"Baking is more than a passion with me," confides Gina De Michael to a woman who has just bought a box of chewy cookies and buttery Danish coffeecakes. "It's therapy."
It's also our good luck. De Michael is chief baker at Pacific Whey Baking Co., a great little breakfast and lunch cafe in the Newport Hills Center.
This mini-mall, better known as the home of the restaurant and cooking school What's Cooking, had an out-of-the-way location before all the nearby construction. Thanks to the opening of the San Joaquin Hills tollway, local traffic is on the rise, and drivers zipping along the tollway have the opportunity to make a bread and pastry detour.
I know I plan to. I enjoyed De Michael's work at Haute Cakes, the restaurant and bakery she ran with her former husband. Today, on her own (she's principal owner of Pacific Whey), she is able to concentrate on what she likes best: pouring muffin batter, kneading bread dough and decorating fancy cakes.
One gets the feeling, in fact, that De Michael added breakfast and lunch dishes to the pastry output at Pacific Whey on a whim, because pastry definitely rules here. The room is dominated by a huge glass pastry case, and the place is filled with delightful aromas of baking.
It's not what you'd call cozy, though. A huge quasi-industrial sheet of metal hangs behind the counter, dividing the seating area from the main kitchen and allowing a partial view of the bakers at work. The floor is unfinished concrete, and seating is at small wooden tables. Half a dozen pastoral watercolors by local artist Brian Norkaitis add a touch of temporary tranquillity, though, and certainly no diner leaves Pacific Whey feeling deprived.
The breakfast items are delicious. They include muffins, wonderfully flaky scones and what De Michael calls breakfast bruschetta--country white bread (not toasted) topped with rich mascarpone and sliced fruit.
The sugar-crusted buttermilk scone must be about half again as big as normal--and at least half again as weighty with pure butter. De Michael laces the batter with peaches, blackberries and other seasonal fruits, making for almost embarrassingly opulent scones.
If her dense muffins, in such varieties as carrot/cream cheese and apple-spice, are not your cup of tea, try a sticky pull-apart cinnamon bun or a pale yellow brioche. The latter is a bun-shaped, challah-like egg bread made with butter and a higher proportion of egg whites than normal.
There are also pancakes ("heavenly hots" on the menu), four or five to an order. It's buttermilk in the batter, lots of it, that makes these puffy cakes so light. There's also a crisp, buttery Belgian waffle, somewhat steeply priced at $6.50. Sliced fruit and a jigger of Vermont maple syrup come with both dishes.
The lunch selection is soups, salads, sandwiches and a few Mexican plates. The sandwiches, mostly served on thick slices of country white bread, come with Caesar salad and are available in half or whole portions.
The Pacific Cobb sandwich, wrapped in white paper, looks like an edible torpedo. It's basically a Cobb salad in a baguette. There's a bit too much blue cheese in it, but the proportion of roasted turkey breast, bacon, sliced avocado and romaine lettuce is just right.
The filling of the herb-roasted chicken salad sandwich, though, is pureed to mush; think of baby food aromatic with dill and parsley. There's a fine BLTA sandwich ("A" for avocado) and a well-put-together vegetarian sandwich of fresh mozzarella, red onion, roasted sweet yellow peppers, oven-dried tomatoes, spinach and baby greens.
You can also get a hot vegetarian sandwich on yeasty focaccia. For this one, the vegetables are grilled and the bread is spread with a mild roasted garlic aioli.
I'm not crazy about the soups. One day there was a tomato rice soup, another a slightly sweet vegetable soup filled with orzo pasta, and both were bland.
What little Mexican food the bakery serves is exemplary. The grilled vegetable quesadilla is generous and flavorful, oozing with melted cheese. Tacos con papas are even better--two soft tacos filled with a spiced potato mixture.
With a Mexican dish you get a fine rice pilaf, pinto beans refried in olive oil and three sauces: zesty tomatillo salsa, a mild red salsa and sour cream. (These are filling lunches.)
Did you save room for dessert? Sure you did. You'd have to be crazy to leave without taking a crack at one of the peanut butter cookies with chocolate chunks, the bittersweet chocolate espresso cookies or the buttery oatmeal-raisin cookies.
You can get cakes here too, but not off the rack--you have to special-order them; the price will work out to about $3 a serving. I've had a German chocolate cake, a bittersweet chocolate mousse cake and flour-less lemon torte, and they were all about as good as it gets in central Orange County.
De Michael is in the baking business for her own reasons. I can't say it's therapy for a restaurant writer to eat cakes like these every day, but I could develop a passion for them.
Pacific Whey Baking Co. is inexpensive. Pastries from the case are $1.75 to $3.25. Breakfasts are $3.95 to $6.25. Sandwiches are $4.95 to $7.95. Mexican dishes are $6.95 to $7.95.
* PACIFIC WHEY BAKING CO.
* 2622 San Miguel Drive, Newport Beach.
* (714) 644-0303.
* Open Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
* MasterCard and Visa.