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/

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Restaurant Stalking

Brick Lane

I knew I was getting seriously obsessed with food when I started checking Eater NY and Grubstreet multiple times a day, refreshing their homepages in the hopes of some tidbit about a new restaurant opening or the latest trendy dessert (FYI: odds are now on pudding being “the next cupcake”). But I think the gateway drug to my current food habit really originated outside of the internet. It’s all because of a little restaurant called Brick Lane Curry.

I live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which, according to the foodie scene of NYC, is currently experiencing a sort of revitalization on the restaurant front. We’ve got the hot pub The Penrose which opened up just across from my friends’ apartment in the east 80s, there’s a Meatball Shop location headed our way in January, and who could overlook the new Maison Kayser, the first American bakery by famed French bread-braniac Eric Kayser? Where did he decide to place his proverbial Plymouth Rock? East 70s, baby.

The flip side to all of this, of course, is that the construction on the Second Ave subway line has killed off a number of local businesses. In the nearly 2 years I’ve been living in the neighborhood, I’ve seen plenty of shuttered windows and “commercial space available” signs. Even this past week the nearby Tasti-D-Lite said its goodbyes. (Although to be honest, I don’t really understand their franchising strategy — Tasti has not one, but 2 locations within 2 blocks of the 86th St subway. They don’t offer that many flavors — how is this profitable?)

What this means is, as a denizen of the UES,  you get used to a certain ebb and flow of restaurants and stores opening and closing, and come to understand that promised deadlines are rarely kept. Case in point: the odd series of events I witnessed as the bakery on my corner promised a spring 2011 opening, only to change names (and possibly owners) 3 times and finally open in early 2012. Unfortunately, it seems this lesson hasn’t really sunk in for me yet,  and that has led me not only to perpetual disappointment, but also to a mild stalking habit. If one can stalk a building, that is.

Back in the early summer, I noticed a new sign going up at a recently shuttered Japanese restaurant in my neighborhood. The text was “Brick Lane,” and the logo featured a chile pepper. My first thought was Mexican food, and I couldn’t help but be excited about a new burrito place or tapas joint, or whatever this was going to be. But a quick search on Google proved me wrong — this was going to be the new location of Brick Lane Curry, a NY/NJ Indian mini-chain modeled on the curry houses of London’s Brick Lane (oh, duh), and recently featured on Man vs. Food for their superhot Phaal curry. Color me doubly pumped, since the only cuisine I love more than Mexican is Indian, and if Adam Richman was intrigued, I should probably check this place out.

So for the next few months I patiently waited for the plywood to come down, passing by 93rd and 3rd on my way to the gym each morning, and mentally crossing my fingers that today would be the day an “Open” sign would appear on the door. June passed, then July, and finally in August the wood came down and tables laid with pristine white tablecloths appeared in the front window. I told my friends about it, and we made tentative plans to go for dinner when Brick Lane opened, which I could only assume would be in the next week or so. After all, who puts neon lights in their signage and sets their tables without planning an opening?

Well, apparently Brick Lane does. See the photo below:

Brick Lane's baffling set tables

This was not taken in August. This was taken less than a week ago. For the past two months, Brick Lane has taunted me, seemingly totally ready for customers but utterly empty. Weeks of a signs calling for “Help Wanted.” Weeks of those tablecloths with no one seated. Weeks of men sweeping the floors, adjusting light fixtures, and even having drinks at the bar.

I began to get desperate. I looked to Eater and Grubstreet daily to see if there was any news. I checked the Brick Lane website, which stubbornly insisted the UES location was “coming soon.” I Googled and poured over local neighborhood news sites for any info beyond an “early fall opening.” I checked Craiglist for jobs in the food/hospitality category for any mention of a new Indian restaurant on the UES. And upon my friend Laura’s suggestion, I even tried to go up and tap the glass one Saturday morning, but no one was around.

Now I freely admit this is all crazy behavior. It’s not like I can’t get good Indian food in Manhattan. But the promise of convenience and quality constantly thrown in face by the empty facade of Brick Lane was driving me bonkers.

Luckily, there is a happy ending to this story. While browsing my options on the delivery site Grubhub last Friday, I stumbled upon an unexpected gift. There was a listing for Brick Lane Curry, not currently accepting online orders, but offering a phone number for the 3rd Ave location. I weighed the creepiness of calling for a moment, but curiosity won out. I just had to know. A few minutes later, my obsessive perseverance was rewarded. The very confused, but polite man who answered the phone informed me that Brick Lane would have an inspection next Tuesday, and should be open by the end of the week. Finally, some real answers!

I’m pretty sure I’ll ultimately be disappointed by Brick Lane Curry’s food. After all, how can it measure up to the months of anticipation I built up through my slavish vigilance? But at least the mystery has a conclusion in sight. I can finally focus on all the other things that deserve my attention.

Like this new construction that’s gone up on 94th and 3rd. Wonder what this is gonna be?

New plywood on 94th and 3rd