Sometimes being known for one thing can lead to big things, I mean the Colonel made a tagline and a bundle with it at KFC. (that's fried chicken by the way) When new places open in this town, trying to get a foothold or notice in our ever burgeoning food scene can be difficult, but having a dish that stands out and makes people want to come and try it is a good start because folks will ultimately sample other things when they go. That seems to be the case with the few months old 20th Century Cafe in Hayes Valley.
Opened by Michelle Polzine, the former pastry chef at Range, the place has a French retro bakery cafe feel with its small collection of marble topped tables and the counter of pounded copper tiles. Plus the chefs own unique vintage 50's style adds more ambiance to the high ceilinged space on the corner of Gough and Oak. Normally when I hit up a place I like to try more than one thing to get a taste of what they are doing but I had already eaten a few hours prior and was specifically here to try one dish that I had heard so many good things about--the Russian honey cake.....
and, well, of course I'm going to take any opportunity to eat cake. I wasn't familiar with Russian honey cake and had Googled it before going here. The recipes I'd seen had few ingredients and seemed so simple thus what could make it worth the trip here? Turns out pretty much everything. Though it's a little hard to tell, I counted roughly 18 layers of icing and cake, that in itself is a baking engineer feat that takes time and patience to complete. The fact that each layer of cake was spongy and moist and each layer of icing was light and fluffy is also a compliment to the chefs skills. My first bite tasted like a creamy, airy morsel of brown sugar--a flavor profile I was enamored with, especially since there actually isn't any brown sugar in this cake. The combination of ingredients somehow give it this unique taste--a mix of honey (duh) and what I'll guess was condensed milk(?), eggs and butter. Whatever it is, I couldn't stop eating this cake and it was gone in an instant, which was still enough time for me to savor each forkful. I've seem some folks suggest it borders on being too sweet eat a whole piece, but I say hogwash, they must be light weights in dessert appreciation. The airiness of each layer makes you want more and to not share more than a bite with others, that and the moderately slim slice you get. Which I'll say is my only regret, I wish the slice had been bigger. Is that my gluttony talking, eh maybe, but at $6.50 a slice possibly a hair bigger please?
Of course that won't stop me from going back and trying this again, in fact, I'll go back and try other things too. And that is what having a signature dish can do--bring in the masses. They do serve other things here from cookies to torts and tarts to a small selection of savory lunch/brunch kind of things which, if they are done by the same deft hands as this cake, are undoubtedly just as tasty. With the holidays around the corner there is no better time than now to give this place a try--AND GET A SLICE OF THIS CAKE! Just in case it didn't sink in yet.