When speaking with strangers, it can be easier to engage with impeccably or uniquely dressed ones. Similarly, prior to consuming a dessert, it is far more enjoyable to gape at a well crafted and ornately decorated one. In both cases, the exterior can sometimes mask the flaws of the interior, at least momentarily; not always, and definitely not in the long term, which is why the momentary gratification is both important, as well as slightly deceiving, in today’s bustling lifestyle. It is this momentary attraction that has been the cause of many infatuations and affairs, the crux of many stories and scandals, the fundamentals of consumer behavior and marketing disciplines, and the foundations of many ideas and businesses. Tying this last point to eye soothing desserts is what brings me to examining my staple dessert place.
I have always been a fan of dessert that is served looking like its well dressed. Taking my fashionistic metaphor away (despite how well food and fashion cross paths at this very junction), I mean well decorated and perhaps well garnished. For before I eat with my mouth, I eat with my eyes, soaking in the splendor of a consumable item, particularly if it is a dessert. Swallowing a morsel is often easier if, when part of a larger ‘creation’, the ‘morsel’ looks distinguished. Garnishing is my favorite mealtime topic, and having grown up in a household where garnishing is given particular attention, the natural next step is the laborious art of food decoration. Swooping three dimensional effects that pop the food right out of your plate, making it so architecturally appealing that it is actually too good to eat. This can make it either heart-breaking or simply agonizing to deconstruct, however. As long as it doesn’t look tortuous to eat, or isn’t intertwined with too many unedible bits, it falls into the category of a sweet’art affair!
It started on a steamy night on the streets of a city when a preoccupied Foodonymph suggested I drop by Black Hound the next day. Black Hound? Not exactly an appealing name for a dessert place, but not a major turnoff either, and at least it is somewhat differentiated from the sugar infested stomach bulging titles that some dessert joints conjure. At first I thought it was an upscale store for our increasingly loved and exponentially pampered canine friends. How mistaken I was, and thankfully so. It is an interesting name though, since many swear that everybody enters the store has their mouths open (panting with their tongues out, to put it bluntly) and nobody leaves here without a doggy bag. Cheeky, I tell you.
The first thing I noticed about Black Hound was its untarnished and gleaming white walls and pale wooden floor. And worst of all, no seating! With my infatuation for ambiance, I was a bit disturbed and rather annoyed, albeit only momentarily. For I was quickly zapped and blinded by what lay in the very large window which yawned onto a busy street, coaxing everyone effortlessly to admire what lay inside it. The punch was really this window, and the counter that you could see through it, which hypnotically whisked all passer-bys inside.
Black Hound struck a balance in creating exquisite beauty in the form of its fist sized cakes, as I call them. They are too small to be birthday cakes or the size of many that fall into the ‘love-you’ or ‘I’m-sorry’ or ‘Just-Coz’ pile, and too large to be miniatures. Having had bad experiences with creamy pastries in forgotten worldly zones, I refrain from calling them that. The simplicity in design and display is what caught my attention, mainly the rows of repeating designs that look almost too perfect to eat. I was instantly swept into a wonder world by simply gazing at the cakes. Bees made of solid sugar and marzipan buzzing away, velvety mousse toppings adorned with solid chocolate letters and musical notes, chocolate shell gift wrapped cakes sealed with bright raspberries matching the butter cream ribbon, chocolate shell faux cappuccino cups brimming with butter cream coffee cake, fresh and sparkly lemon and pear slices laying lazily on silky white chocolate, bright strawberries pouting teasingly through bodies of solid chocolate, red marzipan daisies peeking out in full bloom, and quaint yellow marzipan blossoms dusted with cocoa powder as part of a wonderland garden. There was a sense of attractive disproportion around, as the cakes magnified themselves when I came closer, with exaggerated flowers and big bees, making me feel like I had walked into a set of Willy Wonka crossed with Alice in Wonderland, minus the bizarre creatures and cold undertones.
The starkness and lack of décor (or perhaps it was just a case of coincidental lack of design) was extremely effective as a clever interior design tactic to accentuate the artistic indulgences in the showcases. And the lack of seating enabled the slow, peaceful admiration the creations, akin to an art exhibit, with generous dosings of samples to devour almost mindlessly. The entire concept is an interesting take on my favorite topic of consumer behavior, as the lingering accentuates the longing in this fascinating museum-like setup. The sweet art, or portmanteau-wise sweet’art, is a viewer’s delight, hence the multiple eyes and lenses that go into watching it, almost like a game. Sumptuous displays of cakes (full sized cakes too, as I later noticed), cookies, truffles and other treats line the sparsely decorated area, which honestly I cannot recall the layout of correctly due to the hypnotic effect of the cakes. There are also oversized jars filled with ginger biscuits and other cutely shaped crispy edibles (a strict no-no for a soft-baked cookie fanatic like myself, but nevertheless eye candy enough), and a jar of savory items for those who get a sweet’art attack. A quick flick through the ingredients showed that top notch liquors had been infused into the cakes, along with rich butter and Belgian chocolate, amidst an eclectic collection of other well identified ingredients.
Simply inhaling the air in this place was enough to give me a wave of extra calories. Its a pity that their website is not a similar window into the world, with plain photographs of inspiring creations and artistic ambiance. The creators advised eating the cakes about ninety minutes after taking them out of the fridge, so that they return to room temperature. Rebellious by nature, I have sometimes disobeyed this rule, only to realize that I really do not like the taste of hard butter and dry crumbs. Letting the cake sit at room temperature ensures that the butter cream is velvety, the chocolate shells are playful to break open to unleash the layers of cake, which in turn is more moist, with the mousse more tender and the nuts naturally and unfrozenly crunchier.
I have tried several of their cakes, usually having to split them with a lover of sweet tooths. My favorite is the Busy Bee Cake, which unfortunately is also their most popular, and hence frequently out of stock due to the limited quantity freshly baked goods. Contrary to expectation it does not contain honey. Instead, it is covered in a thick solid chocolate shell, infused with layers of chocolate mousse almond cake, with the distinct taste of almond grains which is highly appealing, a touch of liqueur, and embellished with bees whose bodies are made of marzipan and criss-crossed with chocolate for the bumbley effect, with wings of aptly sliced almonds. They are seemingly buzzing about, hence the prefix ‘busy’ to the namesake bee, which also well summarizes the chocolate shell’s interior.
The pear almond cake is a venture outside of a chocolate addiction, but do not fall for its healthy name; it gives everything away with the sugary glisten of a pear slice. I am not fond of its ingredients when examined individually – white chocolate, vanilla extract, honey – but when combined with almonds (honey toasted) and poached pears, it definitely takes the taste buds for an adventure; surprising, as I am not fond of juicy fruits and chocolate, a fact that many find shocking. This is the reason I refrain from trying the jaw-droppingly gorgeous gift shaped cakes wrapped in chocolate and marzipan ribbons that complement the central gift element, usually a bright raspberry or summer colored marzipan flowers with honey centers. Those who like the fruit-chocolate combination have often placed it on the highest pedestal of enjoyment sins. The white chocolate crusted chocolate mousse cake is again not typically favored by my cocoa-addictive taste, as it is layered with unsubstantial mousse and covered with multi-sized chocolate polka dots. While fashionably forward and surprisingly unsweet, which is one of my many fears of white chocolate, I think the cakes downfall is still in its white chocolate which mellows the high bar set by the choco-lustful layers that it holds within. For the nut-licious addict in me, there’s the overdose praline cake, which has hazelnut butter cake with praline butter cream and with crushed pralines that give it a sensational texture and a delectable crunch in every bite.
The underdog is the checker cake with hounds-tooth like chocolate and vanilla cake checks on it, which maintains the pattern both outside via butter cream, and inside via its spongy structure. Encasing it in plain chocolate ganache and cake crumbs is a risky proposition as it breaks the seamless pattern and pales it in comparison to its marzipan-flower-and-nut crafted neighbors. Yet, here is one that anti-appearance purists would love to devour, as its rich taste and unsweet quality makes it an interesting experience for the taste buds.
This place is the antithesis of fast food, which we know that I am not a fan of. These succulent treats require time, enjoyment and endurance, with the capacity to salivate over the sheer beauty of the cakes which are almost too surreal to consume. Seasonal tweaks enable the creators to lure gapers like myself back, either diversifying boringly to engrave mundane quirk-less phrases like ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘Happy Valentines on cakes that demand to convey emotion only by imagery, or sometimes by cleverly replacing marzipan flowers with marzipan stockings or sugary mittens, a much more appropriate strategy. Despite the likes and dislikes, the surprises make people stare and ogle even more, captivated and helpless, losing track of time.
For timelessness is after all, the power of engaging with beauty.
Returning to the metaphor of momentary beauty and gratification, or all body and no soul, Black Hound has succeeded in providing succulent tastes for several of its unmatched design of cakes (the exceptions are the ones which contain elements that I dislike no matter what the case), thus crushing this notion, for the most part. Yet, some of my acquaintances beg to defer, saying that they feel they are eating solid butter, or dry cake, and that the entire conception is akin to a beautiful fraud. I have gasped on hearing such words, but at the same time, ponder over the fact that either way, they have at least once been lured into the store by its charm and food décor, and had indeed walked out with handfuls of sweet consumables, and that too after hours of indulging their eyes in the garden-like wonderland abuzz with bees, so distinct from the busy streets behind that lazy window.
So, at least the momentary infatuation to the acclaimed beauty transforms into a lucrative business. It is akin to having an affair with sweet’art; to remember it or repeat it is one’s own choice (since forgetting is not as easy as it seems).
After all, a bit of beauty makes all frauds easier to gulp down. Timelessness, hypnotic distraction, and enticing conviction are all merely pawns of the game.