The Grand Cookie Crawl: Bouchon Bakery

2014-05-19 19.03.12

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

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

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

 

 

First Impressions

 

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

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

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

 

 

The large selection of baked goods helps, too.

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

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

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

 

 

The Cookies:

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

Final Verdict:

 

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

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

 

Bouchon Bakery

Ten Columbus Circle, Third Floor

New York, NY 10019

http://bouchonbakery.com/

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The Grand Cookie Crawl: 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