Photo: Samantha Bolton for Yahoo Food
On a Friday afternoon, a few hours before dinnertime, chef Bjorn DelaCruz is having a hard time prepping for service. He’s running back and forth between his small kitchen and the dining room, where he’s being peppered with questions and requests by a group of reporters and photographers. A blogger flies through the door demanding to pick up his sought-after baked good ASAP, and the phone rings every few minutes, with eager new customers from far-flung places ready to place an order. For DelaCruz, who still has a restaurant to run and patrons to serve, this frenzy is overwhelming, fun, and, above all, completely unexpected. The cause of this chaotic milieu? A 24-karat gold donut, perched in its solitary glory on a cake stand and glittering in the window light.
DelaCruz, chef and co-owner of Manila Social Club restaurant, wasn’t setting out to create an Internet sensation when he first conceived this precious pastry. The first generation of the gold donut, which I first tasted one night in December at the restaurant’s monthly open-to-the-public Donuts & DJs party, was tamer than its contemporary. DelaCruz, who wanted to create a festive celebratory treat to sell around New Year’s Eve, had prepared a black donut with a White IPA from Brooklyn’s Braven Brewing Company and dusted it with gold powder. Its subtle shine made the party guests ooh and aah, and the taste was heavier and hoppier than the other air-light donuts, with a hint of the IPA flavor. Still, the donut could be better, DelaCruz thought.
The next afternoon, DelaCruz was in his apartment savoring some leftovers from the party, a donut and his champagne of choice: Cristal. He loved how the mildly sweet tones of the bubbly interacted with the flavor of the ube — a purple yam prevalent in Filipino cooking that is also featured on DelaCruz’s inventive menu. So he got to work on a new, extravagant version of his popular donuts, which are crafted out of a French pâte à choux, rather than the typically denser dough, lending them an airy quality. The result was a luxurious creation, filled with chunks of champagne jelly, piped through with creamy ube mousse, and coated with shimmering Cristal icing and delicate flakes of 24-karat gold leaf (which, in case you are worried, is totally safe to eat). The cost: $100 a piece.
DelaCruz, who intended the expensive baked good to function as a specialty gift, proudly posted the gold donut to the restaurant’s Instagram page. However, it wasn’t until a week later when the New York Times gave the gold donut a small mention in its review of the restaurant that the frenzy began. Soon, Manila Social Club was receiving calls from around the country and the world from eager eaters with heavy pockets, wanting to get their fix of the golden donuts — sometimes dozens at a time. Some people wanted to give the donut as a wedding gift; others, a birthday present. And some just wanted to flash their wealth.
The donuts, which are sold only on Fridays, must be picked up in person or hand delivered by DelaCruz — no exceptions. When a wealthy patron from Texas called, saying he’d pay to ship a couple dozen to himself, DelaCruz’s sister and co-owner, Catherine DelaCruz, had to inform him that was simply impossible. DelaCruz is a perfectionist of his craft, and the idea of a stale, jostled donut simply wouldn’t fly.
Photo: Samantha Bolton for Yahoo Food
The chef, who was born in Manila, Philippines, but moved to Indiana when he was 3, first rediscovered his love for Filipino flavors and ingredients on a trip back to his homeland at 13 years old. “When I tasted ube, I instantly remembered that flavor. It reminded me of family and being on the farm with my grandmother,” he says. Those flavors would later come prominently into play when he began to cook Filipino food supper-club style for friends and fans who wanted their taste buds to be transported to the Philippines. Last April, DelaCruz and Catherine, along with their brother, Samuel Ware, opened their permanent space in Brooklyn, selling reinvented twists on Filipino fare including lumpia rolls filled with longanisa, a Torta Talong with fire-roasted eggplants, rich ube bread pudding, doused in thick, purple mousse poured over top. In the fall, DelaCruz was inspired to create a new brunch treat, sold just once a week: a pillowy ube donut, coated in a signature shock of purple frosting. Even before the gold donuts made headlines, a small but devoted following clamored for Manila Social Club’s unique, doughy creations each weekend.
Now the clamor has gotten significantly louder as the showy donut has become international news. For a small, family-run restaurant, this kind of coverage comes with the good and the bad. While the frenzied attention has quickly put the name on the map, it has also made the DelaCruzes the subject of public ire, with cries of overindulgence and irresponsible materialism and even attacks on their personal character. However, this backlash hasn’t made the chef any less proud of the flavor and inventiveness of his creation, which originally took him more than an hour a piece to decorate — a time he has streamlined to around 20 minutes.
The donut is carefully crafted by piping the purple-hued dough with the custardy ube and jellified Cristal, which has the texture of little pockets of Jell-O, rather than a jam filling. DelaCruz then coats the outside with the Cristal frosting and airbrushes on 24-karat gold dust — which clings to your fingers as you handle the precious baked good. He then applies gold leaf, peeling off small fragments with a pair of tweezers and carefully draping them over the frosting with a furrowed concentration.
The result is stunning. The gold flakes shift lazily in the air, and light is reflected up on every part of the surface, making the pastry something you won’t want to eat for fear of ruining its appearance. When we unboxed our own in the Yahoo Food office, a crowd quickly flocked around it, excitedly snapping photos with their cellphones. Comments on Instagram posts of the gold donut range from “Can you really eat that?” to “LOL unfollowing” to “But is it actually good?” And really, it is actually good.
Photo: Samantha Bolton for Yahoo Food
DelaCruz makes it clear that taste was his first priority. “If I wanted just to create something super expensive, I would have used Ace of Spades [champagne]. Cristal has a really beautiful honeyed sweetness to it,” the chef says. The flavor mimics his typical donut, which has a rich sweetness thanks to the distinct, earthy flavor of the sweet purple yam and is punctuated with the surprising sensation of cool bursts of champagne. You taste the alcohol, as DelaCruz wanted the true flavor of the Cristal to come through. Though the taste had our team divided — some found the champagne to be a little too prevalent — there’s no doubt the texture is as smooth and luxurious as you’d expect from such a novelty. In terms of taste, the flavorless gold itself adds no more than the wow factor. “The gold’s a novelty. A gimmick. The real cost of the donut is inside — it’s the Cristal,” which costs around $250 a bottle in New York City, DelaCruz notes.
Manila Social Club plans to continue selling the donut but emphasizes that the real priority is the restaurant. However, DelaCruz says, he’s proud his donut has the opportunity to be part of a special moment in many of his customers’ lives; many of the orders he gets are from those wanting a unique, inventive wedding or birthday gift. DelaCruz also has plans to donate donuts to be auctioned at various charity events and has more specialty donuts in the works. They’ve also caught the eye of celebrities — including Billy Crystal, who recently placed an order — and the makers of Cristal themselves, who contacted the restaurateurs asking if they could come share a celebratory toast with them.
Although the donut is the restaurant’s golden egg du jour, DelaCruz always has his eyes — and ovens — on what’s next. While chances are his future creations won’t have the viral quality of the golden donut, that isn’t Manila Social Club’s first priority. Rather, the emphasis is on continuing to create beautiful, quality food that recalls the flavors of home.
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