate Macadamia (Seasonal).
"Some flavors just naturally go together. We take crunchy macadamia nuts and surround them with creamy white chocolate chunks for one of our most popular fresh baked cookies. We are bringing back this seasonal favorite for a limited time."

 I liked the sweet white chocolate, and the crunchy nuts, but the base cookie was fairly boring.

Scones ($2.69 each)

If you thought the cookies were huge, wait until you meet the scones.  All 600 calories of them.  Available in four flavors, blueberry, cranberry, almond, or cappuccino.

[ Not Pictured ]
  • Wild Blueberry: "We mix delicious blueberries into our handcrafted tender butter scone and bake it to a golden brown before finishing it with a turbinado sugar crown." Tasting notes: Huge, huge, huge baked good.  I wish I had a photo with something else in it so you could see how large this thing was.  It was more cakey that I'm used to in a scone, almost like a muffin, just a bit harder, and flatter?  Topped with a generous amount of large sugar crystals, which I did like.  The base was not very flavorful though, and even the blueberries didn't provide much flavor pop.
  • Cranberry:  "We mix tangy Craisins® into our handcrafted tender butter scone, bake it to a golden glow and then finish it with turbinado sugar"  Tasting notes: Hard scone, with some tart cranberries, big sugar crystals on outside.  The scone itself doesn't have any particularly good flavor, kinda crumbly, meh.  Also .. Craisins?  really?

Muffins ($2.69 each)

Someone brought in a box of these muffins, so I got to try a few.  Alas, in the mad rush for muffins with my co-workers, I failed to get a photo.
  • Zucchini Bran: Tasting notes: Delicious!  Great hearty flavor and texture from the bran. It doesn't look appetizing, but is really tasty.  I really, really like this, and it is my favorite of all their products.  If only they still carried it.
  • Carrot Raisin Bran: "A hearty morning muffin starts your day right with a mixture of fresh grated carrots, plump raisins, Dole pineapple, thick oats and bran. " Tasting notes: I only had a small chunk of this, but seemed pretty good.
  • Yogurt Blueberry:  Tasting notes: Loaded up with tons of moist blueberries.  I didn't really taste the yogurt, but it had some strange spicing to it.  Couldn't really decide if I liked it or not.  This was replaced by a blueberry crumble muffin, with a crumble top, and no yogurt.

Coffee Cake ($2.79 each)

The coffee cakes are round, topped with glaze, and available in four flavors (blueberry, fuji apple, peach, and cranberry.  The cakes themselves aren't awesome, but, the streusel toppings were great.
  • Fuji Apple: "We top our fresh-baked, spiced coffee cake with buttery cinnamon streusel crumble and sweet Fuji apple slices and then finish it with a swirl of almond icing."  Tasting Notes: The base to this wasn't very interesting, just kinda plain cake.  It was soft enough though, even though I had it a bit old.  On top were some slices of cooked down apple, spiced I believe.  They were mushy and just apples, so, not really my thing.  A drizzle of decent icing was over the top of everything.  Overall, meh.  Except ... for the streusel!  I loved that, good cinnamon flavor, sweet, crumbly.  Who needs the cake part?
  • Blueberry: "Our signature tender coffee cake is baked fresh and topped with buttery spiced brown sugar streusel crumble and juicy blueberries and finished with a swirl of almond icing." Tasting notes: Coffee cake, drizzled with icing. The cake was very soft and moist.   It reminded me of standard birthday cake though, not a coffee cake, as it didn't have any tang or other defining characteristic to it.   The blueberries were plentiful, very plump, and juicy, and very flavorful.  Strange how different the blueberries here are than in the scone.  I liked the drizzle of icing on top for sweetness.  But, the best part was the streusel topping!  Cinnamon-y, crumbly, crunchy, sweet, very good!

Other Baked Goods

I haven't tried any of the croissants, plain, savory cheese filled, or sweet flavored cream cheese.  But I did try one type of bundt cake (they make four varieties) and one breakfast bread (no longer offered), and, a cinnamon roll (they also make a pecan sticky bun, a cinnamon sugar morning, bun, and a chocolate almond burning bun)
  • Cinnamon Roll with Cream Cheese Frosting ($2.79):  "Thick, soft layers of sweet bread, with lots of cinnamon and rich cream cheese frosting."  Tasting notes: I only had a small chunk but didn't seem standout.
  • Orange Poppyseed Bundt Cake ($2.39): "Our treat-sized, delicate vanilla cake infused with real orange zest and poppy seeds and finished with our classic creamy vanilla icing."  Tasting notes: good crunch from the poppy seeds, nice citrus flavor, glaze tasty.  Had it a day old after it had been sitting out so it certainly wasn't fresh, but it was not bad.
  • Orange Cranberry Breakfast Bread ($2.39):  Tasting notes: I don't like cranberry very much, and it was very pronounced in here.  Lots of icing on top too.  Seemed strange to call this a "bread"(or even a breakfast item), as it seemed more like a sugary dessert.

Ciabatta + Cream Cheese

For breakfast, in addition to all the baked goods, Specialty's also offers oatmeal, yogurt, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, quiche, and ciabatta.

The ciabatta is rather fascinating, basically, their offering rather than bagels.  The egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, and many of their lunch sandwiches, come on the ciabatta, but they are also sold with cream cheese, exactly like a bagel.  They come in two varieties, "country" or poppy seed.

For catering, you can even order the "Better Than Bagels Platter", with ciabatta and cream cheese.
Poppyseed Ciabatta.
"A single serving of our fresh-baked, handcrafted country ciabatta topped with black poppy seeds."

This was really fascinating.  It really was almost like a bagel, sans the hole.

It had a slight crust on the outside, yet was soft inside like a bagel, and had tons of seeds on top like a bagel would.  It had a nice flavor from the plentiful coating of seeds.  The ciabatta was a bit buttery, almost reminding me of a focaccia, clearly tastier than standard bagel dough.  It was quite good, and I'd actually pick it over a bagel any day.

It was pretty good just room temp with cream cheese, but it was even better when toasted.  I added cream cheese, smoked salmon, red onion, and capers and I must say it was pretty incredible.  It probably does make a nice breakfast sandwich with eggs and cheese too.

After a few bites I decided it really was better than a bagel.  It also kept fine for a day.

I also tried the more basic Country version, no seeds.  It was a basic ciabatta, but still good.  Slightly crusty, but soft inside.  Nice flavor to it, I think from lots of butter.  Again, a winner.

As for their cream cheese, it is pretty standard cream cheese, but I appreciated that it is whipped.  Fluffy cream cheese is so much better.  I also tried the basil pesto whipped cream cheese, equally fluffy, with a nice flavor from the pesto.  Went really well with the poppyseed ciabatta.

Catering Sandwiches and Platters

I haven't had much from the regular food section of the menu, but they make a variety of salads (entree sized or sides like cole slaw), soup, and sandwiches.  Sandwiches are available on a variety of sliced breads (or ciabatta), and some come toasted.  But, not being a sandwich lover, I haven't ever sought these out.

Then, one day I was at an event, and, Specialty's did the catering, so I was able to try a few of the sandwiches, served on platters as finger sandwiches.
  • Veggie Finger Sandwich: "Swiss and provolone with fresh lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, italian vinaigrette and black pepper, avocado, mushrooms, bell peppers, cucumber, pepperoncini, sprouts, stone ground mustard, ranch and mayo on toasted thyme focaccia. " Tasting notes: The focaccia was really tasty, good herbs on the outside, nice and buttery.  Filled with lots of veggies, which seemed fresh enough, but were not really flavorful.  The veggie mix was a little strange ... sliced mushrooms and pepperoncini in a sandwich?  The cheese was very generic, sliced, not very flavorful.  There was tons of ranch and mayo, totally dominating the other flavors.  This didn't come together at all, it was like a sandwich that someone would throw together by putting everything they could find in their fridge of into a single sandwich.  Meh.
  • The Chairman Finger Sandwich: "Oven-roasted turkey breast and swiss with fresh lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, italian vinaigrette and black pepper, avocado, cucumber, sprouts, ranch, stone ground mustard and mayo on toasted thyme focaccia."  Tasting notes: Again, I liked the focaccia, but that was about it.  There was way too much lettuce in here.  The turkey wasn't great. And tons of mayo.
  • Crudite Platter: "Sliced cucumbers, red and green bell pepper, carrots, cherry tomatoes and house-made buttermilk ranch dressing."  Tasting notes: Very mediocre crudite platter.  Veggies weren't limp or anything, but didn't really have flavor.  Ranch dressing was also flavorless.
Chinese Chicken Salad (Catering).
Another day, I went to a summer BBQ.  Most of the food came from Costco (potato salad, veggie and fruit platters, chips, etc), but someone brought a salad from Specialty's (next to Kettle chips), the Chinese Chicken Salad.

"Vibrant Asian-inspired flavors and crunch! Our signature Asian salad blend of fresh cabbage, grated carrots, green onions and cilantro is topped with natural oven-roasted chicken breast, hand-sliced red bell pepper, red onion, crispy wonton strips and black sesame seeds. Enjoy with our sweet-tangy Pan-Asian dressing on the side. "

The host actually forgot the dressing and wontons, so I tried it without.  Fresh, crispy cabbage and carrots formed the base, and I enjoyed it.  I avoided the little chunks of chicken and the red bell peppers, but appreciated the additional zing the green onions added, and the sesame seeds gave a bit of extra crunch.  Once the dressing was found, I had another salad, this time with dressing.  Interestingly, I liked it less.  The dressing was just too sweet for me, and masked all flavor in the fresh veggies.  Overall though, a decent salad.
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