Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry: The Next Chapter of The Pastry Case
Tthe new member from Seattle’s Cookie Hall of Fame resides in the Volunteer Park Cafe and Pantry’s pastry case. Buckwheat flour, cocoa and chocolate chips make this an even darker confectionery than Agent Cooper’s coffee. The center is sticky; the edges crumble like a sable. Each bite somehow manages to taste like it jumps into a pool of chocolate, without being so sweet.
No one’s grandmother passed on this recipe. Crystal Chiu and Melissa Johnson tested three different brands of buckwheat flour before they came up with a favorite for this cookie (a stealthy gluten-free achievement). But the texture, Chiu says, comes mostly from the desiccated coconut.
Bakers tend to be perfectionists, but the duo who now power this cornerstone kitchen rise a few levels beyond. Chiu is a veteran of the awesome restaurant baking programs from Chicago to New York to Nashville. Johnson was a co-owner of a bakery in the East Village. The two met at Canlis, where Johnson’s staff lunch bagels impressed everyone enough to become their own popup when it closed for 2020.
After a change of ownership delayed by a pandemic and nine calm months, Volunteer Park Cafe has returned with these two to the helm, restoring the neighborhood bonhomie and a great cafe on the corner of 17th and Galer.
History repeats itself in a strange way. The VPC as we know it started with two talented women. Fifteen years ago, Ericka Burke and Heather Earnhardt transformed an old corner grocery store with huge windows out front into a place to eat in the neighborhood. (Earnhardt defined the baking side of things but left five years later.) Many restaurants aim, or pretend, to be a gathering place; here, customers really enjoyed sitting at the communal table. The founders of VPC designed it as a neighborhood destination, but the banana brioche french toast and glass display case filled with snickerdoodles and scones have drawn people from far beyond the surrounding residential blocks.
A tired Burke put the place up for sale in January 2020. New owner James DeSarno is an architect by day, co-founder of Freehand Cellars and a conservation advocate for neighborhood businesses, the kind that sell coffee beans. and cups of soup rather than fancy. celebrity-approved ice cream or fried chicken sandwich flavors. In the kitchen, “I wanted someone to share my vision,” he says. “But could also then take that ball without needing any direction or advice from me.”
Watch a favorite restaurant coming back under new owners is like seeing a movie adaptation of your favorite book, never an exact match with what’s on your mind. Johnson and Chiu narrowed down the food menu to bring Canlis-level intent to the baking and ordering from the little kitchen. The common table now holds bottles of wine (Freehand Cellars, of course) and bags of pasta in place of diners: food.
The case and its contents are VPC’s resume: three tiers of peach and nut muffins, clever individual patties, and personal size crumble cakes. its contents change often, but if there is any Johnson’s babka left behind the glass, enter it as an extra hour of sleep. Fortunately, the kitchen is making new batches of buckwheat chocolate chip cookies throughout the day, as well as blondies and recently snickerdoodles made from hawaij, a Yemeni spice blend whose frequent comparisons to the spices of pumpkin does a disservice to its ginger and cardamom charms.
Regulars still adjust to life without a panini menu, but the rebooted VPC offers a sandwich, an ode to the delicate, decadent and sizzling breakfast to delis in Long Island, Johnson’s hometown. The kitchen spreads two eggs in a hot pan to cook them finely like pancakes, then folds the result into a bundle around bacon and a slice of American yolk. Johnson makes the poppy seed rolls herself. Everything is dripping with both cheese and nostalgia, even if your childhood was spent far from the Atlantic coast.
Otherwise, most of the menu includes toast. A few sweet versions have slipped from the menu as customers turn up in droves for the BritannicaA medium slice of Sea Wolf sourdough topped with a pickled egg salad, a classic avocado topped with za’atar, or seasonal creations like sardines on top of tomato jam. Squash on toast? Yes. The early fall tricolor Jenga game of roasted summer squash, basil, and sun-dried tomatoes piled on top of whipped ricotta had an unexpected meaning.
The two bring together their tasty combined skills for the menu’s seasonal soup and salad – two-part proof that this little kitchen isn’t just about boutique flour and desiccated coconut. Chiu’s biggest ‘we’re not in Canlis’ moment could be reverse-engineering Johnson’s Trader Joe’s favorite roasted tomato and red pepper soup into a version for the fall menu. Hers involves fermented lime juice and a high-level cooking technique known as “burning the shit” out of peppers.
Johnson’s matzo dumpling soup for the colder days. Its sprinkling of deli odes is one of the most beautiful and most personal surprises of this new mail order: the salad of marinated eggs on toast. The babka. Maybe one day those bagels.