"Great mouths think alike," said my clever editor Besha Rodell when I noted that John Kessler of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had featured the Atlanta Cupcake Factory (634 N. Highland Ave., 404-685-8707) in an article the same day I posted an entry about the shop on our blog, OmnivoreATL.com.
Not only did we select the same subject, we both approached the cupcake as something that triggers nostalgia – although, not surprisingly, John's memories were more pleasant than mine. I went to a birthday party when I was a kid where amazingly repulsive cupcakes were served. I got very sick and hadn't been able to eat another without feeling queasy until I encountered the Cupcake Factory's "lemon-lemon" one at MetroFresh a few months ago. That's a lot of years of saying "no, thank you" to cupcakes.
"Actually," co-owner Jamie Fahey tells me, "my memories were also unpleasant. I hated cupcakes. Moisture is a huge issue with me and I'd eaten too many with dry cake and dry icing that was too sweet. So I've worked really hard on texture and moisture with the cake. And I've spent a lot of time developing the frostings. I wanted them to be creamy but maintain body without adding a ton of sugar. Everything is pure – no preservatives at all."
Lori Glover, who runs the business side of the operation, says that Fahey, who bakes without assistance, indeed resisted her original idea to specialize in cupcakes. "Jamie was already dabbling in catering with high-end desserts," she says, "but I had mentioned to my husband two years ago that there was a void in the city – good cupcakes – that needed to be filled."
But who knew there was even a demand for cupcakes?
The two explain that just as tastes have changed, so has the life of children. Gone are the days when a kid went to a few birthday parties a year for which mom baked one cake. Now, Fahey explains, kids go to a lot of parties with larger budgets, and mothers don't have the time to bake cakes.
"Cupcakes are a convenient substitute and they are huge for birthdays now," Glover says. "We figured we'd be catering to kids but when we first started experimenting with them at the school where all our kids go, it turned out that the parents and teachers ate them as much as the kids. And they kept asking for more."
What is so good about the Cupcake Factory? First, there are the flavors, which the two say definitely exploit a positive nostalgia. "Southerners love red-velvet cake, for example," Glover says. "And there are people who grew up loving carrot cake. So both those flavors are very popular." The lemon cupcake is probably the shop's best seller.
In all, there are about 25 cupcakes with different flavored cakes and frostings. The "sugar cookie dulce de leche" is a sinful blend of vanilla cake with caramel cream-cheese frosting. As much as I love the lemon cupcake, the snowball has become my favorite. It's an utterly absurd-looking concoction of shaggy, lividly pink coconut atop marshmallow-cream frosting and chocolate devil's food cake. I find it impossible to look at without laughing. "People buy it because it's pink," Glover says.
Presentation, in fact, is a large part of the shop's success. The cupcakes themselves can range from the elegant, topped with gourmet candies, to the childlike, such as the snowball, to the completely whimsical, such as one topped with a "swamp" occupied by a plastic frog.
The shop mainly sells the cupcakes in variety selections of 12 for $30. They are nestled in a pink box tied with brown silk ribbon. Glover and Fahey also design cupcakes for special events, whether for children or corporate executives. They also bake "mini" versions that come 20 to a box for the same cost as the full-sized. Diet portions!
Most of their business is for events or resale, so it's best to order what you want 48 hours ahead. You can arrange pickup, or they will deliver. The shop on North Highland Avenue is open to the public Friday and Saturday, 6:30-10:30 p.m. That's the only time you can walk in and purchase a few cupcakes from a display case. It feels very much like you're walking into someone's kitchen. Part of the appeal of the entire enterprise is the young motherly energy the owners radiate.
I asked them if their children had gotten fat from testing recipes, and both said they are counting on overexposure to cupcakes inspiring temperance instead of gluttony. Not if they continue to produce cupcakes capable of curing lifetime revulsion like my own!
Ted's Montana Grill
Wayne and I headed downtown to eat at yet another restaurant that turned out to be closed last week. So we ended up at Ted's Montana Grill (133 Luckie St., 404-521-9796), which I had never visited.
A partnership of media mogul Ted Turner and George McKerrow of Longhorn fame, this restaurant advertises itself as a "21st century twist on the classic comfort foods of family dinners and church suppers." The arts-and-crafts decor, featuring lots of dark-stained wood and cozy booths, is pleasant.
The food, however, is mostly not. A Caesar salad was drowning in its "eggless dressing." Half a Springer Mountain chicken cooked in beer with rosemary and garlic reminded me of a TV dinner with dried-out white meat, dried mashed potatoes and dried squash casserole.
Wayne's bison delmonico was much better. His starter of four "gigantic" grilled shrimp served over sourdough bread made no sense to me, but the shrimp tasted good enough, especially dunked in a pitcher of drawn butter. His sides of onion rings and creamed spinach were the best things on the table.
We took home the great majority of our food.
Finally, the waitstaff was really friendly. But despite there being few people in the restaurant on a Monday night, our orders were constantly confused. We ended up, for example, with a salad we didn't order but accepted because the server, who disappeared for long periods, seemed so confused.
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