In 2000, Harlem-native Raven Patrick De'Sean Dennis III put a large, red dot—with frosting—on the map in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Not long after he opened Cake Man Raven Confectionery on Fulton Street, his Southern Red Velvet Cake became such a sensation that he began limiting each customer to four slices. Furthermore, whole cakes had to be ordered "at least" a week in advance. In spite of these restrictions (or, perhaps, because of them), hour-long waits on lines stretching down the block were common. Fanfare for Raven erupted anew within the past year, when Applebee's announced it would serve the Cake Man's signature confection at its Brooklyn restaurants.
Thus, imagine our surprise when, on a recent visit (in late-afternoon, on a Friday) to the "home of the official Red Velvet cake," we encountered no lines and, more tellingly, no other customers! (Two people did come in after we made our purchases: one bought two slices of cake, though not the Red Velvet; the other picked up a pre-ordered sheet cake.) Equally surprising were the ready availability of whole cakes and the absence of a purchasing limit on slices. Was this a fluke? Cakewoman Maven and I were determined to find out.
Hype is a funny thing. It can lead one to enjoy things more than otherwise warranted, or it can sensitize a person to noting all the subtle (and not so subtle) flaws of the object in question. The question here is: How did Cake Man Raven's Red Velvet cake become one of the hottest dessert properties in town?
Red Velvet cake is one of Cakewoman's passions—to the extent that she considers it to be not only a favorite dessert, but an all-around favorite food. We've found that most bakeries follow—if not perfectly—the basic precepts: a spongy, rich chocolate cake with its moistness enhanced by copious amounts of red food-coloring, preferably not too sweet, with a creamy frosting (usually made with cream cheese, ricotta, or both). The sides of the cake are typically sprinkled with finely crumbled chocolate cake or dark chocolate shavings.
Excessive sweetness is a widespread problem. It's characteristic of Stop & Shop's otherwise near-perfect version (on the rare occasions they offer it), as well as Stew Leonard's less-than-velvety attempt. Without question, the best Red Velvet cake was that of our recently deceased caterer-friend, Barbara. Her cake's texture was spongy and had just the right amount of give. She used enough red food coloring to enhance the deep chocolaty flavor (and, importantly, moist texture) in that uniquely savory, "red-velvet" way, without overwhelming the chocolate. Her lightly sweetened whipped-cream frosting further contributed to a finished product that wasn't cloyingly sweet. Yum!
Alas, "cloying" is a word that came up repeatedly as we discussed our recent cake slices ($6 apiece) and identically tasting cupcakes ($5 for two) from Cake Man Raven. But saying the cake is too sweet is merely the tip of this confectionery iceberg. It is more significant to note that, had we tasted it blind, neither of us would have identified it as Red Velvet cake.
First, the texture is out of balance. Though moist, the cake is neither springy nor spongy—it's just a heavy, starchy lump. And, instead of any inkling of chocolate, the artificial taste of the food coloring, together with that of something vaguely almondlike, predominates. Finally, the whole thing is slathered in an inch-thick coating of outrageously sweet frosting. There's a hint of cream cheese, but the overpowering sugar element in both cake and frosting eliminates any possibility of detecting subtleties of flavor. In sum, our blindfolded palates might have deemed this to be a moist, but leaden, yellow cake, laden with sugar and artificial flavoring.
Two options are available when ordering this confection: plain or with a pecan-coating on the frosting. We found the latter preferable, because the nuts help to mitigate, albeit ever so slightly, the cake's, yes, cloying sweetness.
As mentioned earlier, Cake Man Raven doesn't limit himself to Red Velvet cake. Also on display at his shop (and the only other slices sold during our 15-minute visit) were an alarmingly green coconut cake, alongside a yellow cake of a hue one might actually find in nature.
In sum, the two of us agreed that, had we been served this in a restaurant (assuming it weren't advertised as "Red Velvet cake"), we'd not have been terribly impressed—though we'd not have been terribly disappointed, either. The cake's moistness is quite acceptable, and we might have enjoyed a few bites of it, without the frosting. But to seek out this confection when the occasion calls for a Red Velvet cake—especially given its steep price? In a word: No. I'm afraid we'll have to look elsewhere.
Cake Man Raven Confectionery
708 Fulton Street (between S Portland Av & S Oxford St), Fort Greene, Brooklyn
(718) 694-CAKE (2253)
By train: C to Lafayette Av; G to Fulton St
By bus: B25, B26, B52