Donut Savant Is Where It’s At

Plus experience a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony in Oakland.

Last week I paid my first visit to Donut Savant, a new Uptown Oakland shop that’s been generating some Internet buzz.

My main takeaways: 1) The doughnuts here aren’t full-sized — they’re elaborations on a theme of doughnut holes. 2) At a time when the baseline rate for any artisan food product — be it a cupcake, pastry, or bagel — seems to be $3, these are a flat-out bargain. Prices range from fifty cents to one dollar. 3) The doughnuts are delicious and habit-forming, and you should go right now.

The other thing about Donut Savant is that it just doesn’t look like your standard doughnut shop — not with the mid-century modern-y lounge chairs in front and a display case that’s half-empty a lot of the time. Owner Laurel Davis is in back making small batches of doughnuts all day long, replenishing the supply as needed, and they’re little wee things to begin with, so the case never quite gets filled up.

During my first visit I ordered one of almost everything in the case, and my total bill still came out to only about $6. Later, I sat down with a glass of cold milk to do some sampling. My favorites were the “chocolate dust” and the “schokoladenkuchen”: the former a plain cake doughnut dusted with dark chocolate cocoa and crinkly granulated sugar; the latter Davis’ riff on German chocolate cake, with the traditional coconut-pecan frosting sandwiched in the middle. I appreciated that most of the doughnuts weren’t overly sweet.

A day later, I returned because I’d heard that the heavily hyped “chocolate bombs” would be making an appearance. Imagine: a chocolate doughnut hole with a crackly exterior, deep cocoa flavor, and — in the middle — a burst of oozy bittersweet goodness. The listed ingredients include Irish whiskey, Guinness, and Bailey’s, but it wasn’t as boozy as you might expect. Next time I might order a whole tray of these, stick some candles in, and call it my birthday.

When I spoke to Davis, she explained that she decided to focus on making mini-doughnuts — “doughnut (w)holes” — after having seen way too many doughnuts hacked into pieces because people don’t want to eat the whole thing themselves.

“This way a person can try one of each without having a stomachache,” she said. “And if you just want to have a little something, it’s easier to do that.”

Meanwhile, Davis conceded that her too-low-to-believe prices might have been a case of poor planning by a first-time business owner: She didn’t anticipate how many customers would come in and buy a single doughnut and nothing else — no coffee or anything.

Still, Davis said she doesn’t expect to tweak her pricing much, if at all.

“I don’t want to veer too far away from certain doughnut principles,” she said. “They’re supposed to be affordable. They’re supposed to be this inexpensive snack that anyone can afford.”

Donut Savant is located at 1934 Broadway, between 19th and 20th streets. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

Coffee As Ritual at Jébeena

On hot days (or rainy days, or under-caffeinated days) at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market, savvy market regulars find respite underneath the tent where Ambessaw Assegued and his wife, Dagmawit Bekele, serve coffee in the traditional Ethiopian manner.

When I visited a few Saturdays ago, Bekele sat before a low table, tatami-style, and heated the coffee up over an open flame, using a jug-shaped clay pot known as a jébeena. After removing the pot from the heat, she waited for the grounds to settle before gently pouring the brewed coffee into small ceramic cups. At no point was any kind of filter used.

The coffee was rich and smooth — quite unique, with its intensity and mouthfeel falling somewhere between espresso and drip coffee. It was a nice break from the ultra-light, high-acidity coffees that are so in vogue these days.

Watching Bekele work, I was reminded of nothing more than a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. As it turns out, that wasn’t a coincidence: Assegued told me he was already importing coffee from a remote forest in the Anfilo region of northwestern Ethiopia when he and his wife attended a Japanese tea ceremony here in Oakland. He thought, “Wow, we have something very similar to this in Ethiopia.”

And so Assegued came up with the idea of bringing not just his coffee, but an entire coffee experience, to the farmers’ market — the everyday ceremony that a typical Ethiopian household might go through three or four times a day, and a brewing process that’s remained essentially unchanged for thousands of years. He and Bekele have been operating their little al fresco cafe since the fall.

Assegued already has plans to expand his business by opening a brick-and-mortar shop: Jébeena Coffee will open at 35 Grand Avenue, near Broadway, by the latter part of this month. The new cafe will combine African and European coffee traditions. In addition to coffee, Assegued will serve Western pastries and breads and perhaps a small number of Ethiopian delicacies.


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