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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Never Mind the Sizing, Just Try a Scoop: Solid Gelato at A. B. Biagi

2014-05-16 13.51.33

With the return of the summer season, I can finally stop making excuses for my near-constant ice cream craving. Intellectually, I always want ice cream, regardless of how the rest of my body feels about it. I’ve recently discovered I’m genetically predisposed towards this condition, when my father told me that his mother ate a bowl of ice cream nearly every day of her life. So it was really only a matter of time that I stumble into a new cup-and-cone-commissary, wide-eyed and near-drunk with the anticipation of embracing my birthright once more.

The first entry in my list of Summer 2014 frozen desserts is A.B. Biagi, a small and relatively new (they opened last summer) gelateria on Elizabeth St. Jacob and I paid a visit after our falafel-fest at Taim, braving intermittent rain to once again test the veracity of a Serious Eats rave review.

(I suppose you could argue that I’ve already broken the seal with my inhaling of a Sprinkles Sundae, but I’d counter that the focus of that dish was split between ice cream and cupcake, whereas A.B. Biagi is all about the gelato.)

 

First Impressions:

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

The priority at A. B. Biagi is clearly the making, rather than the serving of gelato, since the kitchen dominates the space.

As I mentioned above, A. B. Biagi is only a few short blocks away from Taim, a gelato oasis in the relatively scoop-free Nolita. The bright yellow exterior gives way to a tiny store front, narrow, yet deep, with most of the space devoted to the kitchen. Inside, the walls are covered in white tiles on the bottom half, with the upper sections decorated with unconventional paintings evoking scenes of Italy on one side, and a large mural of a woman (A.B. herself?) on the other.

 

A. B., is that you?

A. B., is that you?

Across from the counter is a small bench that offers the only seating. The set up is similar to Il Laboratorio del Gelato, albeit smaller and less clinical in decor — the goal is to get you in, ordering gelato, and out again, with minimal hanging around. Although in our case, we were the only customers on a rainy Friday afternoon.

 

The Food:

 

Size is in the eye of the beholder...

I guess at this shop, size is in the eye of the beholder…

A. B. Biagi offers a rotating selection of 6 flavors of gelato, a couple of sorbets, and espresso, coffee, tea and hot chocolate (covering all your temperature-based food needs). On our visit, the options were Stracciatella, Chocolate Brigadeiro, Vegan Almond Butter, Pistachio, Chia Pudding, and Coffee gelato, and Lemon and Guava sorbet. Any of those can be scooped into A. B. Biagi’s somewhat confusingly named sizes — Tiny, Small, or Regular — which remind me of the McDonald’s strategy of renaming Super Size as Large, hoping we wouldn’t notice that the actual volume stayed exactly the same. The cashier warned us that the Small cup holds more gelato than you’d expect, so we opted to play Goldilocks and go neither too big or too small.

After sampling nearly all of the gelato flavors, we ended up splitting a Small cup of the Stracciatella and the Vegan Almond Butter. I was a little surprised that Jacob would ignore the opportunity to have chocolate gelato, but he said the Chocolate Brigadeiro was a little too sweet, and I concurred that it might be best left as its own dessert (as former employees of Brazilian animated film director Carlos Saldanha, we’ve been fortunate enough to sample more than a few authentic brigadeiro varieties, such as those from My Sweet Brigadeiro).

 

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

Vegan and non-vegan gelato, meeting briefly for peace-talks before being forced to coexist and my stomach. Vegan Almond Butter on the left, Stracciatella on the right.

As promised, our cup came piled high with gelato, split between the two flavors. The Stracciatella was composed of a thick and intensely rich sweet cream base, speckled with dark chocolate shavings still big enough to offer a bit of a snap as you bit down on them. Whereas the Chocolate Brigadeiro fell more on the milk chocolate side, the chocolate in the Stracciatella was just over the edge of bitter, providing a nice contrast to the sugar of the gelato base. I was hit with a bit of childhood nostalgia when eating it, suddenly taken back to bowls of Breyer’s Chocolate Chunk ice cream out of my parents’ freezer, my teeth struggling to crack through the semi-sweet chocolate chunks.

Yet despite the memories called up by the Stracciatella, my favorite of all of A. B. Biagi’s flavors was by far the Vegan Almond Butter. Although we asked the cashier, he wasn’t sure what the base of the gelato was. It tasted like it was made of almond milk, but had the same thick consistency as the non-vegan Stracciatella, leaving me curious as to how they achieved that chewy texture (most vegan ice cream recipes I’ve seen call for coconut milk, but I couldn’t detect any coconut flavor in A. B. Biagi’s version). Regardless of the technique, the Vegan Almond Butter was absolutely delicious, creamy gelato that had a subtle almond taste, no frying-pan-to-the-face of almond extract here, punctuated with the sweetness of the almond butter, thinly swirled throughout so it was more like an array of crunchy crystals rather than a ribbon. I’ll admit that after being a lifelong peanut butter fanatic, I’ve been on a bit of of an almond butter kick, adding it to my yogurt in the morning and a few cookie recipes. It feels like a more adult flavor (at least, the raw unsweetened version I bought) — somewhat more restrained, but still giving you that wonderful nuttiness. That was the level of flavor in A. B. Biagi’s gelato as well — not the orgiastic sugar wonderland of say, Sprinkles‘ Rocky Road, but a more mature, composed dessert that you should linger over.

 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, I was pleased with the quality of gelato at A. B. Biagi, and understand why Serious Eats was a fan (I think their offices might be close by, too…). However, considering the prices, I’d recommend checking out Vivoli or Il Laboratorio del Gelato first, depending on your tradition vs. innovation preference when it comes to gelato. Despite it being in Macy’s, you’ll get more bang for your buck at Vivoli, which still tops my list for classic gelato in NYC, and I’d tell anyone that you have to try some of the wacky flavors at Il Laboratorio if you’re a frozen dessert fan. Not to knock A. B. Biagi — they do offer a solid group of interesting and well-made gelatos, but just not of the caliber to break into my pantheon of ice creams. If you’re walking around Nolita or Little Italy, and you’re looking for a cool treat, I’d say stop by and try the Almond Butter. Maybe I was just born this way, but I think you can make any day better with the addition of just a little gelato.

 

A. B. Biagi

235 Elizabeth St (Between Houston and Prince)

abbiagi.com

Snackshots: Polar Vortex (Warm Chocolate Edition)

2014-01-03 15.23.59

Can you guess the theme of this post?

I think I’ve proven my commitment to dessert by now. It’s generally an easy guarantee to make that, much like the US Postal Service, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of light will stay this sweet seeker from the swift ingesting of a toothsome treat. But the weather gods tested my resolve this past week with the crushing blow of the Polar Vortex, plunging temperatures around the country and for once dissuading me from satisfying my cravings with an ice cream cone. With frozen dessert out of the way, I found myself falling back on an oldie-but-goody — the timeless allure of hot chocolate. As I battled with the windchill to avoid frostbite (although at least I was in a part of the country that could safely venture outside), I found a couple of a worthy warm chocolate treats to start the reheating process from the inside-out.

 

L.A. Burdick:

I'm dreaming of a white chocolate Christmas..,

I’m dreaming of a white chocolate Christmas..,

After returning to Hu Kitchen for a relatively healthy lunch, it was clear that Jacob and I needed some emergency chocolate, stat (I mean, what’s the point of a nutritious meal if you don’t immediately slather it in sugar?). Jacob suggested a trip to L.A. Burdick, yet another confectionary near his apartment (because ‘Wichcraft, Beecher’s, Maison Kayser and City Bakery aren’t enough for the neighborhood. Frickin’ Gramercy grumblegrumble).

I’d initially come across about this chocolate shop while researching the best hot chocolate in the city, but hadn’t managed to stop by last winter. The shop was started by an American named Larry Burdick, who became enamored with the chocolate he encountered during a trip to Switzerland and France. He started making chocolate in New York City, but Burdick and his family then moved to Walpole, NH and expanded the business, now operating cafes, restaurants, and even a grocery in Walpole, the Boston-metro area, and once more in NYC.

Every surface is piled high with chocolate-related goods.

Did you say you wanted chocolate? I think we might have some of that here…

The white chocolate version of the famous mice.

The white chocolate version of the famous mice.

Walking in, I couldn’t help but think of L.A. Burdick as a larger, more established version of one of my absolute favorite spots in Philly — the now-defunct Naked Chocolate (rest in peace), a fantastic chocolatier where I had my first taste of authentic European drinking chocolate. The New York location is a combination cafe and retail shop, with a few benches and tables up front, and the remaining space completely covered in chocolate products and paraphernalia. There are two counters inside — to the right, you can buy beverages and pastries, while on the left you can choose from a selection of their chocolate and bon bons, including their famous chocolate mice and chocolate penguins. In between the two are tables piled high with chocolate bars, gift sets, candy, and take-home hot chocolate mixes.

In the door, and straight to the beverage counter. Do not pass go, do not collect bon bons.

In the door, and straight to the beverage counter. Do not pass go, do not collect bon bons.

But with our feet demonstrably caked in slush, Jacob and I made a beeline for the drinks counter, quickly dismissing slices of cake or linzer torte in our quest for drinking chocolate. On Jacob’s previous visit he had tried the Burdick Blend Dark Chocolate (there are also milk and white chocolate blends), and though I was tempted by the other two, by this point I know Jacob’s preference for dark chocolate, and so was perfectly happy to try one of L.A. Burdick’s single-source varieties (ranging from Bolivia to Grenada). Now I know next-to-nothing about terroir, wine, chocolate or otherwise, so I let Jacob chose our source variety. He went with the Madagascar, because of some amazing Madagascan chocolate he’d had from Michel Cluizel’s shop.

I'm fairly certain they use this hot chocolate for the mustaches in the Got Milk? ads.

I’m fairly certain they use this hot chocolate for the mustaches in the Got Milk? ads.

Although I can’t compare our cup to the standard Burdick blends or the other source varieties (guess I’ll just have to make a return trip … or several), the hot chocolate ended up being a showstopper. We shared a large, which was a strong choice, since L.A. Burdick is not joking around when it comes to texture and flavor. This ain’t no powdery Swiss Miss packet. The chocolate is thick, nearly spreadable in consistency, coating your tongue and throat like the best cough drop you’ve ever had. The liquid is opaque, as if you were being served a warmed cup of melted chocolate ice cream. The flavor was complex, the bitterness from the high cacao percentage tempering the inherent sweetness of the milk.  L.A. Burdick’s hot chocolate is perhaps a little less intense than the hot chocolate at City Bakery, which basically serves you a cup of I-need-to-go-lie-down chocolate soup. However, while L.A. Burdick’s version is definitely not a casual , on-the-go-drink, it is a great way to experience and savor a high quality chocolate, and in these chilly months, to warm yourself up. Plus, they’ll throw a little liquor in there if you’re looking for a night-cap (or want to pre-game with a heavy dairy-dessert, whatever floats your boat).

You have to love a place that sells tiny chocolate penguins.

You just have to love a place that sells tiny chocolate penguins.

 

LeChurro:

LeChurro: a slim cafe to match their products.

LeChurro: a slim space to match their products.

A few nights later, it seemed like the air was only getting colder. Somehow I managed to convince Jacob to come up to my neck of the woods for once, to finally check an item off our endless list at the aptly named churro shop, LeChurro. Located on Lexington between 82nd and 83rd, LeChurro is a petite shop sitting right in between two subway stops. Although I rarely walk down that way, there was pretty good traffic during our visit, especially considering how chilly it was outside.

Part of the great LeChurro recipe, according to their wall mural.

Part of the great LeChurro recipe, according to their wall mural.

The small, boxy space is largely taken up by the counter and kitchen behind it, where churros are fried to order. The remaining area is taken up by a bench lining the north wall and a few small tables and chairs across from it. The south wall is lined with shelves filled with merchandise (both connected to churros and the kind of oddball knick-knacks you’d find at Urban Outfitters). The wall above the seating displays a large mural detailing “The Great LeChurro Recipe from Spain,” with cartoon illustrations of the ingredients and procedures of producing the perfect churro. The entire cafe gives off a quirky, tongue-in-cheek vibe which helps to mitigate the pretentious air that comes from running a Spanish churro-centric shop, especially one called LeChurro.

Ah yes, exactly as the Queen said during WWII.

Ah yes, exactly as the Queen said during WWII.

When we arrived the cashier was handing out free samples of their Spanish Thick Drinking Chocolate. Of course, it was nowhere near the caliber of L.A. Burdick’s rendition, but LeChurro is clearly going for a more down-to-earth, possibly multiple-source chocolate drink. Taken on its own, it was a rich, decadent hot chocolate, slightly thicker than what you’d get at a coffeehouse, and on the darker side of milk chocolate.

The menu offers iterations of churros, milkshakes, hot chocolates, and coffee and espresso. Within the churros you can get the normal long, straw of dough with a variety of dipping sauces, or bite-sized mini churros, or filled churros, which are circular churros covered in a sauce and then dipped in chocolate. They even have churro sundaes and savory churros (called “pizzos” and made up of mini churros stuffed with mozzarella and topped with marinara).

Our Cone of Churros, plus the freebies. Chocolate comes to those who wait.

Our Cone of Churros, plus the freebies. Chocolate comes to those who wait.

We ended up selecting the traditional “Cone of Churros” with Hazelnut Chocolate dipping sauce, because at this point my life, I’ve fully sold my soul to Nutella. LeChurro had been somewhat busy when I placed the order and paid, so I wasn’t surprised that there was a little delay in our churros’ arrival (after all, they’re frying to order). But then the store emptied out, and Jacob and I sat quietly waiting as nearly ten minutes passed with nary a Spanish pastry in sight. Finally I got up and asked (aka reminded) the cashier about it. Both he and the cook were very apologetic, having clearly forgotten our order completely. They went to work immediately, and gave us a few freebies to make up for it, so when we were finally served we got a couple more small tastes of the drinking chocolate, a dulce de leche filled churro, and two extra plain churros in our cone.

The churros flying solo.

The churros flying solo.

No surprise, the churros were fresh and warm, straight from the fryer and dusted in cinnamon sugar. At their core they have a flavor reminiscent of funnel cake, and the cinnamon sugar topping added just the barest hint of spice. I appreciated the crunchy outer layer and the airy interior, but considering how freshly made they were, these churros were just not that memorable. I actually much preferred our free filled churro, since there you had the textural contrast of the smooth chocolate coating, the sticky, gooey dulce de leche, and the cakey softness of the inner pastry. I much prefer this type of salty-sweet combo to the sea salt and caramel trend that continues to flood all dessert shops (I’m looking at you, 16 Handles). The extra samples of drinking chocolate were as tasty as the first ones we tried, but the stand-out liquid was actually the hazelnut dipping sauce, proving once again the all-powerful allure of warmed Nutella.

I could definitely see myself returning to LeChurro, albeit for a beverage rather than the churros themselves. The hot chocolate menu features a variety of flavor additions (including hazelnut), and I’d easily give into sampling one of the shakes or a frozen hot chocolate once we exit double-socks-triple-scarves territory.

 

I’d say both L.A. Burdick and LeChurro are spots to keep in your back pocket if you’re as much of a chocoholic as I am. I’m eager to go back to L.A. Burdick and explore some more single source varieties, especially since I’m still trying to expand my taste for dark chocolate. But it’s also nice to have LeChurro in my neighborhood, as a casual, spur of the moment kind of place that offers a dessert option beyond the endless froyo buffets. Although, now that the Polar Vortex has spun on, I’m kinda in the mood for some ice cream…

 

L.A. Burdick

5 East 20th Street

http://www.burdickchocolate.com/chocolateshop-cafe-nyc.aspx

LeChurro

1236 Lexington Avenue

http://lechurro.com/

Doughn’t Let the Name Fool You: Far from the Assembly Line at Doughnut Plant

After my recent post about Cronuts and croissants, it seems only fitting that I complete the set with a look at a doughnut shop. I’ve never really felt the urge to explore the doughnut options in New York — to be honest, doughnuts fall pretty low on my list of desired desserts. It’s probably due to my limited exposure growing up, where my doughnut encounters consisted of rec soccer game boxes of Dunkin Donuts’ Munchkins, Entenmann’s Pop ‘Ems, and the occasional cider doughnut on apple picking trips. My Californian friends tell me that doughnuts are a whole different story on the West Coast, and perhaps if I had grown up there, I would have at least had more of an appreciation for a solid deep-fried delicacy. But with the nearest Krispy Kreme location states away, I puttered along in ignorance. Believe me, I was perfectly happy taking those Pop ‘Ems down when the opportunity arose, but no doughnut had ever truly made me think twice about what I was biting into.

My first glimpse into the larger doughnut universe came during my first year working in New York. A coworker was gifted with a large box from Doughnut Plant, a decadent doughnuttery on the LES. He was generous enough to share his goodies with the office, and in doing so, unintentionally opened up a personal Pandora’s Box of possibilities for me. There was nary an oozing Boston Creme Pie or half-glazed cruller to be seen. Instead, square and round yeast and cake donuts with exotic flavors like Lavender, Blackberry, and Pistachio were laid out in neat rows before me,  and as I bit into a coconut cream doughnut, I suddenly found myself fervently wishing they would open up a shop closer to the office.

Well, owner Mark Israel must have somehow heard my prayer, because less than a year later Doughnut Plant opened up a second location nearby in the Chelsea Hotel. But hopeless fool that I am, it took two years and a different job in a different state for me to finally pay a visit to the actual bakery. This weekend I finally made good on that promise to myself, braving the heat (on a day that just demanded ice cream — but goddammit, I was doughnut-bound and determined) and finally finding my way inside this New York doughnutopia.

First Impressions:

Doughnut Plant has a pretty extensive history for a New York bakery. This is not some flash-in-the-pan out-of-town whippersnapper trying to stake a claim on the dessert scene. Mark Israel has a family history steeped in baking prowess, and the origin of Doughnut Plant’s menu stems from his grandfather’s doughnut recipe. According to their website, Doughnut Plant has existed since 1994, first as a bicycle-powered delivery service that catered to such clients as Dean & Deluca and Balducci’s.  The original standalone LES location opened up in 2000, and besides the Chelsea shop, there are nine Doughnut Plants in Japan and one in South Korea.

The entrance to the Chelsea Hotel Doughnut Plant, unfortunately hidden by construction.

The entrance to the Chelsea Hotel Doughnut Plant, unfortunately hidden by construction.

While the entrance to the shop is pretty obscured from the street by scaffolding, once you’re actually standing in front of the doors, it’s hard to resist the allure of the Chelsea Doughnut Plant. The decor suggests a tongue-in-cheek play on the bakery’s name, featuring the industrial wrought iron and steel bars of a manufacturing plant, contrasted with brightly colored doughnut-themed decorations along the walls. Walking in, you’re faced with a visual dichotomy — on the right side is the counter, all metal and dark colors and serious business, while on the left there are tables and chairs made of lighter wood, fanciful decorated doughnut pillows on the wall, and even benches along the wall have a doughnut design on them. It’s Henry Ford meets Willy Wonka. I find the balance of whimsy and serious craftsmanship immensely appealing — just like Beecher’s, I really appreciate a place that recognizes how food can (and should) make people happy, whether you’re cooking it or consuming it.

The barred service area -- these doughnuts mean business.

The barred service area — these doughnuts mean business.

In an ideal world, these doughnuts pillows would be edible, or at least scraff and sniff.

In an ideal world, these doughnuts pillows would be edible, or at least scratch-and-sniff.

The Food:

I mean, seriously, how do you choose?

I mean, seriously, how do you choose?

Doughnut Plant has a rotating selection of doughnuts, based both on seasonal and daily specials. The variety is almost overwhelming, and I found myself struggling to pick a few flavors to try. Luckily I wasn’t eating alone — you guessed it, Jacob was along for the ride, or rather, driving the car, since he was the one really keen to check out Doughnut Plant in the first place.

There are ostensibly four options at DP — cake doughnuts, yeast doughnuts, filled yeast doughnuts, and mini-filled doughnuts, called “doughseeds” (aka DP’s version of a Munchkin). However, this overlooks the monstrous cinnamon bun (which looked outrageously tempting and diabetic-coma-inducing), as well as the churros. But this was not the time for such distractions — we were there for doughnuts, and doughnuts alone. After a difficult deliberation (chocolate hazelnut? blueberry? chocolate chip?), we settled on the Tres Leches cake doughnut, the Valrhona Chocolate yeast donut, and the Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam doughseed. Good thing I had a salad for lunch.

The Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam Doughseed -- great for jam lovers, but not salty enough.

The Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam Doughseed — great for jam lovers, but not salty enough.

I didn’t seriously dislike any of our purchases, but the Peanut Butter and Blackberry Jam was my least favorite. I was surprised by this because it seemed to have everything going for it — I tend to like yeast doughnuts more than cake, I’m a huge peanut butter person (if it’s natural pb), and I tend to enjoy jelly doughnuts (especially from Orwasher’s). The doughseed was about double the size of a Dunkin Donuts‘ Munchkin, covered in a peanut butter glaze and speckled with real peanut chunks. The jam inside is made in-house, and I thought this filling was the best part of the pastry. The jam had a real natural quality to it, fruity without being overly cloying. The yeasty dough was light and full of air pockets (as it was for the Valrhona), and the glaze had a solid peanut butter flavor. My disappointment stems from my hope for a real salty/sweet one-two punch from this doughnut. I was surprised by the peanut pieces coating the outside of the doughseed — while their crunch added an unexpected textural contrast, the pieces were not really salted, and just didn’t add a huge amount, flavor-wise. As Jacob said, “If I were a Top Chef judge, I’d definitely call them out — you already had the peanut butter glaze, why add the peanuts on top?” Fortunately, DP offers other doughnuts filled with their homemade jam, which I’m much more interested in trying than their other pb doughnuts on a return visit.

The Valrhona Chocolate yeast doughnut -- surprisingly light, considering its diameter.

The Valrhona Chocolate yeast doughnut — surprisingly light, considering its diameter.

Jacob had his eye on the Valrhona Chocolate, despite being a professed cake doughnut lover. (Only after I happened to check their website did I notice that DP also offers a cake version of the Valrhona doughnut, so obviously he’ll have to go back and try that.) DP does not skimp on portion size for their yeast doughnuts. While their cake donuts are the more familiar, Homer-Simpson-dunk-in-coffee sized treats, the DP yeast donuts appear to be about 1.5 times the size of your average Krispy Kreme. Thanks to Jacob’s fist comparison, you can see we’re talking a Levain cookie/scone sized doughnut. This beast of a baked good was completely coated in chocolate, with a white icing V denoting its flavor. However, we were both shocked to discover that the inside was plain ol’ regular yeast dough, not the fully chocolate experience we were expecting. I can’t really complain about that, since the inside was perfectly airy and chewy and worked as a great vehicle for the chocolate outer layer. The coating had a prominent  and deep cocoa flavor to it. I think I would have preferred a slightly more bitter, smokier chocolate for the icing, since the sweetness of the interior dough would seemingly have the capacity to mitigate a stronger dark chocolate. Maybe I should try the Blackout or Triple Chocolate next time for comparison.

The famed Tres Leches cake doughnut -- a more measured doughnut -- let it grow on you.

The famed Tres Leches cake doughnut — a more measured doughnut that grows on you.

While waiting in line to order, I overheard a man say that DP is known for their Tres Leches cake doughnuts. I’m happy to report that this doughnut deserves those accolades. It was the perfect combination of glaze and filling, decadent without being overbearing. Although the cake dough was a little firmer than you’d find in a slice of actual tres leches cake, DP pipes a filling of sweetened condensed milk in the middle of the doughnut, preventing the insides from becoming too dry and crumbly. Like the Valrhona doughnut, the Tres Leches is fully coated, this time in a milky, vanilla-tinged glaze. It was more subtle in taste than I expected, but that made me appreciate the artistry all the more. I found this doughnut the most successful of the bunch because of its distance from conventional glazed doughnuts. While all three of our picks were inventive and beautifully rendered, the Tres Leches stood out because it made you consider the makeup of the doughnut while you were eating it. I’m sure I’m overthinking it (because this whole blog is pretty much about overthinking food), but if Mark Israel’s aim is to make innovative doughnut flavors that give you pause, well, he hit a home run here.

Final Thoughts:

You can't avoid doughnut imagery in this place -- look down at the bench you're sitting on!

You can’t avoid doughnut imagery in this place — look down at the bench you’re sitting on!

All in all, that first Coconut Cream doughnut I experienced from Doughnut Plant may never be bested, due both to nostalgia and to the eye-opening push it gave me into the world of  exotic doughnuts. However, everything I tried at Doughnut Plant this time around was artfully executed, from unexpected flavor combinations to perfectly baked and fried yeast and cake dough. It’s just plain fun to walk in there and see all the doughnut-mania, and once you do you’ll pretty much be unable to resist the alluring rows of glazed and gleaming doughnuts, begging you to chomp down on them. These ain’t your momma’s doughnuts, and if you’re open to a postmodern pastiche of desserty decadence, then step right up and see what Mark Israel can do for you. You might just find that your favorite type of creme brulee is the deep-fried doughnut kind. For those with an adventurous sweet tooth, Doughnut Plant is definitely worth checking out.

Doughnut Plant

220 West 23rd Street, btwn 7th & 8th Aves.

http://doughnutplant.com

The Grand Cookie Crawl: Jacques Torres Chocolate

The frosty air of these winter months dulls the senses. I leaned into the wind, pulling my collar tighter against my neck. I’d let myself get distracted in the past few weeks, pulled in by the jelly-filled hemlines of fancy dames like Lady Orwasher, or the dulcet tones of that Salty Pimp. Truth was, I couldn’t figure the last time I’d really knuckled down on the case. Here I was, a chance to pull myself out of the slums, to stop taking cases full of nobodies like those Fig Newtons and Chips Ahoy, a chance to play with the big boys, and what was I doing? Spinning my wheels and letting my eyes wander. I’m supposed to be checking out these alleged “best chocolate chip cookies” of New York, and all the checking out I’m doing is at the Food Emporium down the block. Another gust blew through me. Numb fingers fumbled with the slip of paper in my pocket. I had to refocus. Yes, all I had was this flimsy lead — a single name, an Upper West Side address, although I’d heard this guy had been seen all over the city. But I had to stop fooling around. I’d staked my reputation on this — there’s only one broad on the dessert beat, and that’s me. If I wanted to keep my cred, I had to check this guy out. Tonight, I had a date with Mr. Chocolate.

I can’t be the only one thinks a little film noir voiceover would add a lot of gravitas to everyday life, right? A little Bogie and Bacall to brighten up your case of the Mondays? At least then I can ignore the fact that my great “mission” is to purchase and devour a whole mess of chocolate chip cookies. Despite numerous delicious setbacks, this past weekend I finally got back to the Grand Cookie Crawl, making my way to one of the stores of Mr. Chocolate himself, Jacques Torres.

Jacques Torres Chocolate has 6 locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, including one shop that focuses on ice cream instead of chocolate. Torres, a world-renowned pastry chef, is known mainly for his bars, bon bons, and hot chocolate (which I fully intend to investigate at a later date), but I’d seen his chocolate chip cookies on several “best of” lists, and I could believe that a man who prides himself on the quality of his chocolate, probably uses damn fine chocolate chips. So I paid a visit to the Upper West Side chocolate shop, which is a mere half a block away from Levain Bakery. Despite their physical proximity, the two businesses couldn’t be more different.

 

First Impressions:

The warm browns and reds and endless chocolate products make Jacques Torres pretty inviting from the get-go.

The warm browns and reds of the decor make Jacques Torres appear Continental, yet inviting from the get-go.

 

Unlike Levain’s humble basement bakeshop, Jacques Torres Chocolates (JTC) is a spacious, brightly lit shop in the style of a Parisian cafe. Once you walk in you’re faced with two options — to the left is a long counter displaying baked goods and chocolate confections, and to the right is the coffee and hot chocolate bar. The walls are filled with shelves and shelves of chocolate products, from powders to chocolate covered nuts and more. Torres said his initial vision was to create a “chocolate wonderland,” and the almost-overwhelming variety of chocolate products on display seems pretty Wonka-esque to me. One of his downtown locations features large windows into his factory floor, allowing customers to view the chocolate-making process in action, which I imagine only adds to the fantasy of Oompa-Loompas dredging chocolate rivers. The cafe has a few tables scattered throughout, and it seemed to be a cozy space to get a coffee and share a few treats with a friend. Although the cold weather was practically begging me to get a cup of hot chocolate, I had to resist and turn my attention to the cookie counter.

A view from the back of the shop -- the coffee/hot chocolate bar is in the background.

A view from the back of the shop — the coffee/hot chocolate bar is in the background.

 

The Cookies:

You really can't beat multiple stacks of cookies on display. Up front, the Chocolate Chip, and just behind it is the Mudslide. The Peanut Butter cookie is hiding in the very back.

You really can’t beat multiple stacks of cookies on display. Up front, the Chocolate Chip, and just behind it is the Mudslide. The Peanut Butter cookie is hiding in the very back.

 

The cookies are placed at the very front of the store, the closest items to the register. JTC offers 3 types of cookies — the standard Chocolate Chip, the Chocolate Mudslide (a double chocolate cookie with walnuts), and a Peanut Butter cookie. In our continuing two cookie sampling process, Jacob and I purchased the Chocolate Chip and the Chocolate Mudslide. JTC has its own procedure for delivering a unique cookie experience — while Levain is constantly baking batches to give customers cookies fresh out of the oven, and City Bakery keeps their cookies lukewarm under hot lamps, JTC gives you the option of enjoying a warm cookie no matter what time of day. Only the Chocolate Chip and Mudslide are available warm, a feat achieved by keeping a stash of cookies on a hot plate just behind the register.

The Chocolate Chip and the Chocolate Mudslide, coming in at about the size of a bagel.

The Chocolate Chip and the Chocolate Mudslide, coming in at about the size of a bagel.

 

In terms of physical makeup, the JTC’s cookies are large and flat, much more in the vein of City Bakery’s brand rather than the pet-rock shaped Levain cookies. They seemed to be about the size of a classic black and white cookie or a medium-sized bagel  — barely fitting in your hand. The Chocolate Chip was a little larger than the Mudslide, but the Mudslide won the fight in terms of thickness.

The dark streaks of chocolate that were visible on the surface turned out to be liquid chocolate eager to burst out.

The dark streaks of chocolate that were visible on the surface turned out to be pockets of liquid chocolate eager to burst out.

 

Breaking into the cookie, the effects of the different warming techniques became obvious. City Bakery’s cookies had just a little give but were predominately crunchy — still flavorful, but clearly baked much earlier the day. As I gushed about before, Levain’s fresh-baked cookies were my kind of texture, slightly underdone with a soft, chewy dough that mixed with the melting chocolate. JTC’s cookie again falls somewhere in the middle. The hot plate turned the chocolate chips into pockets of gooey, melted chocolate puddles, reminiscent of hot fudge sauce when you broke the cookie apart. The warmed dough was also softer, splitting easily but with a crispy top and definitely completely baked through. The Mudslide was much the same, although it seemed to have a center entirely made up of melted chocolate (the picture below reminds me of Orwasher’s jelly donut, in terms of level of filling). Perhaps because of this, the cookie itself seemed more pliable than the Chocolate Chip. In both cases, the melted quality of the chocolate made for a pretty messy eating experience — cue gobs all over my fingers and chin. These cookies are not intended for dainty eating.

The Mudslide -- once opened, the center of the cookie basically collapsed into a pool of chocolate fudge.

The Mudslide — once opened, the center of the cookie basically collapsed into a pool of chocolate fudge.

 

The Verdict:

To be honest, I was pretty disappointed with JTC’s Chocolate Chip cookie. While the chocolate used in the cookie was of a noticeably high quality, I found the cookie itself to be subpar. The dough was one-note, with the flavor of butter overwhelming everything else. Where were the caramelly notes of brown sugar? Where was the freaking vanilla? There was no subtlety to the cookie, and I found myself equating it to the slice-and-bake Mrs. Field’s cookies that they used to sell for a buck at the school store in junior high. It’s not that I mind a solid Mrs. Field’s cookie, but if you’re going to assert that your cookies are gourmet quality, you better be a step up from Le Tollhouse. While the texture of the Chocolate Chip cookie was more my style than City Bakery, ultimately I’d rank CB’s chocolate chip over JTC due to the dough.


I’m starting to see a real pattern in the Cookie Crawl — I tend to like the “alternate” cookie way more than the standard Chocolate Chip. This happened again at JTC, where I thought the Mudslide was far superior in all categories. Maybe it was because the chocolate was the star of the show. The Mudslide was basically a chocolate bomb in your mouth — bittersweet chocolate chips (well, molten fudge really) mixed with unsweetened cocoa powder and more chopped up bittersweet chocolate. The simplicity of the cookie is what makes it so successful — considering Jacques Torres is Mr. Chocolate, it’s unsurprising that his back-to-basics chocolate cookie would be the one to shine.

Overall, Levain keeps the top ranking by a wide margin. City Bakery was a solid cookie, but I’d rather try some of their other offerings, and Jacques Torres limps in at a far third. I did really enjoy the chocolate within the cookies, which makes me want to taste the bon bons and the variety of hot chocolates. But it looks like the traditional bakeries have the edge right now — Mr. Chocolate should stick to his gourmet confectioning, and leave the sugar creaming and dough baking to the cookie professionals.

Jacques Torres Chocolate
285 Amsterdam Ave (between 73rd and 74th)
http://www.mrchocolate.com