The Grand Cookie Crawl: Bouchon Bakery

2014-05-19 19.03.12

I have to apologize. I’ve been so busy filling my time and stomach with nachos and ice cream, I’ve neglected one of my most important missions — to wade through the endless morass of New York’s chocolate chip cookies for your edification and sanity. After far too long a hiatus, I bring you another entry in the annals of the Grand Cookie Crawl (and as a bonus, this one features pretender to the Oreo throne)!

In the waning days of freedom of my inter-job NYC staycation, I had the fortune of going to a taping of the Daily Show with (who else) Jacob, and so after an exhausting 90 minutes of sitting and laughing loudly, we obviously were in dire need of sustenance … made completely of sugar. So we trekked up Broadway to Columbus Circle, to sample the wares at Bouchon Bakery.

Bouchon Bakery is famed chef Thomas Keller’s ode to French boulangeries. Keller is the chef/owner behind 8 restaurants in the US, including renowned California restaurants The French Laundry and Ad Hoc, and NY hot spot Per Se (located next to Bouchon Bakery in the Time Warner Center). Not impressed enough? Keller has seven Michelin Stars, and according to his bio is the only American-born chef to hold multiple 3-star ratings by the Michelin Guide. I’ve yet to be able to visit one of his restaurants, but with Bouchon Bakery much more within reach, I was determined to try whatever of Keller’s output I could get access to.

 

 

First Impressions

 

The soft white and pastel paint of Bouchon Bakery are a nice break from the mall's metal and glass architecture.

The soft white and pastel paint of Bouchon Bakery are a nice break from the mall’s metal and glass architecture.

Located in the “Shops at Columbus Circle” (aka the Time Warner Center) just down the hall from Per Se, this location of Bouchon Bakery (there’s another in 30 Rock) is, well, kind of just a fancy mall bakery. When you get down to brass tax, the Time Warner Center is just a glitzy, glass and metal version of many of the upscale malls you can find in America. It’s anchored by the pedigree of high-caliber restaurants like Per Se and priciest-meal-in-NYC sushi heaven Masa, but look past them and you’ll find plenty of familiar faces, from Sephora and Williams Sonoma to Swarovski and even the Art of Shaving. So you can’t really fault Bouchon Bakery for fitting into this mold, restrained in both its physical and aesthetic footprints.

 

 

The large selection of baked goods helps, too.

The large selection of baked goods helps, too. That’s right, those macarons come in regular and SUPER-SIZED.

The space is fairly generic at first glance — a counter with refrigerated cases facing out towards a cluster of metal tables and chairs. Small touches evoke a French influence, from the delicate palette of pastel greens and pinks in the Bouchon Bakery logo and menus (not to mention the literally French quotes on the wall), to the chalkboard menus, to the retro light fixtures hanging above the baked goods. Speaking of, there were still a good amount of options at 7:30pm, including a wide variety of macarons (small and giant-sized), cookies, and traditional pastries. Bouchon Bakery also offers a small selection of savory items with sample versions displayed, leaving me vaguely disgusted by a bowl of soup that had to be on the verge of entirely congealed. When you get close to dinner, I’d suggest skipping the Bakery counter in favor of the recently opened cafe, which has a more robust menu, and probably doesn’t leave its soup out for hours.

Undeterred by sludgy soups, Jacob and I went for a selection of the Bouchon Bakery classics — a Chocolate Chip Cookie, a TKO (Thomas Keller Oreo, chosen for obvious reasons), and the eponymous Bouchon (which Jacob makes everyone try).

 

 

The Cookies:

 

The eponymous Bouchon, an elegantly cork-shaped ... fancy fudge cake.

The eponymous Bouchon, an elegantly cork-shaped … fancy fudge cake.

We’ll start with Bouchon Bakery’s namesake, the Bouchon. The word means “cork” in French, which explains its shape, but belies its heft. This is no crumbly, air-filled confection — it’s basically a dense, fudgy chocolate chocolate cake, made out of such a dark cocoa powder it’s nearly black (suggesting dutch-, or even ultra-dutch-processed cocoa). The taste was reminiscent of a box brownie mix, and I mean that in the best way possible — chewy and rich rather than cakey, the outside made of a crisp, thin skin giving way to a moist interior crumb. I certainly enjoyed the Bouchon, but found it almost too much even at such a small size. I’d love to pair it with a scoop of ice cream to vary up the texture a bit.

 

 

The TKO, for the discerning eater who doesn't claim Oreos as her kryptonite (aka, not me).

The TKO, for the discerning eater who doesn’t claim Oreos as her kryptonite (aka, not me).

Now as we know I’m a skeptic when it comes to Oreo-imitators. I’ll use Joe-Joes in baked goods in the place of Oreos, but if I’m chowing down on just the cookies, get those Newman-o’s away from my face. However, a simple Google search of “Bouchon TKO” will yield endless blog posts naming the cookie as “to die for,” “amazing” and a “more sophisticated” take on an Oreo. Occasionally I like to pretend I’m more than a 5-year with her hand in the cookie-jar when it comes to dessert, so I stuffed down my trepidation and made the ultimate sacrifice of eating an artisanal cookie.

Sadly, my friends, Nabisco’s dodgy ingredient list still wins the day. I found myself perplexingly disappointed by how, well, fresh the TKO was. The scalloped wafer cookies were made with the same uber-dark cocoa powder as employed in the Bouchon, which was evocative of Oreos, at least in appearance. The flavor of the cookies, however, was too intensely chocolatey, and there was a strange smoky/salty aftertaste that left Jacob semi-convinced Keller uses bacon in his cookies. The filling was a white chocolate buttercream, far too soft to stand up again the rigid wafers, so that with each bite I found the cream squeezing out the sides and into my hands. Again, the definitive white chocolate flavor was a step away from the unmistakable but somewhat anonymously sweet taste of Oreo creme. As so often happens, this was really a case of subverted expectations. Had I been given a TKO without knowing its name or inspiration, I probably would have happily dug in — to Keller’s credit, it’s a visually appealing cookie, well-made with high quality ingredients. But with the weight of Oreo reverence already tipping the scales, it’s no surprise that personally, the TKO didn’t stand a chance.

 

 

Bouchon Bakery's Chocolate Chip Cookie, simple, staid, classic, and pretty damn tasty.

Bouchon Bakery‘s Chocolate Chip Cookie, simple, staid, classic, and pretty damn tasty.

The reverse situation happened to me while eating the Chocolate Chip Cookie. It had mostly been an afterthought — an obligation for covering the Grand Cookie Crawl, and nowhere near as exciting as the new, shiny, unfamiliar Bouchon and TKO. But of course, it’s the underdog that steals first place. Bouchon’s Chocolate Chip Cookie is roughly the same size and shape as the ones at City Bakery and Jacques Torres — wide, thin, golden brown in hue. Bouchon uses semi-sweet chocolate chunks, and through the mystery of cookie chemistry, these chunks maintain a semi-solid state well after cooling (these cookies were sitting under heat lamps in a case, rather than warmed like JT’s). As you split the cookie, these pockets of gooey chocolate ripped open and oozed outward (although not quite the deluge of Levain‘s entry). I’ve come to the conclusion that the quality of the chocolate chips is not a huge priority for me when it comes to these cookies. Nestle semi-sweet or Guittard 80%, I’ll take either if given a properly executed dough. And Bouchon delivers exactly that — a cookie base with a crispy exterior but chewy inside, and strong notes of caramelized brown sugar and vanilla. To me, a good chocolate chip cookie baker isn’t afraid of his eaters encountering the stray chip-less bite, because the dough can stand on its own (sometimes I search through my mother’s batches for a chip-free runt of the litter, because her recipe is that good).

 

 

Final Verdict:

 

I’m still waiting for the cookie that can unseat Levain, and I’m not sure I’ll find it in NY. Anyone who thinks their favorite can topple those UWS behemoth baked goods, please let me know. I’m very much game for the challenge. However, I would slide Bouchon’s Chocolate Chip Cookie in above City Bakery’s (and Jacques Torres), because it had the killer combo of texture and flavor. Certainly I’d recommend Bouchon’s drop cookies over the TKO, although I’ll allow that others may be able to look beyond the paragon of packaged cookies and appreciate the subtlety of Keller’s ode to the childhood classic. I do want to try his take on a Nutter Butter, since I’m much more open-minded when it comes to peanut butter-based desserts. I’d also like to return for more items in the vein of the Bouchon, to see how Keller does with his takes on more traditional French pastries and cakes (those eclairs were calling out to me).

Considering its surroundings and pedigree, Bouchon Bakery is relatively unpretentious, and worth a visit if only for the variety of its menu, and the lovely view out onto Columbus Circle. Does it have the local, down-home vibe of a place like Levain? Of course not, it’s in a mall, after all. But if you can look beyond the brand, Bouchon Bakery does offer more than one spoonful of sugar to make your post-shopping credit card bill just a little bit easier to swallow.

 

Bouchon Bakery

Ten Columbus Circle, Third Floor

New York, NY 10019

http://bouchonbakery.com/

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The Grand Cookie Crawl: Levain Bakery

Outside Levain

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.

 

First Impressions:

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.

The Cookies:

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.

 

The Verdict:

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!

 
City Bakery 
3 West 18th Street  New York, NY 10011
http://www.thecitybakery.com/

Levain Bakery
167 West 74th Street  New York, NY 10023
www.levainbakery.com/