“I love it here; you feel like you are with friends,” says Joe Cantonino, an older gentleman sprawled out on an arm chair at Audrey’s Concerto (2379 86th Street). Minutes later, he offers to help me write my story.
A woman who appears to be in her 60s enters the cafe.
“You are so skinny,” she trills as she hugs Angel Mak, the cafe’s manager.
“You are so sweet,” Angel replies cheerfully, returning her embrace.
Even at 4pm, the place is bustling, and everyone seems to know Angel on a first-name basis.
One of the wonderful things about Audrey’s Concerto, a French-Asian fusion bakery and cafe, is its diverse customer base: it draws the neighborhood’s aging Italian residents – who provide a steady stream of well-meaning, unsolicited advice to anyone who will listen – as well as a younger, second-generation Chinese American crowd. With an ambiance that is both sophisticated and trendy, Audrey’s stands out on a block dominated by sushi restaurants and ethnic markets.
Hong Kong-born owner Audrey Mak brings some of her hometown’s famed culinary internationalism to her desserts. European and American-style treats like tiramisu, cream puffs, macarons, strawberry shortcakes, and cheesecakes are woven with unexpected Asian flavors like green tea, black sesame, and red bean. Aesthetically, the cakes nod eastward with teddy bear themes and Japanese anime-inspired designs.
Audrey spent the first 10 years of her career teaching at a local preschool, but she always had an interest in pastries, spending her after-work hours trying out desserts in the neighborhood. She found Western-style pastries at bakeries like Villabate Alba to be too sweet for her palate, and desserts at local Chinese bakeries to be bland and uninspired. Audrey wanted to create something that balanced western and eastern tastes, bridging the gap between the younger generation of Asian Americans and their parents.
“Her quest was to find desserts that are beautiful, but that also fit her taste buds, that have an Asian influence – which tends to be a little less sweet,” says Angel, who helped her sister Audrey open the bakery.
Audrey started buying cookbooks and studied with well-known Hong Kong pastry chefs Anita Chow and Sanny Kee, traveling back and forth between Brooklyn and China to take lessons.
In 2009, Audrey began making custom fondant cakes for weddings, baby showers, and birthdays, taking orders via the internet and phone. Soon she was getting an overwhelming number of requests, and in 2012, she opened her first storefront.
At first Audrey and her team hawked their creations at food festivals, like Grub Street Food Festival and Bust Magazine’s Craftacular, in order to get feedback. Wowed by Audrey’s fun designs, festival-goers commented that the desserts looked so toy-like, they seemed almost inedible.
With no business background, and only three rotating chefs – who make everything by hand – there was bit of a learning curve for Audrey and her team during those first few months of business. Even figuring out how to safely package her cake creations was no simple feat.
“We used to tie ribbons on our boxes. With the very first customer that I served, I didn’t tie the ribbon properly, and the whole cake dropped,” says Angel. “It was just a learning process to figure out what is the best way to package our desserts so that customers can carry it safely.”
Soon, through Yelp and word of mouth, the customers started coming. Seven months in, Audrey’s started offering brunch. The menu features bacon and eggs, chicken croissant sandwiches, and elaborate waffles topped with candied nuts, ginger ice cream, and whipped cream. Their waffles come in green tea, pumpkin, blueberry, and apple flavors, but the menu changes frequently. Audrey’s also offer a variety of coffee, teas, and hot chocolate – which comes topped with adorable kitten-shaped marshmallows.
“We are always experimenting with new brunch ideas,” says Angel. “Basically it’s a great way for people to come in, since there are no brunch places in the neighborhood.”
Audrey’s is particularly adept at creating a sense of community through social media. On Facebook, the cafe scrapbooks photos of their whimsical cake designs and desserts, prompting inquiries from fans. In October, when Audrey’s made a cake inspired by the Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protests, a heated debate about democracy and independence sparked up on their Facebook page, bringing a little bit of Hong Kong politics back to Brooklyn.
It’s with this unique brand of social media-savvy hospitality that the cafe has managed create a warm, inclusive, and lively space for locals to congregate, socialize, sip coffee, and eat – something much appreciated in an underdeveloped section of 86th Street.
This Valentine’s Day, the bakery is offering a special menu with a heart-shaped strawberry rose mille crepes and hot chili chocolate crunch cakes, with real, edible, organic rose petals on top. Like everything Audrey makes, they are sure to be beautiful, unique, and delicious.
To place an order with Audrey’s Concerto call (718) 266-2829 or drop by the cafe located at 2379 86th Street. Also, check out their page on Yelp.