It's hard to go wrong with a name like Sugar Cakes. The name has a whimsical, almost childlike appeal to it. Veteran pastry chef and Ritz-Carlton alum Ted Arpon opened Sugar Cakes on Marietta Square this past spring, and while the competition on the square must be pretty stiff (what with two ice cream shops and at least two other bakeries a stone's throw away), there seems to be enough business to go around. Sugar Cakes really gets cranking on weekend nights, when Mariettans descend on the square en masse for dinner and a stroll. From the outside, the warm glow emitted from the bakery's storefront windows (not to mention the aroma of fresh baked goods) is downright irresistible. The interior's as shiny as a new penny, from the freshly painted walls to the tidy café tables and chairs to the snazzy pressed-tin ceiling. Admittedly, it feels a little like a Starbucks, but one look in those bakery cases and you realize you're somewhere special.
Tour de France: The pastries here are little works of art, elegantly sculpted from cake or custard. A tiny pecan tartlet offers no more than three or four bites, but each is a perfect composition of crumbly crust, pecan and syrupy filling. A pale orange circle of mango mousse topped with a gloss of electric-orange gelee sits primly atop a plain white dessert plate. It's almost too pretty to eat. But each bite explodes with the pure essence of the fruit. The texture is so light it practically dissolves on the tongue. Tahitian vanilla crème brulee is torched to order, creating a lovely crystalline shell over the velvety custard.
Let Them Eat Cake: Financiers, almond-scented tea cakes no bigger than your pinky finger, are packaged by the half-dozen in cellophane bags. Next are the madeleines, the celebrated French cookies that aren't cookies at all but rather miniature cakes baked in shell-shaped molds. Save them for breakfast -- they're especially delicious dipped in strong coffee. American treats like chocolate chip cookies and blueberry muffins are on hand, too, but the French pastries are so much more beguiling.
Puff, the Magic Pastry: Nothing says French bakery like a croissant, and the croissants at Sugar Cakes are nothing short of divine. Unlike the gigantic, greasy gut-bombs you get at the supermarket bakery, these are modestly sized and lightly puffed, with a bit of tooth to them. Fragrant almond croissants are a must-try, as is the pain au chocolat, a rectangular croissant filled with bittersweet chocolate. Also heavenly are cheese-filled Danishes and fresh fruit tarts, both made with a base of flaky yeast dough.
The subdued, grown-up crowd suits the place. A foursome of thirtysomethings relishes a night without the kids, chatting idly and sipping café au lait. A pair of teenage girls, worldly beyond their years, huddle over a shared pastry at a window table. Jazz on the sound system is occasionally interrupted by the growl of the espresso maker. Though Sugar Cakes is a bit too earnest and fresh-scrubbed to be mistaken for a real-deal French patisserie, the sweets hit the mark.