You have to be somewhat curious about a small jewel of a bakeshop called Cupcakes by Sonja which has garnered so much press coverage in recent weeksâ€¦ With several articles in the broadsheets and magazines as well as the food blogging sphere, just before and after its September 21 soft-opening at Serendra in The Fort, the eponymous bakeshop of Sonja Ocampo was certainly launched with press horns blaring. Ms. Ocampo reportedly worked for the Magnolia Bakery in New York, credited with the recent resurgence of interest in cupcakes, but more importantly, the bakery famous for appearing in episodes of the TV show, Sex and the City. I didnâ€™t read any of the pre- and post-opening reviews of Cupcakes by Sonja, and just waited until I could try the cupcakes for myself, in the same context as other consumers would, at the shop itself. I finally tried the cupcakes Monday night, though I have to admit I had very high expectationsâ€¦
Roughly a month after it officially opened, I visited the shop at 11 in the morning only to find out it wasnâ€™t open until 3pm and would remain open until 10pm. They had signs in the window that announced they were still on limited hours as they were in a soft-opening phase. There werenâ€™t many cupcakes in the display cases, which I took to be a good sign that they baked them fresh every morning, or as the day progressed. Monday night, after dinner, I got into the car with my wife, daughter and friend and returned to the shop. We arrived at about 8 pm and the display cases at the shop were nearly empty. There were about 8 types of cupcakes on offer and roughly 40-50 pieces total on display. Slim pickings, if you ask me. We bought all 8 types of cupcakes in stock and an extra vanilla as wellâ€¦ Our total bill for 9 cupcakes was PHP652 or PHP72 each (roughly USD1.50 each).
The shop itself is a gem. Little expense was spared on this creamy confection with paint, wallpaper, props, equipment (including a SMEG refrigerator) boxes, etc. all color coordinated and screaming cute, cute, cute!!! Glass shelves/chillers, though mostly empty, bode well for hundreds of cupcakes on display hopefully when the shop is in full operation. There is a large glass window which looks into an incredibly cramped kitchen (high-rent district!) which at 8pm had as many as 6 people busily working in a space that couldnâ€™t have been more than 10 square meters (excluding shelves and ovens). The staff looked at one point totally in control, another harried, and yet another, like stunned deer behind glass as several people poured into the shop at the same time and a line of sorts formed. With so few cupcakes on the shelves, several more cakes were quickly iced to meet the orders. A blackboard at the back of the counter listed many of the flavors on offer (there will be upwards of 25 different flavors once the shop is in full swing). We left the store with two wonderful boxes of cupcakes. Itâ€™s always nice when a shop pays attention to its packaging and the lighter than robinâ€™s egg blue cardboard boxes were paler than Tiffany’s, and a perfect match for the shopâ€™s brown stickers. Back home, and after a brief struggle with the scotch tape, I tasted all 8 cupcakes and here are our personal opinions, ranked from least to most liked confection:
8. Goinâ€™ Bananas â€“ Described by the shop as â€œpeanut butter and banana-filled chocolate cupcake topped with caramel glaze and a caramelized banana.â€ My initial reaction was… â€œwhat flavor is this?â€ â€“ which says it all – faint banana flavor drowned by the chocolate, muddled by the peanut butterâ€¦I thought this was my least liked of the 8 cupcakes tried. PHP68.
7. Bunny Huggers Carrot Cake â€“ I liked the fact that the grated carrot was clearly visible in the cake though I found it a bit overspiced and over-iced. I suppose one could self-regulate how much icing to include with each bite of cake, but this definitely didnâ€™t float my boat. PHP55.
6. Southern Pecan Cupcake Pie â€“ Despite a sign in the store clarifying the difference between cupcakes and muffins, this particular offering clearly does not fall into the cupcake category, in my opinion. It was really more like an individual pecan pie serving. A hard crust housing a generous amount of pecan and caramel, topped with whole pecans. I like pecan pie, and especially in small doses, so this was promising, but the dough was a bit hard (old? or possibly cold?) and the filling somehow a little less flavorful than it could be. PHP98!
5. Berries Nâ€™ Cream â€“ â€œBrown Butter Almond Cake with Fresh Strawberries and Whipped Cream Icing.â€ In theory, this sounded superb, in the flesh, it was a solid â€œsatisfactory.â€ The cake itself had a hard crust, again it seemed to be cooked much earlier in the day and though a nice dense and flavorful dough, I wouldnâ€™t have guessed much brown butter was in it and you had to â€œhuntâ€ for the strawberries. The whipped cream icing was very good. The Kid liked this one, but agreed there could have been more berries, and also, these were more likely frozen berries, not FRESH. PHP75.
4. Chocolate Surprise â€“ â€œValrhona Chocolate Cupcakes topped with Creamy Chocolate Frosting and Some Sprinklesâ€ â€“ a nice moist, sweet little cake with good chocolate flavor. The icing, while good, was quite granular, which I find happens with local sugar that tends to be less fine than it could be. This cake my daughter would certainly buy again. PHP62.
3. Vanilla Sunshine â€“ â€œA Classic and Fluffy Yellow Cake topped with Blue Buttercream icing.â€ This was a good basic cupcakeâ€¦ I suppose meant to be the standard from which the other cakes are judged… It was denser than described and not at all â€œfluffy.â€ However, this cake ranked third in our opinion; it was also the cheapest. PHP48.
2. Pumpkin Pie (didnâ€™t catch the real name, I just describe it here) â€“ This was like a small serving of creamy pumpkin pie sitting on a crisp/chocolately bottom crust. This was a pleasant surprise and very good. Nicely spiced, good texture, good overall balance between the filling and the crusty base. Definitely NOT a cupcake, but a great dessert. PHP100.
1. Melt-In-Your-Mouth Flourless Chocolate Cupcake â€“ Delicious and absolutely the best of the lot. All of us agreed this was close to sublime. It was like eating a lighter, creamier, more chocolate-y, sludgy fudge in a paper cup. I wouldnâ€™t call this a cupcake either, but never mind, it tasted very good, whatever they name it. PHP98.
As you can probably tell from my comments above, I was far from bowled over. I had hoped for more. The cupcakes, while some of them superb, were small, pricey and inconsistent. One wonders if all the advance press was based on a different set of samples baked in smaller batches rather than commercial operations. I hope this is just part of the birthing pains that any new business goes through but I am not likely to return for a whileâ€¦ As for the size issue, the cupcakes not only struck me as being small, they were smaller than say the standard cupcake pans I use at home (5cm base). If I were to have a snack at the shop, I would need two cupcakes and some tea or a drink and that would cost me upwards of PHP200!
In a broader sense, I do wonder about the quality of ingredients available to high-quality bakers these daysâ€¦ on the one hand much better chocolates, dried fruits, etc. are on the market, but I still lament the fact that the locally sourced butter generally sucks, the flour is sometimes problematic, eggs unusually high in watery whites, and the sugar grainier than I would have liked. Also, the humidity seems to affect a lot of baked confections here. I wonder how shops adjust for these ingredient/weather issues. Finally, I should mention that I found Sonja’s cupcakes incredibly expensive (a partially eaten cake in a measuring cup in the photo here). I understand the shop is in a very high rent district, that there are huge overheads and that packaging and quality will cost a lot more, but I didnâ€™t feel the value trade-off was there. But that could be just me. I am curious what Marketmanila’s readers, who have tried these cupcakes, think. Have I been unusually harsh? Did I just get a bad cupcake day? Was I expecting too much? Am I simply NOT the shopâ€™s intended target market? Are there just legions of folks out there that will flock to this shop for the ambiance, the cute little cakes, the experience, being seen where one should be seen (while wearing one’s Blahniks or Choos), with less of a focus on the cupcakes themselves or the prices charged? Is this destined to be the cupcake equivalent of Starbucks? What am I missing?