The move towards glamorizing doughnuts began on the dessert menus of trendy restaurants (see Starr's Buddakan or Keller's Per Se), where chic and homey were meeting in unexpected ways. Just call it post-modern comfort food.
Soon after debuting as a dessert, these newly hip rounds migrated to the bakeries of NYC. The City's Doughnut Plant became the epicenter of the upscale doughnut (Dean & Deluca and Zabar's). The formerly humble "donut" could now be found covered in (Valrhona) ganache or a fresh blueberry glaze.
During a food crawl this past July, I happened upon an alleyway dive that I recognized as the recipient of Philly Magazine's "Best Doughnuts, 2004" award. Painted in bold-type above the entrance was the name of this glorified breakfast cart, Lil' Spot. I walked in hoping to see dougnuts of a different breed, but I found myself staring at the face of Dunkin Donut banality. I was bummed, but a winning taste could have revived my fleeting hope for a really good fried confection.
I chose a thick vanilla-glazed doughnut and a handful of these mini cinnamon donuts that reminded me of Linvilla Orchird's warm cider doughnuts. My hopes were quickly dashed with a bite into the ersatz vanilla-glaze; this is the kind of treat that gives real vanilla a bad name. Next I munched on one of the tiny cinnamon rings (see picture at top). Immediately I got the awkward sensation that I was eating a fried "Chinese pancake." Although the sweetness of the cinnamon and sugar were potent, the sides of my tongue detected sesame oil and a hint of soy. For an instant I took pleasure in this perverse Chinese-American confection, but the eerie aftertaste erased any further enjoyment. I'm glad I passed on the "regular" glazed version.
Until Philly can shake itself from its passé carb-phobia and embrace this fried ring of cholesterol (ouch, doughnuts need better PR), I am left with only one decent doughnut purveyor, the Amish.
How I crave gourmet doughnuts!
One final note: An apple-filled beignet, the holeless French doughnut, is available at Le Petit Mitron in Narberth. It may not be a true substitute, but a fresh, airy, and lightly-sugared beignet should please those unsatisfied with its American counterpart. Around Philly, it's as gourmet as it gets.
Lil' Spot: 103 S. Juniper St. (intersects with Drury St)
Le Petit Mitron: Directly across from Narberth train station (on vacation until September 7th, 2005)