Restaurant Review - The fabulous hole in one

In search of doughnut nirvana

Recently, I set out in quest of the perfect doughnut. This was not a job for one woman, so I engaged two teenage connoisseurs (my daughter Freya and friend Meredith). We were already deeply committed to the hot, fresh glazed at Krispy Kreme, and knew the aftertaste of their less savory cousins at Dunkin' Donuts. Our urge was to nose out the mom-and-pop competition and find out if we'd already reached doughnut nirvana.

Internet and telephone surveys led us to taste and compare the usual suspects to a handful of small-time bakeries rolling out the homemade variety. Best Country Donuts, Canton Donuts and Donut Palace are the last remaining small doughnut makers in what numbered a bakers' dozen in the immediate metro area. Willis Bakery in East Atlanta, a chain of Donut Kings and a Mini Donut Shop on Briarcliff have all gone under.

We drove around and off the edge of I-285, Atlanta's doughnut-shaped byway, stopping in Forest Park, Marietta and Lawrenceville before looping back via Dunkin' Donuts to reach what we confirmed as the center of the Doughnut Universe: Krispy Kreme on Ponce.

A hundred miles and a huge sugar headache later, here are the results of our arduous research.

From the looks of it, Best Country Donuts is a 40-year-old scrap of living history. What must be its original blue and yellow sign (minus the capital D) sort of beckons passersby. But you'll have to be on the lookout for the nondescript shop next to an abandoned building and a small construction site two miles south of I-285 on Jonesboro Road. The brick building sits just below street level, across from a strip mall and three water towers.

Inside are a couple of fast-food type tables with swivel chairs next to a small L-shaped counter edged with low spinning barstools. A small wall-mounted TV plays cartoons in one corner. The place is super-authentic retro, clean and spare, down to the aging white ceramic coffee cups and saucers.

Best Country's newest owners are a smiling middle-aged couple. Though doughnuts are still the order of the day, ham and cheese croissants have been added to the menu. The girls declared the classic glazed doughnuts soft and fresh, not as sweet as their Krispy Kreme counterparts. We sampled a custardy lemon-filled number (excellent) and an old-fashioned sour cream doughnut dipped in chocolate (a bit heavy and dry). Best Country offers traditional cake doughnuts in plain, buttermilk, blueberry, cherry, chocolate raised (frosted), Boston and vanilla cream filled, cinnamon rolls and various jelly-filled doughnuts. Best Country Donuts, 4746 Jonesboro Road, 404-361-7108, Mon.-Fri., 5 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat., 5 a.m.-1 p.m. or when they run out of doughnuts. Donuts: .45 each, $2.80 half-dozen mixed; $3.95 a dozen

A far cry up I-75, just off the Windy Hill exit, Canton Donuts is tucked in between a Citgo gas station and the Windy Hill Bottle Store. In the land of fast food (every franchise you can imagine) at the edge of the highway, the 6-year-old bakery is no stand out. Canton Donuts' sign lies low on the front slope of the square roof. A bagel, a croissant and a donut are painted in color on the glass-paneled storefront.

The place is roomy inside, with an orange and red color scheme, a big U-shaped counter and a row of fixed tables and chairs. A disinterested woman filled our order, then disappeared.

Canton's glazed doughnuts were thicker and drier, not as spongy as their contemporaries, and had a slight sour aftertaste. On the other hand, the cake doughnuts were moist and fresh. Other choices were lemon, blueberry, strawberry and Bavarian cream-filled doughnuts, old- fashioned sour cream and buttermilk cake, cinnamon twists and the chocolate and strawberry frosted. Canton Donuts, 2467 Windy Hill Road, Marietta, 770-937-9924. Mon.-Sat., 5 a.m.-3 p.m. Donuts: .49 each; $2.49 half-dozen, $3.99 a dozen.

After looping east on I-285 then veering off onto I-85 and practically driving all the way to Athens, we found the diminutive Donut Palace off Highway 316 on Buford Drive. The glass-front shop is sandwiched between a Marathon gas station and the Trinity Barber Shop. The cheerful setting: red and white wallpaper trim and pink and white tiled floors, ice cream parlor chairs and small round tables. Generic posters illustrate doughnuts they don't serve — iced in purple, yellow and pink, rolled in coconut. Service was fine, but again basic.

At the Palace, the glazed classic was soft and fresh, perhaps the closest rival to Krispy Kreme. Other choices include chocolate glazed, sprinkled doughnuts, regular cake and buttermilk and jelly-filled, twists, eclairs, cinnamon rolls, fritters, holes and "pigs," small hotdogs wrapped in dough and fried. Donut Palace, 854 Buford Drive, Lawrenceville, 770-513-2814. Tues.-Sun. 5 a.m.-1 p.m., closed Monday. Donuts: .45 each, .55 fancies, $4.50 dozen.

Hefty and dry, the plain glazed doughnuts at Dunkin' Donuts came in last place in this survey. The ubiquitous chain offers a bazillion other choices, though, including wheat glazed, apple n' spice, Bavarian Kream, chocolate-iced, coffee rolls, maple frosted, jelly-filled, coconut, bow ties, blueberry crumb, plain cruller, powdered sugar cruller, sprinkles, munchkins and so on. Dunkin' Donuts, 2827 N. Druid Hills Road, Atlanta (one of a million locations), 404-634-5825, 24 hours, seven days a week. Donuts: .74 each; $5.19 dozen.

Always hot, always now, the Krispy Kreme doughnut is the easy winner. Not only is the shop on Ponce entertaining — the staff, the stream of customers and the big window that looks into where legions of doughnuts are created — but the doughnuts are sublime, haute cuisine compared to the others. The lightest of yeast doughnuts, even the simple glazed variety are absolutely incredibly divine. If you have an inclination to try other versions, KK has old-fashioned devil's food, crullers, cake, custard and cream filled, too. Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, 295 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta, 404-876-7307, www.krispy kreme.com, 24 hours, seven days a week. Donuts: .69 each, $4.49 dozen.??