Hand-crafted Asian pastries is the name of the game at Eastern Accents. Claiming to be the first Asian bakery in Ann Arbor, this joint specializes in those desserts you would normally expect to find only in Chinatown.
“Ben and Carol Sun founded Eastern Accents 17 years ago,” said longtime employee Charles Lindsay. “(He) grew up in China, and has always loved baking.”
Lindsay explained how, after mastering his family’s traditional pastry recipes, Ben Sun moved to Boston to pursue a traditional pâtisserie education. It wasn’t long after that the young baker met Carol, a University grad. The couple married and opened Eastern Accents.
“To this day, Ben comes in every morning at 3 a.m. to start baking,” Lindsay said. “Everything here — all of our buns, cakes and pastries — are made daily.”
The bakery itself looks a lot like a coffee shop: There are small tables and chairs scattered about. People sit near the front windows sipping hot beverages, lackadaisically typing on MacBooks and periodically pausing to watch jaywalking pedestrians.
One wall is covered with an Asian-inspired painting of mountains and flowers. Another sets the backdrop for a comically small electric fireplace. The space is cozy and relaxed — just the spot for a fresh-baked good to go along with a warm cup of tea.
For your sweet tooth, there’s the red bean moon cake — a dense, chewy cake surrounding a thick and grainy red bean paste. The Asian-style cakes, which aren’t as sweet as you might expect, are made with fluffy frosting spread thinly upon two layers of sponge cake stuffed with whipped cream and fruit.
The sesame balls are also exceptionally scrumptious. Spoonfuls of tacky rice flour dough are fried and artfully dotted with crunchy seeds. These greasy and thick, gummy-sweet treats would make an ideal mid-afternoon metabolism boost and, of course, are easy on the taste buds, too.
Other dim sum favorites include the egg tarts, mango pudding — a big seller at Eastern Accents — and sweet cream buns. Everything is authentic and — best of all — homemade.
So whether you’re craving hard-to-find Chinatown goodies, looking for something a little different for dessert or are just bored with the cliché of chocolates for Valentine’s Day, there’s something for you at Eastern Accents.
Lindsay sums it up best: “This is a great place for an afternoon dessert, a hot spot for a couple who wants a quiet corner in the heart of Ann Arbor.”
Sweet Gem Confections
Sweet Gem Confections, located within Morgan & York Fine Wine on Packard Street, is a small, locally owned chocolate shop where all the chocolates are handmade in-store. Upon entering, you can see the fruit reductions cooling on the shelves, bowls of ingredients on the central cooking table and rolls of colorful ribbons hanging in the back of the room.
Nancy Biehn has been running the shop on Packard Street for seven years, and cooking chocolates professionally for 15. Her business on Packard mimics a model she ran into 25 years ago in Oviedo, near the coast of Spain, where she used to buy chocolates from a shop that exclusively sold chocolate made from scratch.
The fruits and mint she uses are either grown by her, in her garden or bought at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market. The wine she uses in her chocolates is from Jackson, Mich. The cream, from a local farm. The cocoa, the same that Zingerman’s supplies.
Biehn said on some days she has two helpers, also professionals, but it’s clear by the size and atmosphere of the shop that she has had a hand in creating every item on the shelves.
On the note of personal affect, Biehn said her favorite part of the job is talking with her customers, who seem to be few, but very loyal. She says that a customer might come in with a bottle of fancy tequila he brought back from vacation and ask her to make chocolates out of it.
She has a customer who buys personalized sweets for his anniversary every year and has bought from Biehn for several anniversaries past.
Having been at the trade since before the internet, Biehn used to hunt down new recipes in hardcopy. Now that she’s a specialist, she invents her own.
When asked how many trial runs it takes her to perfect a new invention, she smiles modestly and shakes her head. “I usually get what I’m aiming for pretty quickly,” she says, “I’ve been doing it a long time.”
I tried several chocolate truffles and bought a box of fruit reductions, all of which I loved, but to be honest, my tastebuds are less picky than a garbage disposal unit, so whether they are especially good is beyond me. But if you’re going to buy sweets for your Ann Arbor sweetheart, why not take the opportunity to support a local Ann Arbor sweets shop?
Be warned, Sweet Gem Confections is not for the student with a very low budget. A single chocolate costs upwards of two dollars. A small box costs about $7.50. A Big-Occasion sized box costs significantly more. If it’s within your budget, though, a small box of truffles from here would make a fine Valentine’s Day gift.
La Dolce Vita
Dim mood lighting and cozy love seats welcome visitors to La Dolce Vita — one of Ann Arbor’s few purely dessert eateries. The menu, though admittedly short and selective, offers diners a choice of perfectly executed classic sweets.
La Dolce Vita, along with its neighbor and adjoining restaurant The Chop House, will have been in Ann Arbor for 15 years in December. In that time, explained District Manager of Mainstreet Ventures Sue Burke, price hasn’t deterred people from making the restaurant a must-visit destination for an occasion or happening.
“It’s a perfect place to come and relax … and be all cozy while you enjoy your dessert experience or your cocktail, or whatever your pleasure is after dinner,” Burke said.
At first glance, none of the dessert pieces on the menu have the long, pretentious, often-French names that mean almost nothing to the largely budget-conscious college crowd of Ann Arbor, and that one would expect to find in a high-end restaurant. Some of La Dolce Vita’s staple items include classics such as cheesecake, tiramisu, crème brulee and chocolate milk cake. Their selling point however, is the execution of these desserts and their decadent taste.
“It’s considered one of the best restaurants in Ann Arbor … and you want to celebrate the intimacy of Valentine’s Day at a high caliber place like La Dolce Vita,” said LSA senior Lauren O’Keefe.
Name makes a big impression, and both The Chop House and La Dolce Vita have created a comfortable spot for themselves at the top of Ann Arbor’s extensive list of dining opportunities. Conscious of its student crowd, La Dolce Vita also offers a healthy dessert of the day, seasonal desserts and special occasion desserts for holidays. For Valentine’s, they plan to include a special dessert for two accompanied by a cocktail or specialty martini.
When asked what makes La Dolce Vita a perfect venue for lovers this Valentine’s Day, Burke had only three things to say: “House-made, from-scratch desserts, exceptional service and amazing atmosphere.”