When most of us think of doughnut shops, we picture dinky dives, places where men all over America stop off on their way to work for the breakfast their wives won't let them eat and a Styrofoam cup of crappy coffee. Doughnut shops are landmarks for truck drivers, and travelers, and people in transit. They are destinations for stoned minors at all hours of the day, a place of temporary relief for inebriated troops in between the act of drinking and drinking, or drinking and sleeping, or drinking and purging. Most people's expectations of doughnut shops don't exceed the offerings of Krispy Kreme or Dunkin' Donuts, chains founded on bad grammar and quick fixes. Inside: a long, glass pastry case filled with colorful cake and yeast doughnuts; doughnuts crowded with confetti sprinkles and various bright shades of frosting; crinkly old fashioned doughnuts, gleaming with glaze; round, jelly-filled doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar. In doughnut currency, a dollar is a lot to pay for a fried disc of dough, handed to you in a wax paper bag, with a few cheap napkins, the kind that get stuck to your fingers while you are trying to rid them of the sticky evidence of a maple bar.
If anyone needed an excuse to scarf down a few glazed doughnut holes Friday, National Doughnut Day begged celebration. Invented by the Salvation Army in 1938, the modest holiday falls on the first Friday of June and honors the heroism of a group of Salvation Army volunteers who handed out doughnuts to soldiers on the front lines during WWI. While dozens of shops offered free pastries on Friday, pastry chef Mariah Swan, at Grace Restaurant used the holiday to show off her doughnut skills. By 6 p.m. on Friday night, 156 reservations had already been made for dessert.
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At Grace, doughnuts are treated as seriously as the sauteed scallops, carefully shaped into perfect globes and rings, painted with various delectable glazes, served with warm, rum-spiked milk, or paired with homemade ice cream. Elizabeth Belkind of Cake Monkey Bakery was the first to bring doughnuts to Grace, according to current pastry chef Swan, who offers up a different doughnut on the menu every night and hosts a special Doughnut Shoppe on Wednesday nights, where guests can sample an assortment of doughnuts paired with ice cream or wine. After Belkind, Robert Tarlow took doughnuts off the regular menu and established a weekly doughnut night, which Swan continues. Last year, all three pastry chefs curated a doughnut retrospective, a special menu that honored five years of the restaurant's history, outlined in fried dough, featuring Belkind's beloved strawberry doughnut, Tarlow's Elvis doughnut (a peanut butter and banana custard doughnut garnished with candied bacon) and Swan's famous butterscotch.
A native Angeleno, Swan studied baking at the Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and worked at Axe, an organic restaurant in Venice, before she came to Grace. While a quirky Bjork soundtrack plays in the background, Swan sits down in the dimly lit dining room to explain the risky business of baking doughnuts. "Doughnuts are very weather sensitive," she explains. "In December and January, we are praying over the dough. 'Please rise! Please move!' In August, it's too hot." If the weather had anything to do with the doughnuts at Grace this weekend, then it seems the mild, post-rain climate was exactly what Swan needed. The three-course tasting menu included miniature caramel doughnuts sprinkled with course salt paired with bourbon-pecan ice cream and decorated with strawberries, pistachio doughnuts paired with chocolate-buttermilk marble ice cream and dried cherries, and buttermilk brown butter-glazed doughnuts served with warm rum spiced milk. When asked whether Grace's gourmet adaptation of the roadside dessert is an exploitation of the doughnut itself, Swan reassures us that connoisseurs shouldn't take themselves too seriously "We can offer the fanciest doughnuts we want, but we're still all Homer Simpson," she says.