The Holy Donut
194 Park Ave., Portland
Start with something everyone knows and loves, add an element of luxury, and charge accordingly. “Upscaling,” as it’s called in the marketing world, is everywhere, from toasters to dog beds, but nowhere is it more obvious than in the culinary realm.
Some of these trends trickle down and become the new norm, which is why I can drink a microbrew in pretty much any local bar and why even McDonald’s coffee doesn’t completely suck. Other upscale trends are just plain silly — does anyone really need an acai berry smoothie?
Enter the humble doughnut, which Portland entrepreneur Leigh Kellis has transformed into the Holy Donut. She’s taken a blue-collar staple and elevated it to luxury status with top-quality ingredients and exotic flavors. Granted, upscaling almost always involves a substantial upcharge — $15 for a dozen Holy Donuts, compared to $8.50 at Dunkin’ or Tony’s. But at about a buck each, the Holy Donut is still well within most folks’ budget.
The Holy Donut’s retail location opened on Park Avenue in Portland last March and almost immediately attracted a rabidly loyal fan base. The shop routinely sells out before its 3 p.m. closing time.
The daily offerings include about a dozen varieties selected on a rotating basis from a larger list of flavors. Kellis and crew start with Maine potatoes, boiled and mashed on premises and cooked in pure canola oil. They use unbleached flour and fruit- or vegetable-based dyes (no artificial colors or sweeteners).
I stopped by on a recent Sunday morning and ordered all 11 varieties available that day. In the name of responsible journalism, I then brought them home and sampled them all. To get a cross-section of opinions, I enlisted my wife, our 8-year-old daughter, and a handful of eager friends to help. What follows are the wholly unscientific results of our taste test. (Note: I am a trained professional. Eating this many doughnuts in one sitting could kill you. I sampled 11 different kinds so you don’t have to. Don’t try this at home.)
Cinnamon-Sugar: Light, fluffy, sugary, not too greasy — in a word, outstanding. This was the baseline by which all others were judged, and it ranked among the top picks for all tasters.
Dark Chocolate Sugar: Holy crap, that was good. Not excessively sweet, so the rich chocolate flavor shined through.
Vanilla Glazed: Not the most exciting variety, but a solid example of the basic glazed doughnut. The vanilla flavor was pretty subtle.
Sweet Potato & Ginger: Initially tasted just like a plain sugar doughnut; one taster declared it was “not what I expected.” The ginger and sweet potato flavors were very mild, and came through more as an aftertaste.
Pomegranate: Some folks might like this sort of cloying, fruity frosting on a doughnut, but not me. As my wife put it, “It tastes like Strawberry Shortcake just threw up in my mouth.”
Allen’s Coffee Brandy: The Maine potato doughnut glazed with Maine’s most popular spirit is not to be missed. Relishing the slightly alcoholic aftertaste, my daughter said, “It’s good, but doesn’t taste like anything I’ve had before.” I hope not.
Maple Glazed: Regular readers know maple is near and dear to my heart. The mildness of the maple flavor was disappointing to me, though another taster (who is less of a maple enthusiast) enjoyed it quite a bit.
Dark Chocolate Sea Salt: Neither too sweet nor overly salty, this consistently ranks among The Holy Donut’s most popular flavors. Some of our tasters felt like the whole chocolate-with-salt trend is a little played out, but if you’re still into that flavor combination you’ll love this.
Berry: Oh, my aching teeth! The oppressively sweet frosting reminded me of Frankenberry cereal. If a doughnut can taste “pink,” this is it.
Fresh Lemon: Hands down, this was the best of the bunch. Picture a rich lemon cake with a bright, sweet/tart lemon glaze, and you get the idea. Even though my stomach was begging for mercy by the end of the morning, I went back for more of this one.
Bacon & Sharp Cheddar: Savory rather than sweet, this was unique among the varieties we sampled. This crunchy, salty delicacy has developed its own cult following, and for good reason. But it’s not for the faint of heart (or clogged of artery); consuming this much grease in one sitting is downright irresponsible.
Bagels, too? The Holy Donut also sells Union Bagels made by the upstart Union Bagel Co., based in Portland’s Public Market House. I bought a plain and a poppy seed, slathered on some cream cheese, and attempted to convince everyone that this was a “healthy” alternative to doughnuts. We may have been deluding ourselves, but we weren’t disappointed. I’m pleased to report that Portland finally has real, crusty, chewy bagels our city can be proud of. Take that, Brooklyn.
So what does the future hold? For all I know, upscale doughnuts could go the way of the frozen yogurt shop and disappear within a few years. Or maybe they’re here to stay, and we’ll be seeing Holy Donut franchises opening up across the country. Regardless, they’re here right now, in Portland, and you should go get some today before they’re all gone. This is one upscaled, luxury food you can’t afford to miss.
— Dan Zarin
The Holy Donut is open Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.