You Really Need to Try the Pastries at Back Bay’s Café Pastel

Say hello to pasteis de nata, the crème brûlée-like Portuguese treat at Raffles Boston's new ground level café.

Photo by Nathan Tavares

There’s a new dawn rising on Portuguese food in Boston. Need more proof than the swanky September opening of Amar, the more recent arrival of South End date-night restaurant Baleia, and the Portuguese-inflected pizzas at Mario’s in Roxbury? Check out Café Pastel, the European-inspired café also by Amar chef George Mendes that opened last week on the ground floor of Raffles Boston.

Café Pastel doesn’t take its name from a pale color palette—though the spot’s rose gold curved accent walls are certainly soothing—but from the singular form of the noun “pasteis,” which is “pastel.” The café also features a handful of breakfast bites (like a vegan coconut yogurt bowl with housemade granola and a smoked salmon baguette along with smoothies) and some lunch-leaning fare (options include a prosciutto sandwich with clothbound cheddar on focaccia and a chicken Caesar salad with sourdough croutons and anchovy). But it’s the pastries that take center stage. Specifically, the pasteis de nata, a signature Portuguese flaky pastry that’s egg custard centers are like bright beacons of sunshine.

The pasteis de nata may look unassuming, but they’re killer. / Photo by Nathan Tavares

First served at Pastéis de Belém 1837, a Lisbon waterfront café that sits in the shadow of Jerónimos Monastery, the natas are Café Pastel’s signature treat. Mendes has been perfecting his recipe since 2011, when he opened the former lauded Michelin-starred New York City restaurant, Aldea. “They were born in the monasteries of the Belem district of Lisbon by nuns and monks that needed a way to utilize egg yolks that were left over from the whites [that were used to] starch their uniforms.” With a laugh, he adds, “Try explaining that to a morning commuter: Like, ‘Can I get one of those pastries that was inspired by the nuns and the monks?’”

Pastry chef Christina Kaelberer leads the painstaking process of rolling out sheets of dough, hand-forming the mix into tins, and pouring in custard before then blasting the pastries in a hot oven. The result is a silky, crème brûlée-like bite. Kaelberer also tops these beauties with a dash of sea salt to prevent the confection from swaying too sweet, which also boosts the custard’s lemony hint. Enjoy the treats in the café washed down with Dell’Aria espresso, or take some to-go in custom blue-and-white boxes modeled after Portugal’s famed azulejo tilework.

Save room for other goodies too. On the sweet side, there are blueberry muffins and giant chocolate croissants, which, like the regular croissants, incorporate a bit of sourdough starter. Then there’s the malasada, which is like a Hawaiian donut, Mendes says. “It’s also a take on [how] in Portugal, in the beach towns—especially in Nazaré—there’s a donut called ‘bola de Berlim.’ And it’s basically a fried donut that’s either plain or served with some kind of a cream,” he says. His version features a vanilla-citrus filling.

Photo by Nathan Tavares

If you lean more savory, though, opt for the chorizo, cheddar, and chive scone that Kaelberer invented for the café. Its delightful smokiness is thanks to the Portuguese sausage. Kaelberer brings Amar’s elevated bread program from the 17th floor a bit more down to Earth, too. Pick up a loaf of sourdough—the starter born over seven years ago at Aldea—with a beautifully blackened exterior. And the porridge loaf is like the lovechild between bread and baked oatmeal. “We wanted to do a more hearty loaf,” Kaelberer says. “So this one, you cook the oatmeal a bit first before you add it to the dough, and we add it in strategically throughout the folding process.” Making the dough takes about eight hours, and also includes flax seed for a moist, thick interior.

Meanwhile, for after-work drinks, a handful of wines, beer, and spritzes are on offer. As the kickstart to a night out, toss back a porto tonico with Ramos pinto white port, tonic water, and lemon—or consider the carajillo, a digestif of Licor 43, espresso, and orange. Then in the morning, perk back up with some dessert-y pastries for breakfast. Chances are you deserve it.

40 Trinity Pl., Raffles Boston, Back Bay, 617-351-8888,; Monday to Friday, 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday: from 7am-7pm.

Café Pastel’s custom blue-and-white boxes were modeled after Portugal’s famed azulejo tilework. / Photo by Nathan Tavares