As with any such testimonial, I must first admit: I'm a cookie-holic. I know I have a problem. Put a cookie in front of me and glance away. Turn back to see me, mouth full with a "what cookie? I didn't see any cookie..." look on my face. Crunch. Chew. Gulp. Ahh. It was worth it.
Also, I am not of such an age or genetic disposition that I can eat just anything and still use the normal notches on my favorite belt. Therefore, as with any addict, I must create strict rules regarding my cookie consumption, which are the very same I have applied to this search for a better Bay Area cookie.
First, the treat in question must be more than just a sugar delivery system. I am thinking here most specifically about Mrs. Fields and others that follow that paradigm (Specialty's, for example). I do not know what Debbi Fields' cookies were like when she opened her first store in 1977 Palo Alto, but after the franchise grew, these cookies became large, gooey and especially sweet. Given the endurance and popularity of the brand, this is the kind of cookie most people imagine when they feel the urge. In my humble opinion, these cookies are too much -- too large and too sugary. Since I am an addict, I have to be careful. I am looking less for sweetness and more for delicacy. Therefore my second criterion is specialness; I want the cookie to be something unique. Given the Bay Area's enduring love affair with food, this isn't hard to find. It is not unusual for our local pastry chefs to turn sugar, butter and flour into bite-sized treats proudly labeled "local." These are the cookies that feed my addiction. These are the cookies featured in this post.
One final bit of business must round out this preamble. Even though it took more than a month for me to research and explore various bakeries and pastry shops in the Bay Area, there is no way I could be comprehensive. The more I discovered, the more vast the field became. Cookies are a constellation and I have only been able to discover some of its brighter stars. Please share your recommendations in the comments section below. I have no trouble committing now to gobbling my way through dozens more cookies in search of those special few for part two.
My first bites proved elusive. I took a trip to Craftsman and Wolves on Valencia Street in San Francisco, but decided to just keep walking because, really, they specialize in gorgeous little pastries and their cookie selection was slim when I stopped in. I followed this with a peek into CREAM on 16th Street, lured by the slogan "Cookies Rule Everything Around Me," but alas, the cookie selection was similar to the Mrs. Fields model and really, CREAM is about ice cream sandwiches, and some things just had to be left outside the purview of this post. (But if I were to include an ice cream & cookie sandwich, it would most definitely be from Miette!)
Next I visited Greg and Christine Mindel's Neighbor Bakehouse in San Francisco's Dogpatch on Third Street. As with most great food experiences in the city, I knew this place had opened when a long line began forming outside on the regular in 2016. This is just a normal part of city living; anything good is worth waiting for. So I put on my sunscreen and stood in line. But once inside, I was met with a phantasmagoria of delicious baked treats, most of them savory. I bought a loaf of bread and a Ginger Pull-Apart because... Well, the reasons should be obvious. But the cookie selection was minimal. If you are going to Neighbor Bakehouse, you will probably spend the calories on an Apple Hand Pie or Pistachio Blackberry Twice Baked. I soon discovered that the bakery specializes in subtlety. The Oat Pecan Coconut Chocolate cookie was big and broad, crisp on the edges with a soft center, but the flavors were mild. The cookie was a little too subdued for my tastes. However, the Passion Fruit Macaroon was truly unique. It presented as the Platonic version of a macaroon, what the domed and caramelized cookie must look like in the world of ideal forms. The coconut was deprecated in both flavor and texture, leaving an afterglow of passion fruit in the mouth that lasted long after all hints of the cookie had drifted into history. Sigh.
Firebrand Artisan Breads
Next I took a trip to Matt Kreutz's Firebrand Artisan Breads on Broadway in Oakland, where I encountered one of my favorite Bay Area cookies. Naturally, since this has been Kreutz's specialty since 2008, the breads are amazing. You will probably need to get a loaf to go. But the cookies are pretty special too, reflecting an elevated level of craftsmanship. Each one is an experience, each cookie unique. All are sizable, spanning the palm of my hand. I got one of each flavor, tasted each one immediately and then doled out my precious stash over the next day or so. The Salted Chocolate Chip boasts a generous portion of bittersweet chocolate chips or chunks for its volume, topped by large crystal flakes of sea salt. Put the salt side of the cookie on your tongue to enhance the chocolate jolt. The Oatmeal cookie crumbles in your mouth. It's so delicate that it sort of falls apart and rebuilds itself as a flavor package of warm roasted oats and finely chopped nuts while you chew. Of all the oatmeal cookies I tasted, this was one of the oatiest. The Molasses Ginger cookie was tender and cakey. It looked like the face of Mars, canals made of molasses, brown sugar and butter with a dusting of sugar crystals gleaming on its surface. It's telling that this is a Molasses Ginger rather than a Ginger Molasses because that does indeed reflect the hierarchy of featured flavors. But the standout cookie in the bunch was the Lemon Lavender. It's the one you won't mind loosening the belt for. Have two! Starting with a whisper-perfect lemon yellow hue and a halo of lacy caramelization around the perimeter, the cookie starts with a crispy snap and then delivers a rush of juicy lemon tang in the long finish. It’s fragrantly amazing, like lemon blossoms in spring married with summer’s heady lavender. It's like a cookie version of Shaker Lemon Pie, which is made by slicing whole lemons (rind, pith and fruit) paper thin and baking them in a tender pastry that satisfies every lemon lover’s desire. Yum.