We started with Bliss Boutique Bakery just off West Franklin Street. It came highly recommended and we were not disappointed by the atmosphere. The space was open and fresh, in fact my research assistant that day, felt the space itself whisked us right out of Chapel Hill into a trendy little bakery. The kitchen and tables share the same space, although the kitchen is raised above the store front almost at the level of a stage, and is behind a wall of windows.
We visited Bliss on a Wednesday. The cupcake menu rotates daily with specialty cupcakes offered on their own days of the week and several standard cupcakes offered every day. We tried a Wednesday specialty, Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting, Chocolate with Chocolate Buttercream, and Vanilla with Vanilla Buttercream which are offered daily. At $2.50 each, the smallish cupcakes were reasonably priced. We found the Chocolate and Vanilla cupcakes to be dense and not overly moist. I was most disappointed with the flavor, while they were adequately chocolate and vanilla in flavor respectively, they were not sweet. Both the chocolate and the vanilla buttercreams had a very rich and buttery flavor, they too were not overly sweet. In fact, they were not sweet enough for my taste. I felt that when I took a bite of the cupcake together with the frosting that I was biting into a stick of butter. Our redeeming cupcake for the day was the Carrot Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting. The carrot cake itself was moist and had a subtle spice flavor. The cream cheese frosting was rich and smooth and while not overly sweet had enough sweetness to compliment the carrot cake quite well.
All in all, I would say that while Bliss Boutique Bakery has a lovely atmosphere, my research assistants and I were less than impressed with their cupcakes.
The following week my assistants and I tried Sugarland on East Franklin Street. Sugarland had an appealing selection of gelato that might warrant a return trip for tasting (only after I do some tasting in Italy in May, for comparisons sake). Sugarland also has an interesting selection of flavors such as Pumpkin Chocolate Chip (Tuesday), S'more-Chocolate Malt (Thursday), and Vanilla with Strawberry Buttercream (Friday).
Sugarland's storefront is literally next door to the UNC Chapel Hill campus and it's hours reflect their customer's willingness to satisfy their sweet tooth at any hour. Sugarland is open from 9am to midnight daily! The space inside Sugarland is more typical of what one would expect from an ice cream parlor. It is a long narrow space that is divided by a long row of refrigerated cases defining the customer side of the space from the employee side. For me the highlight of the space is a couple of lovely models of white tiered wedding cakes with Carolina Blue accents. (Doesn't the model "groom" look like he's ready for prom with his powder blue tux?)
We visited Sugarland on a Friday. They too have a rotating selection of specialty cupcakes and standard daily options. We tasted a Thursday specialty (even though it was Friday) Banana Nutella, French Vanilla Buttermilk, and Double Chocolate, both daily offerings. Sugarland offers it's cupcakes for $3.25 a piece!!! In my opinion there is very little value in the cupcakes at that price. The cupcakes were smallish in size and slightly less dense than those at Bliss.
I found the banana chocolate chip base of my cupcake underwhelming. It didn't scream banana at me, which was probably a good thing, because I didn't spot too many of those telltale real banana flecks, where do those come from anyway? When you eat a banana it is never flecked. I guess they spared me the taste of banana "flavoring." I did however, greatly enjoy the Nutella glaze on my cupcake. It was rich, chocolatey, and delicious. The Double Chocolate cupcake seemed to be a bittersweet chocolate cake topped with a chocolate ganache frosting. The cake itself was moist and flavorful. The ganache topping was deliciously rich and not too bitter as to offend my sweet tooth. The French Vanilla Buttermilk cupcake was well balanced as far as moisture, texture, and flavor. The vanilla buttercream found a better balance between butter and sweetness, leaving our sweet cravings satisfied, and not overwhelmed with butter.
While we were at Sugarland, my research assistants and I spotted some cupcakes being boxed up and getting ready for delivery. Sadly, we could not figure out what they were meant to be. It appeared as though the cupcakes were either wearing horns or bunny ears. The fondant or sugar paste work was a bit obscure.
I might return to Sugarland to sample another cupcake or two, but I feel as though the perfect cupcake might not be found on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill. It might be in little kitchen in Southwest Durham...