I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t have a Thanksgiving/food/family related post this week, with the big Turkey day coming up. But in the meantime I wanted to share a quick recap of my recent trip to Levain Bakery on the Upper West Side. It’s part of my epic, never to be finished cookie crawl through NYC. In a vain attempt to set parameters, I’ve made the top priority chocolate chip cookies, but my foodie cohort Jacob and I have already amassed a list of about 15 bakeries we need to explore. Heaven forbid I ever expand beyond the 5 boroughs.
Levain was actually the second stop on our informal cookie tour. Last week I went to City Bakery, but being a much better eater than blogger, I immediately stuffed the cookies in my face without taking a single photo. To provide contrast to my Levain experience, here’s a quick recap:
City Bakery in the Flatiron District is more like a snack bar/cafeteria, with sandwiches, soups, salads, etc. to go along with their desserts. It’s a fairly spacious place when you walk in, with seating on two floors and a main ordering station in the center. The cookies are situated under heat lamps near the register. Jacob and I tried the regular chocolate chip (they also offer a vegan one), and the double chocolate cookie. Both are palm-sized, thin and crispy cookies with a good bend upon breaking. The chocolate chip was solid, with strong vanilla and cinnamon notes, but the winner of the day was the double chocolate, which was rich without being overbearing, and skirted the line between dark chocolate and milk. They were both solid contenders, and I’d definitely recommend City Bakery to someone who prefers a chewier cookie.
Now Levain is a different beast altogether. The bakery is a bit of a NY institution — its goods have been declared among the city’s best by countless websites and magazines, from Time Out NY to Daily Candy, to New York Magazine, to my personal fave, Serious Eats. Not to mention the fact that multiple close friends had raved to me about the cookies as being “life-changing.” So clearly I had to get my butt over there.
I was surprised at how tiny Levain is. It’s basically a hole-in-the-wall storefront with the space devoted almost exclusively to the actual baking operation (good sign — these people take their baking seriously). You walk down a quick flight of steep stairs and cram into a tiny space to order from their very limited menu. Levain makes 4 types of cookies, a couple of rotating scones, and a handful of sandwiches and bread loaves. There are a few seats at a high counter by the window, but the crowd of people made it impossible to linger when Jacob and I were there.
From my perch at the top of the stairs, I tried to pick out which cookies I should sample (pro tip: bring a friend with you to avoid the shame of buying two cookies by yourself). I thought at first that the display was full of scones, but was quickly corrected — those, my friend, were the cookies. Holy moley.
Since my main criteria for the cookie crawl is the noble chocolate chip, I of course had to get Levain’s signature Chocolate Chip Walnut. To mix it up, we also picked the Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter, leaving the Dark Chocolate Chip and the Oatmeal Raisin for another day. The cookies we were given were warm, and seemed to be fresh out of the oven. A quick sniff from the bag overwhelmed my nose with buttery, chocolatey aromas. This was gonna be good.
I’ve included a picture of Jacob’s fist next to a cookie to give a sense of scale. These things were massive, and heavy. There was a real heft to each one, and again I was reminded of scone more than anything else from the crispy outside. But thankfully, these cookies were far from the dry, crumbly scones at your local Starbucks. Once split apart, it was clear that Levain bakes each cookie fresh — the insides were warm and doughy, just underbaked so the chocolate chips liquified. The same was true of the dark chocolate peanut butter cookie, creating the effect of melted peanut butter swirled through the dough.
Oh man, everyone was so, so right. I’m not usually a nuts-in-baked-goods person, and walnuts are my least favorite of the bunch, but I would eat Levain’s signature cookie for a living. It was my perfect consistency — a little crunch on the outside, but reminiscent of cookie dough on the inside, as opposed to the chewy, but fully baked cookies from City Bakery. And my god, you could pretty much taste the sticks of butter in these. Gooey, sweet but not overpoweringly so, I am totally a Levain convert now.
The high quality of the ingredients was especially clear in the dark chocolate peanut butter cookie. I think that the peanut butter/chocolate combo can often be spoiled by cheap peanut butter than tastes artificial and waxy, detracting from the chocolate rather than enhancing it. But Levain uses the best peanut butter chips I have ever tasted, hands down. It was such a rich, strong peanut taste, it was more like they somehow made baking chips out of the best natural peanut butter on the market. I was blown away by that aspect more than the dark chocolate base.
Now obviously these cookies are pretty monstrous, and once you’re done, there’s a small sugary pit that forms in your stomach, so if you’re looking for a light snack, don’t go to Levain. But if you’re a baker, cookie connoisseur, or just on the hunt for a damn fine dessert, check it out. Levain takes the top spot on the cookie crawl rankings, silly as that may be since there are only two so far. But it’s interesting to already see the distinctions in the types of cookies — can you even really compare City Bakery and Levain since they’re striving for such different consistencies? I guess I’ll just have to keep trying new cookies and see if the wider sample set reveals any trends. What a burden.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Hope you have plenty of turkey, joy, and of course desserts awaiting you on Thursday!
3 West 18th Street New York, NY 10011
167 West 74th Street New York, NY 10023