20th Century Cafe Brings a Slice of Old-Timey Europe to Hayes Valley
After a litany of delays and setbacks, Michelle Polzine's much-anticipated pastry shop, 20th Century Café, has finally opened on the corner of Oak and Gough. Her goal is to create "a small corner café that reflects the styles of early 20th century Vienna, Budapest, and Prague." It's the kind of coffee shop that makes you feel like an expatriate, and 20th Century Cafe extends its vintage European theme to everything from its décor to its pastries.
Anna Roth Clockwise from top left: Chocolate chip cookie, potato knish, Russian honey cake, raspberry-plum coffee cake from 20th Century Cafe.
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I stopped by the light-filled, copper-accented shop mid-morning to sample a few of the pastries. The standout was by far Polzine's potato knish, a light, flaky pastry shell encasing savory and smooth mashed potatoes -- one of the best examples of the form I've ever eaten. It didn't feel healthy, exactly, but it definitely wasn't the heavy gut bomb that knishes can be. (Bon Appetit was apparently as taken as I was, and published the recipe back in February.)
The second most impressive pastry was the Russian honey cake (krasinski tortchen), which had more than a dozen thin, alternating layers of spiced cake and sweet cream frosting. The cake had a moist, small crumb and was flecked with cinnamon; the icing had a faint honey flavor that paired well with the cake. Altogether it was decadent but still managed to be light. I didn't retreat into a sugar coma when I was done.
The cafe's chocolate chip cookie was of the hard and crunchy variety, but deeply chocolatey and dusted with sea salt. An individual raspberry-plum coffee cake had a sweet, soft, yeasty dough set off by a crunchy topping. It was more like brioche than crumb cake, and though it was veined with fruit, I wanted more of the raspberry/plum flavor.
Polzine is also making bagels, tortes, and ice cream -- in the future, expect more savory items as well. Right now, the cafe's a nice place to sit and have a cup of coffee, a treat, and dream about far-off lands. Hit up the similarly themed Two Sisters Bar and Books afterward, a few blocks away, and your journey to the cafe culture of early 20th century Europe will be complete.