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

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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

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Snackshots: Polar Vortex (Warm Chocolate Edition)

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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/

Come in From the Cold: A Warming Dinner at Village Taverna

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Snow — to elementary-aged Maggie, this word meant magic, plain and simple. The kind of magic that requires extra effort: it’s not enough to simply wish for snow, you must entreat the weather gods through sacrifices like putting an eraser under your pillow or wearing your pajamas inside-out and backwards (while there is some contention about the specifics of the rituals, it is universally agreed upon by North Eastern American children that some sacrifice is mandatory). And if you did everything right, and the snow came, it meant freedom — from class, from homework, from the usual routine. You could throw on unreasonably puffy pants and moonboots and hurl yourself headfirst into the drifts in your backyard, bean unsuspecting passersby with snowballs, and drink enormous mugs of hot chocolate with heady swirls of whipped cream.

Well, as with many things in life, the wonders of childhood snow do not extend into adult life. These days heavy snow means an endless commute, clunky boots you drag around the office, and the inexplicably speedy transition of white powder to grey slush in the New York streets. Maybe it’s just the unexpected deluge we’ve recently had across the country, but frankly, this grownup is a little worn-out on snow.

My Grinchy-grumpiness is probably fueled by being stuck without functioning snowboots during the storm last weekend. Old lady Maggie took her ancient snowboots to work last week, where she cranked up her spaceheater to avoid office frostbite (damn you, server farm), only to discover the unfortunate consequence of the heat cracking the plastic tops of the boots. Dammit. So come Saturday, when another snowstorm rolled through New York, I was caught bootless and bereft. Luckily, I found refuge and a lovely dinner at Village Taverna in Union Square, warmed by excellent food and friendly service.

 

First Impressions:

Walking into Village Taverna, you encounter the take-out counter with desserts on display.

Walking into Village Taverna, you encounter the take-out counter with desserts on display.

Village Taverna is located right off of Union Square on the corner of University Place and 11th St. It’s a cute, relatively small corner restaurant, with the takeout counter and kitchen facing front as you enter, and the bar and dining room fanning out in an L-shape to fill the rest of the space. Village Taverna is decked out in the classic style of a Greek restaurant — high ceilings above white walls with accents of dark blue or gold, the chairs and tables made up of plain but polished light wood. The restaurant takes advantage of its corner location through the large windows that line the exterior walls, which when we visited were slightly covered by long curtains, and the interior walls and bar had mosaic tiles and decorative plates on them.

The bar and corner shelves filled high with blue vases of varying shapes and sizes.

The bar and corner shelves filled high with blue vases of varying shapes and sizes.

It was pretty quiet when Jacob and I visited, most likely due to the driving snow outside, so I can’t really speak for the overall noise and activity level of the place. During my visit, however, I found that my meal was the perfect antidote to the messy weather outside. The dining room is made up of a long banquette on the inner wall and a number of two and four-tops, and our waiter gave us the pick of the litter. We ended up at one of the banquette tables, and I was warm and comfortable for the entire meal (although Jacob complained that he might have been under a cold-air vent). Overall the atmosphere was calm and casual, the staff more than happy to make recommendations and answer our questions (and most importantly, refill our fresh pita after we scarfed down the first plate).

 

The rest of the dining room, decked out with decorative plates and tiled walls.

The rest of the dining room, decked out with decorative plates and tiled walls.

 

The Food:

‘Tis the season to stuff your face with dessert (though long-time readers might argue my dessert season is year-long), and I’d proudly taken part in a few holiday traditions earlier that day. I spent the afternoon trimming the tree at Laura’s (of Bantam and Jam fame) house, and of course proper tree-trimming requires not only ornaments and tinsel, but nostalgic holiday foods like hot chocolate, cashew bars, sticky buns, and linzer cookies. So it’s understandable that by dinner I was eager for some light, wholesome food. Jacob suggested a soup/salad/appetizer strategy, which sounded perfect considering both the weather and my blood sugar level.

Greek is one of those cuisines I was very against when I was younger, mostly because I thought of it as being populated with such “gross” foods as olives, feta, and eggplant. These days, though I find my palate edging more and more towards Mediterranean-adjacent cuisines, I’m still plenty unfamiliar with the basic Greek dishes (alas, Greek Lady on Penn’s campus ranks about as high as NYC street meat on the authenticity scale). As such, I’d never encountered any of the dishes I tried at Village Taverna. Fortunately, Jacob was a much more worldly child, and so steered us in the right direction. We opted for splitting the Melitzanosalata spread, the Village Salad, and a bowl of the Avgolemono. It ended up being plenty of food for two people, and was pretty reasonably priced — we got out of there for just about $30, including tax and tip.

To be clear, our selection was only the tip of the iceberg for Village Taverna’s menu — they offer a ton more spreads, salads, and appetizers, plus a grill section full of kebabs, seafood, traditional Greek dishes like Mousaka (with a vegetarian version), souvlaki, gyros, and pita wrap sandwiches. Had I been game for a heartier meal, I probably would have struggled to choose an entree between all the options.

Now this is what I call a bread basket, er ... plate.

Now this is what I call a bread basket, er … plate. The only acceptable use of olives — to augment olive oil.

Our dinner started with a complimentary plate of pita, olive oil, and olives. The bread was freshly grilled and warm to the touch, with deep brown lines seared into it. Bread-fiend that I am, I couldn’t get enough of the pita — it had the perfect texture,  soft with just a tiny bit of toasted crunch. I still can’t get onboard the olive train, but I really liked how the fresh olives intensified the flavor of the oil, which perked up my tastebuds after my sugary repast.

 

The Melizonasalata -- a strong pick for eggplant fans.

The Melitzanosalata — a strong pick for eggplant fans.

The Melitzanosalata (Puréed fine roasted eggplant spread made with fresh ground eggplants, garlic, vinegar, fresh herbs & extra virgin olive oil) surprised me with its texture. I had expected it something closer to baba ganoush, but this dip was more like the roasted red pepper/eggplant dip I made for Thanksgiving, chunkier and with some bulk as I scooped into it with a piece of pita. It was served with capers on top, and I found that their brininess overwhelmed the dip. On its own the Melitzanosalata had a strong eggplant flavor, with subtle notes of vinegar and parsley. Its initial thickness melted on the tongue, and though I missed the smokiness of baba ganoush, I would certainly look to this dish as a good way to cure an eggplant craving.

 

The Village Salad, offering my first taste of manouri cheese.

The Village Salad, offering my first taste of manouri cheese.

I was excited to try the Village Salad (Mixed greens, grilled manouri cheese, croutons, cherry tomatoes, white & dark sesame with honey balsamic vinaigrette) because I’d yet to come across manouri in my cheese adventures. According to Wikipedia, manouri is “a Greek semi-soft, fresh white whey cheese made from goat or sheep milk as a by-product following the production of feta.” It’s supposed to be creamier and less salty than feta, with less acidity. I really enjoyed it in this dish, and will definitely seek it out again as a good cheese for use as a topping . The Village Salad was very simple, seemingly designed to let the cheese shine brightest. Usually I like my salads like I like my ice cream — with plenty of mix-ins — but here I appreciated the straightforward, well-proportioned combination of just a few ingredients. The manouri arrived with thick grill marks on top, leaving it softened without melting it, and it easily broke apart into large chunks with the application of a little fork pressure. The creamy texture and nutty taste played well with the bitter greens and the acidity of the tomatoes. There were some tiny croutons dispersed throughout the dish to add crunch, and the dressing echoed the nutty-sweet cheese with its sesame and honey.

 

Avgolomeno -- Greek chicken soup for the soul.

Avgolemono — Greek chicken soup for the soul.

Now I’d actually heard of Avgolemono (Traditional Greek chicken soup made with rice and thickened with an egg lemon sauce), but for some reason I was picturing more of the American classic chicken soup, with a clear broth and thick-cut vegetables. What arrived at our table more closely resembled a chowder (or egg-drop soup, as the description implies). It was very creamy, thick and filling, with soft strands of chicken belying the strong broth flavor. Like the rest of our meal, it was a simply produced dish with basic, fresh and wholesome ingredients cooked with care. The brightness of the lemon sauce kept the soup from weighing me down too much (as can happen with a bowl of clam chowder), and I found myself happily satisfied without being overfull by the end of our meal.


Final Thoughts:

I only had a small sampling of the menu at Village Taverna, but the dishes I did try speak to the quality and overall feel of the restaurant. Maybe it was the snowstorm outside, or maybe it was the nostalgia-inducing holiday activities of the day, but I came away from my dinner feeling like a surrogate Greek mother had cooked just for me. Albeit, a Greek mother who also employs a staff of waiters and busboys. Despite the proximity to the mobs of NYU students and Union Square bustle, Village Taverna has the atmosphere of a family restaurant, polished and attentive yet warm and welcoming. I’m definitely planning to go back and further my Greek food education, and if I find myself stuck in the snow again sometime this winter, I know a bowl of chicken soup that’s just calling my name.

 

Village Taverna

81 University Place (corner of 11th St)

http://www.villagetaverna.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

Coffee Break

I think it’s important to celebrate the milestones in your life, be they reasonable accomplishments, or the more understated achievements that most people probably find kind of lame. For example, recently I’ve felt very proud of myself for what some might call a pretty underwhelming development — I’ve finally started taking my coffee black. It’s useful because I’m trying to cut down on sugar where I can (and let’s be honest, I’m just not gonna start eating fewer Oreos). And it allows me to play at being sophisticated (see previous sentence about Oreos), since there’s something oh-so-chic about declining milk and sugar with a “no thanks, I take mine black.” But the reason I think I’ve fixated on this new habit is that it’s a piece of the developing puzzle of what my taste as an adult is. My relationship with coffee mirrors my general relationship with food, and shockingly, I feel as though I’m learning to embrace new discoveries beyond the walls of all-dessert-all-the-time.

I can clearly remember when Starbucks came to my hometown in the early 2000s. I had always avoided my father’s brewed coffee (smells great, tastes awful), but when it was explained to me that a mocha involved chocolate, well I just had to try. It was serviceable, but these Starbucks folks clearly had no idea that for a chocoholic tween, the emphasis should be less on the espresso and way more on the chocolate syrup and whipped cream. A few years later, another Starbucks opened up literally next to my high school. Sophomore year,  I challenged the upper limits of my pancreas by opting for a Venti Hot Chocolate during every early morning free period I had. (Note: this was an early but striking lesson in nutrition, when I discovered that consuming full-fat cocoa drinks with whipped cream several days a week in fact leads to weight gain. Shocking.)

It wasn’t until I got to college that I started voluntarily consuming coffee-based drinks, and even then the term “coffee-based” is a bit of stretch. My college roommate Megan was a Pennsylvania native, and so decided in our first scant hours together that I needed to be educated about the wonder that is Wawa. For those not in the know, Wawa is pretty much 7/11, only WAY BETTER. Not only do they offer a multiplicity of brewed coffee flavors (french vanilla, hazelnut, etc), but they have one of those gross powdered-latte machines. And that miraculous machine was precisely where my true coffee journey began.

Cue a montage of my freshman year experiments with the Wawa latte machine. Just as Megan had promised, the machine was meant for dreamy artist-types, with its magical capacity for flavor combos, like Irish coffee/peppermint, or french vanilla/toffee. And note the easy learning curve afforded by the push-and-hold-to-fill buttons. You could start with a 90% hot chocolate, 10% almond latte, then slowly adjust the proportions as you became addicted to the sugar and caffeine high of these artificially flavored masterpieces. By the end of that year of trial-and-error I probably would have picked the caramel-mocha as my go-to drink, which just seems disappointingly mundane given all the possibilities.

Much like the venti hot chocolates of my high school days, I eventually realized that I was basically drilling cavities into my teeth with these drinks, and I tried to make the switch to regular coffee. Plus, Megan had moved on, and I’ve realized in chronicling this she really was the tastemaker for me when it comes to coffee. She was always one step ahead on the journey to coffee simplicity, and chose black coffee for years before I got into the game. So I grimaced and set aside the latte machine for the flavored coffee carafes right next to them, adding in a couple of packets of artificial sweetener and maybe even a flavored coffee creamer to keep up the excitement of untried flavor combos. Baby steps, to be sure.

Luckily, a semester abroad in Scotland forced my hand. I was distressed to discover that brewed coffee is relatively rare in Scottish cafes (or at least it was in 2008), and the exchange rate does not favor an American in a Scottish Starbucks. Reluctant to empty my bank account on expensive mochas (and/or add to the generally unhealthy diet of delicious Indian food and cafeteria meat pies I was surviving on), I turned to the only thing that seemed familiar — Americanos. Of course, I threw a solid amount of milk and sweetener into those, since the straight espresso flavor was a big leap for me. I grumbled about missing real coffee for 4 months, but it was heaps better than the gritty cups Taster’s Choice Instant Coffee I grimaced through each morning in my dorm.

Back in America, I had my ups and downs, at one point giving up coffee all together, then slowly falling back into the habit with decaf, and eventually returning to full-fledged addiction when I started in the working world. It’s only been in the past year or so that I’ve cut out my customary packet of Sweet-n-Low, and only in the past month that I’ve left the half-and-half in the fridge.

And you know what? I actually kind of like the bitter taste of black coffee. Maybe it’s the same effect as when you start drinking a liquor like Scotch straight-up — once the dominant flavor of  the mix-ins is removed, you start to notice the subtlety of the base itself. While I would be loathe call myself a discerning coffee drinker (I like Dunkin Donuts a lot — there, I said it), I can now really tell the difference between the brews of coffee I like and those I don’t. It’s not much, but it’s a start, and gosh darn it, I’m actually proud of myself for taking the opportunity to try something different.

During the tumultuous period of my 20s, it’s kind of refreshing to discover new things about myself on the micro-scale. There’s a lot of change going on in every part of my life, but finding out I like eggplant or poached eggs or pinot noir are the kind of developments that somehow offer me a bit of stability. Silly as it may seem, accepting that my tastes are shifting lets me know that change is inevitable and can actually be rewarding. Like my fencing coach said in high school — if you focus on taking small steps, you’ll be balanced when opportunity comes to lunge. I don’t fence these days, but occasionally life throws you a tough bout, and you can damn well bet when that happens that I’ll be on the strip well-caffeinated and armed with my full cuppa joe. I’ll take it black, please.

Fencing epee in high school