When my daughters were tiny, their aunt and uncle took them out to the girliest of lunches. They wore dresses. They cooed over the delicate finger sandwiches and sipped pink lemonade. When their server called them “ladies,” they dissolved into thrilled giggles.
These days, they’re boycotting both pink and dresses. They’re scruffy and restless and, because they seem to grow an inch a month, they are very, very hungry.
To my surprise, Sugar Cakes Patisserie, a little cafe on Marietta Square that seemed like it would be too ladies-who-lunchish, was a perfect fit for them on a recent Sunday afternoon. (Sugar Cakes also serves breakfast and weekend-only dinners, but, according to owner Ted Arpon, lunch is the restaurant’s biggest draw.)
This is a cafe where soup is served with slender breadsticks, where every other sandwich seems to come on a croissant, where the glass-encased pastries are sculptural and French. And, yet, the vibe couldn’t feel less fussy.
The decor at Sugar Cakes is utilitarian and brightly contemporary — except for the fabulous old tin ceiling tiles. The service is polite, but not at all precious. Nobody minds, for instance, if your scruffy, restless kids make multiple visits to the pastry case to ogle and plot their dessert negotiations.
Sugar Cakes’ high quality begins with its breads and pastries, which are all made in-house, even those breadsticks. If I worked on Marietta Square, I would pair the swirled pecan danish with my coffee break as often as possible. Dotted with chopped nuts and glazed with a fruity sheen, this flaky pastry is just sticky enough to be deliciously luxurious, but not so much that it gums up the molars.
The croissants are extremely buttery, and they’re tender rather than a flaky explosion — which is just what you want in a croissant that’s loaded with, say, fruity, nutty, tarragon-scented chicken salad.
There’s an art to chicken salad, especially here in the South, and Sugar Cakes nails it. This version is not too mayonnaisey, too chunky or too chopped. There are just enough grapes tucked in to give the salad some fruitiness and texture without making it too sweet.
The sandwich comes with a side salad you actually want to eat: springy greens, ample feta crumbles, toasted almonds and thinly sliced red onions. The balsamic vinaigrette is neither oversugared nor an acid bath. If you’ve endured too many sad side salads to count, you know this is a rare gift.
The same amount of thoughtfulness goes into the croque monsieur, whose melty Swiss and ham is tucked into a tasty, fluffy baguette, then loaded with caramelized onions. There’s enough flavor in this sandwich so that the bland béchamel and oily pesto on the side should be largely ignored.
Sugar Cakes really wins when it keeps things light. Witness the lightly breaded, crisp crabcakes. Big chunks of crab are just barely padded with a hint of creamy binder. And the brightness from crunchy bits of celery once again makes the dip on the side — this time, it’s tartar sauce — seem superfluous.
There’s more lightness — and sweetness, of course — in desserts like the glossy, chocolate-glazed Mirage pastry, an airy little tower of chocolate mousse and creme brulee. We also loved the supple, crisp-edged crepes Romanoff, which were scattered with strawberries and a delectable drizzle of brandy-scented glaze.
The flip side of this praise is that Sugar Cakes can dish up some heavies, like a morosely thick cup of mushroom and brie soup and a chewy-crusted quiche overstuffed with slightly funky spinach.
But these were blips in a lunch that mostly felt special.
Little sandwich shops can, and sometimes do, get away with phoning it in. After all, weekday workers with offices nearby have got to eat, and sometimes they’ll take mediocre grub if it’s fast.
But Sugar Cakes seems to strive to do better than that — with its tremendously yummy baked goods, its attention to little details and its straightforward, welcoming vibe.