Dining: Circling Back

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In the kitchen of her Ballard home, Renee Erickson lifts pillowy, freshly fried doughnuts from a pot of boiling oil. She rolls them in sugar and then — creating a gourmet version of a grandmother’s classic — fills them with purple swirls of huckleberry cream, lush lashings of intense coffee custard and other experimental flavors for the General Porpoise doughnut and coffee shop (Capitol Hill, 1060 E Union St.; gpdoughnuts.com) she opened this past fall.

The star chef hated the ring-shaped treats during her brief tenure working at a Seattle-area doughnut shop years back. The lesson she learned there was “most things that go into doughnuts are disgusting,” like shelf-stable fillings that could last for years.

But on a visit to London’s St. John Bakery, her interest was piqued by the shop’s cult-status doughnuts, fresh and bright and “with some substance to them.” It seemed to be a niche Seattle was missing, much as her experiences eating oysters in France prompted her to open her lauded The Walrus and the Carpenter oyster bar.

Erickson is hardly alone in seeing a new future in an old-fashioned favorite. 

At the new, 2,500-square-foot Mighty-O Donuts café in Ballard (1555 NW Market St.; mightyo.com), customers can watch a “doughnut robot” dropping dough into oil and lifting out the company’s made-from-scratch sweets, which are organic, vegan and use non-GMO ingredients. Down the block from Mighty-O, Rodeo Donut (2052 NW Market St.; rodeodonut.com) fries up a rotating selection of flavors daily inside Cupcake Royale. Options range from a dreamy cinnamon-cardamom sugar enhancing the brioche dough to wackier options, such as maple whisky bacon and spicy ginger blueberry. It didn’t take long after Rodeo’s opening in March for a second store to debut on Capitol Hill (inside Cupcake Royale, 1111 E Pike St.). More  are in the works. 

Around the region, from the new Bellevue branch of Frost, scheduled to open this month (Lincoln Square, 700 Bellevue Way NE; frostology.com), to Legendary Doughnuts (Tacoma/Auburn/Covington; legendarydoughnuts.com), such elevated options have bubbled up like yeast and sugar. Even Rachel’s Ginger Beer now offers the doughnut’s sugary cousin, the beignet.

“The nice thing is doughnuts are getting a bigger reputation,” says Ryan Kellner, founder of Mighty-O. “But it’s not new.”

The 15-year-old company spent its first years concentrating on a wholesale business and a single Tangletown café. Its recent surge — a major Tukwila production facility, the new Ballard shop and another site opening on Capitol Hill — is the fruition of years of planning, growth and changes in the public’s palate.

“It’s the second wave, almost,” says Kellner. “It’s like grunge music. The real progenitors of it were in the ’80s, but the world didn’t hear about it until the ’90s.”
Rather than Dunkin’ Donuts franchises, Seattle’s specialty has generally been beloved family-owned shops along the old-fashioned-and-fritter lines of Countryside Donut House in Mountlake Terrace (Facebook, “Countryside Donut”) and King Donuts in Rainier Beach (Facebook, “King Donuts Seattle”), both founded by couples who emigrated from Cambodia. The doughnut robot at Pike Place Market’s venerated Daily Dozen Doughnut Company (dailydozendonuts.com) is about as iconic as our fried dough got. 

The new wave began its rise when Seattle solidified its status as a center for independent artisan food. Seattle landed in that sweet spot in about 2002, when Mark and Michael Klebeck opened their first vintage-style Top Pot café (multiple locations; toppotdoughnuts.com), thinking more about atmosphere than edibles. Their background was in designing spaces, “putting the labor of love into each of the places,” as Mark Klebeck put it, so when customers walked in, “it just felt different.” 

But the “hand-forged” pastries they settled on were a match for their beautifully designed, book-lined cafés, with chocolate old-fashioneds and fancy delicacies like coconut-dusted “feather boas” drawing visitors ranging from President Barack Obama to food gurus Jane and Michael Stern. The business has grown to 19 cafés in Washington and Texas. Top Pot also supplies doughnuts to QFC and other supermarkets, with more expansion to come. 

On a similar track came Mighty-O founder Kellner, a geologist by trade. The culture Kellner sought was centered on care for the environment. He and his team developed an organic, vegan, non-GMO doughnut made from scratch. 

Mighty-O was an early supplier of markets such as PCC Natural Markets and Whole Foods, opening its first café in 2003. For all its innovations, Mighty-O’s flavors seem downright traditional compared with outlets that have made the word “doughnut” trendy again, such as the caffeinated and bacon-studded specialties at Portland-based Voodoo Doughnut, which also opened in 2003, or stylish offerings like elderberry cassis at Rodeo or blueberry-bourbon-basil at Portland’s Blue Star Donuts, which, like Erickson’s General Porpoise, was inspired by a trip to St. John Bakery in London.

Our modern hunger for doughnuts seems two-tiered; it’s the Northwest template of scratch/local/seasonal cooking with an extra layer of experimental inspiration. 

“We’ll always have vanilla custard, chocolate,” Erickson says, “[but] there are so many possibilities.”