Since moving down to Denver from Boulder, I've developed a weekend ritual. After rolling out of bed, I walk up West 32nd Avenue to Zuni Street, passing patio-dwellers at the Gallop Café and brushing by brunchers waiting for a table at Duo, then cross the tree-lined street and walk into the old brick building two doors from Pasquini's that houses the tiny Wooden Spoon Cafe & Bakery. A blast of dessert-perfumed air hits as I open the door, and I join the regulars chatting in line, looking at the pastry case and jars filled with cookies, the chalkboards listing that day's offerings. Once I've made and paid for my order, I grab one of the wooden tables (each one adorned with a miniature vase with fresh flowers) and settle in, reading the paper cover to cover over breakfast as the neighborhood comes slowly to life.
I've been fond of the Wooden Spoon since the first time I dropped in, when I got in line behind a six-year-old waiting to pick up his birthday cake. The boy had consulted with the Wooden Spoon's chef, his mother explained, and told him that he wanted a pirate ship. It was soon sailing toward us in the hands of an assistant, the cake carved and frosted into a full oceanic scene. The birthday boy actually jumped up and down as the assistant asked if it was what he'd wanted, while his mother ecstatically forked over the cash. Impressed with both the care and craftsmanship, I made a mental note to think about the bakery for special events.
But it wasn't cake that made me a regular here. Husband-and-wife team Jason and Jeanette Burgett worked in the restaurant industry for years before opening the Wooden Spoon last summer. They envisioned a neighborhood cafe that relied on high-quality local ingredients to turn out a menu of well-crafted breakfast and lunch dishes in addition to housemade baked goods, everything from macarons to lemon meringue to chocolate turtles. And they created a warm, welcoming spot that's as sweet as the treats, with a handful of wooden spoons and photos of chickens adorning the yellow walls, '40s-era jazz and Motown humming from the speakers, and a view of the open kitchen just beyond the counter, where the chef rolls out crusts and stuffs sandwiches.
Slideshow: Sweet! Wooden Spoon Cafe & Bakery
Since the dishes are made to order, they take some time — so I usually select something from the case to snack on while I wait for one of the employees to deliver my main meal. That first morning, it was a sticky bun: a fat, dense roll of bready pastry thoroughly coated with sweet, sticky caramel, with pecans hidden in the crevices. It was served warm and, washed down with hot Coda coffee, was more than big enough for a morning meal. Still, I had no trouble polishing off my actual breakfast. The Wooden Spoon specializes in breakfast sandwiches, and I'd created my own combo from a list of ten or so ingredients: cheddar, arugula and herb-flecked Polidori sausage from a local supplier, stuffed along with fluffy baked eggs inside a warm, soft brioche from City Bakery. The sandwich was surprisingly light, considering the hearty ingredients, and after my decadent starter, I was thankful. Although I generally like a breakfast sandwich best when the egg is fried and served with a hunk of pork on an everything bagel, this less-artery-clogging version was delicious — and it fit the cafe's comfortable vibe.
I was back the next weekend, this time limiting myself to coffee and a cinnamon roll. The bready, twisted base was similar to the sticky bun but puffier, as though it had been allowed to rise longer. It was also crustier around the edges, with cinnamon filling every nook and cranny. Sweet-tart cream-cheese frosting had been thickly troweled on top and oozed between the layers of pastry. I contemplated licking every last trace from the plate, but instead watched passersby on 32nd Avenue and nursed a second, massive cup of coffee until I got so hopped up on caffeine that I thought my heart might explode.
My last trip was over the Fourth of July, when I needed to take something to a party. Thinking of that six-year-old's birthday cake, I hauled my sugar-loving boyfriend over to the Wooden Spoon to help me pick out a box of pastries. He went crazy at the case, ordering one of nearly everything. And then, since we'd slept too late for breakfast, we decided to linger over a lazy lunch while we made a hefty dent in the sandwich lineup.
My favorite was the BLT: thick slabs of smoky bacon, slices of ripe tomato and mixed greens stacked between halves of a crusty baguette (this one from Trompeau Bakery) that had been smeared with onion-y chive cream cheese that melted on the toasted bread and dripped into the rest of the ingredients; a hint of dill gave the sandwich extra depth and a good, herbaceous finish. I liked the roast beef almost as much; I'd asked for it hot, and the meat came piled under sweet caramelized onions, a smear of zippy horseradish cream, and cheddar that had melted between the layers of roast beef.
I wasn't as thrilled with the prosciutto-and-brie combo, topped with a seasonal fruit (apricots that day) and more arugula. The brie had been cut into thick bricks; although I love the rind of the cheese, it added too much flavor here, and the brie overpowered the thinly shaved prosciutto in many bites. Without enough savory meat for balance, the apricots made the whole sandwich so overridingly sweet that I could only eat a couple of bites. Ditto for the quinoa salad, which combined the tiny, orb-shaped grains with sweet dried cranberries, toasted pecans and more arugula, then mixed everything with a balsamic vinaigrette that heightened the sugary characteristics of the dish, taking it straight to cloying. That's fine for a pastry, but not a salad. I preferred the housemade slaw, a simple blend of cabbage, sour cream, citrus, salt and pepper that was light, fresh and an ideal complement to the hefty sandwiches.
Even once we were done eating, we sat and sipped our coffee, enjoying the respite from holiday commitments. Then, finally, we made a few last-minute additions to our waiting box of desserts and paid the friendly attendant, who'd held our check open until we were through.
Thanks to our large meal, we were able to keep our hands out of the box long enough to reach the barbecue. I could have eaten about a dozen macarons; the egg white- and almond-based cookies, sandwiching buttercream, melted away into nothing on the tongue. I was practically territorial over the lemon meringue mini-pie, an individual-sized flaky crust packed with smooth, tangy lemon filling and topped with ethereally light peaks of meringue. For the fruit tart, a shallow cookie-like shell had been filled with creamy custard, then adorned with juicy, jewel-like raspberries and dusted with sugar crystals; I wanted to pop the whole thing in my mouth. I also quickly snapped up a turtle, a rich, sticky mix of chocolate, caramel and pecans. And I could only take about three bites of the chocolate dome, but they were three glorious spoonfuls of dense chocolate ganache encrusted with chocolate fondant on a thin chocolate cookie.
Sweetness did in the s'more bar, though; the homemade marshmallow overpowered the homemade graham cracker it topped, and the thin chocolate shell encasing the bar made the dessert too rich. Then again, the croissant bread pudding could have used a shot of custard or vanilla so that it tasted less like a muffin and more like dessert. Still, these were minor quibbles, and they didn't slow our fellow party-goers, who fought for every crumb of the Wooden Spoon's confections, one bit.
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I have a feeling that next weekend the shop will have a few more regulars — and my lazy morning ritual won't be quite as quiet.
Slideshow: Sweet! Wooden Spoon Cafe & Bakery