Sometimes You Feel Like a Legume: Dinner at Peanut Butter & Co.

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I am a peanut butter freak, and I’ve discovered it’s an ailment that has only gotten worse as I’ve aged. When I was younger I used to be very picky about the quality of the peanut butter I tasted — Ritz Bitz was authentic enough for me, but Lord, the indignity of lowering myself to the artificial flavor of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. I was a loyal Jif girl, and looked down my nose at other peanut butter brands. And though I’d like to think that my palate has gotten more refined as I’ve gotten older, my love of all things peanut butter has curiously grown by leaps and bounds, breaking free of my previous (mis)conceptions and invading all aspects of my eating (did you know peanut butter tastes great with yogurt? salads? cheese?).

Way back in April of last year I mentioned my desire to visit Peanut Butter & Co., and now I am proud to say I can finally check that item off my NYC food-list. I’d heard about Peanut Butter & Co. years ago, but had never found the time to go downtown and visit their store, nor even try their line of peanut butters that I’ve seen slowly expand through the tri-state area. Thankfully, Laura, my partner in crimes-related-to-pb & j (see our Jam Crawl and our visit to Bantam Bagels), was kind enough to take me to dinner at PB&Co. as a belated holiday present. It was a trip nearly a year in the making, but for a peanut butter devotee such as myself, it was a decidedly necessary pilgrimage to the Valhalla of cream-and-crunchdom.

 

First Impressions:

Peanut Butter & Co. is located in Greenwich Village, just off of Washington Square Park and the hub of NYU. It obviously benefits from being so close to a huge student population, and its menu of sandwiches, cookies, brownies and ice cream seems tailor-made for hungover college kids.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe's space.

The counter at PB&Co., with the kitchen behind taking up nearly half the cafe’s space.

The photos I had seen of the cafe made it seem like a large space, but standing outside the doors it became clear that it’s a relatively shallow store, with nearly half of the real estate taken up by the kitchen and counter. Entering the cafe, you find the cashier to the left, a small retail section in the back featuring the titular line of peanut butters, merch, baked goods and drinks, and then to your right a collection of tables, seating probably the same amount of people as the average Manhattan Starbucks. The decor is friendly and pared down, the exterior of the store painted bright blue and white, and the inside evoking a classic American kitchen with pastel yellow walls covered in vintage advertisements for peanut and sandwich products.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter's place in American hearts.

Vintage ads show the legacy of peanut butter’s place in American hearts.

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than "marshmallow."

Honestly, I had no idea Marshmallow Fluff came in flavors other than “marshmallow.”

The service style is a little odd. There’s no table service (you order at the counter), but they do bring your food straight to your table … sometimes (we had to go up and fetch our own dessert). We also encountered a somewhat strange scenario during our visit — generally, PB&Co. has a faucet at the counter that dispenses regular NYC tap water (since everyone including Barney knows that PB leaves you pretty parched), but it was broken, and therefore covered to prevent anyone trying to use it. This meant that when we asked for tap water, the cashier told us our only option was to buy a bottle of water, citing a violation of NYC health chodes to fill a customer’s glass from a tap behind the counter. Now, granted I don’t know the health code, but you’d think they could have gotten a cooler or filled a pitcher, rather than forcing people to pay and engendering ill will. But then again, it seems to be a bustling place with a steady stream of customers, so perhaps they think they’ll just try to get a few more bucks out of folks until someone really puts up a fight.

 

The Food:

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

Tempting, but perhaps a bit much for the first visit.

In order to get the most out of the PB&Co. menu, we opted to split two sandwiches and share a dessert, ordering The Elvis, The Heat is On Sandwich, and the Bananarama Sundae to finish up. All of the sandwiches are served with both carrots and PB&Co. brand chips, which helps to fill out the plate a little bit. Not surprisingly, our sandwiches were ready in no time, so we could get down to some serious chewing.

 

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis, perhaps underserved by a lack of bacon.

The Elvis (“A grilled peanut butter sandwich, stuffed with bananas and honey”) is offered with an optional addition of bacon, and part of me regrets deciding to go without, because I think it would have added that extra salt and crunch the sandwich needed. The sandwich was very uniform in texture, soft and gooey from being grilled. Now both Laura and I agreed that almost any sandwich improves with grilling, but in this case, because of the melted quality of the peanut butter, it was nearly impossible to tell that we had chosen PB&Co.’s “Crunchtime” crunchy peanut butter, which I had hoped would mix things up a bit in terms of mouthfeel. The flavor was certainly pure and strongly peanutty, and ended up being the dominant note of the sandwich. I have to question the cafe’s definition of “stuffed” here, because both the honey and the banana seemed conservatively applied, getting lost in the melting swirl of the peanut butter. Still, you can’t fault the combination of flavors as a classic, and I thought the peanut butter itself was top notch. There’s just something so delightful and nostalgic about the oozing, gooey drip of peanut making your fingers sticky and forcing you to lick it off like a 5 year old. But Laura and I concurred that The Elvis was very much a sandwich we could have made in our own kitchens (even with PB&Co.’s own product), and gotten more bang for our buck.

 

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich — not quite a Thai dish, but an interesting play on flavors.

The Heat is On Sandwich (“Spicy peanut butter and chilled grilled chicken, with a little bit of pineapple jam. Like a Thai satay — only better”) was definitely the most interesting dish of our dinner, and I’m glad that Laura convinced me to order this over another meatless option. The title refers to PB&Co.’s spicy variety of the same name, and I was a little nervous about how hot the spread would be. It turned out to have a substantial kick to it, with the inherent sweetness of the peanut butter up front and the cayenne really coming through on the back end. The chicken was firm yet moist, although it mostly served as a vehicle for the peanut butter’s dominating flavor. Similarly, it was hard to discern the pineapple flavor of the jam, although I appreciated the gelatinous texture and the jam’s use as a cooling element against the spicy peanut butter. Although PB&Co. describes it as similar to a Thai sandwich, I found it lacked the soy/umami taste that separates satay sauces from regular melted peanut butter. We got the sandwich on toasted whole wheat bread, and I had hoped that meant the entire sandwich would be grilled (see comment about the benefits of grilling above), but alas, the toaster touched the bread only. This was certainly a more creative and more filling sandwich than The Elvis, and I could see this being a knockout dish if it was first grilled, and then had the pineapple jam applied.

Now before I even comment on our sundae, let’s take a moment to discuss proper ice cream serving etiquette. Ice cream sundaes, if served in a tall glass or high-rimmed bowl, should come with long-handled spoons, preferably metal ones. Otherwise you’re left with an inadequate tool for digging deep to the bottom of the bowl to scoop out lingering hot fudge or an errant chocolate chunk, and risk getting melted ice cream all over your hands in the process of excavation. (This pertains mostly to hard-style ice creams — a soft-serve Carvel sundae, for example, will yield easily to a plastic spoon.)

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The visually pleasing, if haphazardly constructed Banarama Sundae.

The Bananarama Sundae (“What a banana split! Three scoops of ice cream, sliced bananas, graham crackers, peanut butter, Marshmallow Fluff, whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Wonderful for sharing, if you are so inclined”) was cutely served in a large mug, but arrived with only flimsy plastic spoons with which to tackle it. This made it difficult to get a bite that involved all of the elements of the dessert, especially considering the middle layer of solid chocolate ice cream. It was aesthetically pleasing, with a large dollop of whipped cream on top, drizzled with chocolate sauce and graham cracker crumbs. Generally the sundae comes with vanilla ice cream, but PB&Co. had sold out of it earlier in the day (a testament to the appeal of their ice cream, since it continues to be frigid in NYC). We opted for chocolate ice cream as the base of the dessert, and I’d actually recommend requesting it over the vanilla if you have the chance. I liked all of the individual components of the sundae, but once you dove in it seemed like the construction wasn’t given proper attention. I’ll admit I’ve become a bit biased about this after experiencing the intense consideration that goes into Big Gay’s Salty Pimp — first sea salt, then dulce de leche in the cone, then ice cream, etc. Here the Bananarama had chunks of graham crackers on the bottom, covered in peanut butter and Fluff, then the ice cream, then the whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and graham cracker crumbs. That meant that you had to struggle to get through the ice cream to reach the crunchy crumbs and gooey Fluff, which over time stiffened up to make things even more difficult. Initially it was super goopy and true-to-name fluffy, but by the end (and trust me, we didn’t dilly-dally, since Laura is as much of a fast-eating food honeybadger as I), everything had started to congeal and required a dedicated application of elbow grease. An easy solution would be to replace the chocolate sauce with hot fudge (frankly, always a good choice), which would have kept the Fluff warmer for longer, and allowed better mixing with the graham crackers and peanut butter sauce. And just like The Elvis, Laura and I felt like there was a serious lack of bananas — why so skimpy on the fruit, PB&Co.? But as a positive, the Bananarama allowed us to sample a variety of the toppings offered, so I’ll be able to make a more strategic order the next time I stop in.

Final Thoughts:

My trip to Peanut Butter & Co.’s cafe was a great holiday present, and I’m grateful to Laura for taking me. Overall, it’s a cute homestyle spot offering familiar and comforting, if somewhat pedestrian fare. I’m happy I visited and sampled the savory menu, but I think if I go back it’ll be when the weather warms up so I can try out some of their other ice cream options (word on the street is that their milkshakes are killer). When it comes down to it, unless I suddenly develop a serious allergy, peanut butter is going to be a big part of my life for the foreseeable future.  For all of the quibbles I have about the food at their cafe, I have to applaud Peanut Butter & Co. for giving peanut butter a proper place in the spotlight, and helping to spread George Washington Carver’s message of brotherhood and legume love.

 

Peanut Butter & Co.

240 Sullivan St. (between 3rd and Bleecker)

http://ilovepeanutbutter.com/sandwichshop

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The Blue Duck Tavern: Exceptional Food, Exceptional Service

This is the part where I give you all the excuses for the lateness of this post, such as the fact I was down in DC for the weekend (hence the Chesapeakean restaurant review), or that the movie I worked on, EPIC, is coming out this week (go see it — it’s a fun family movie, it’s beautiful, and it’s even got Beyonce in it. Seriously, what are you waiting for?). But enough of that. You’re here to read about food, so let’s cut the chit chat.

I spent this past weekend in DC with my immediate family — a lovely, if brief family reunion that largely revolved around the meals we were eating. I’m starting to discover the unexpected downside of amateur food blogging — a lot of my friends and family expect that I’ll write about whatever restaurant we happen to be in. Obviously this isn’t a real burden (children starving in Africa, etc), and a fair amount of the time they’re right, since I don’t eat out all that often (pretty much just the once a week that feeds this blog). So when my oldest brother Charles, the DC resident, suggested the Blue Duck Tavern for dinner on Friday night, the rest of my family turned to me and said “so you’re writing about this for your blog, right?” With all eyes on me, I had no choice but to oblige. Hopefully this review lives up to their expectations.

 

First Impressions:

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

The view looking back from our table to the front entrance.

 

The Blue Duck Tavern is located in the Park Hyatt in the Foggy Bottom Neighborhood of DC. The hotel’s architecture seemed focused on clean lines, big windows, high ceilings, and metal, but the interior of the restaurant featured more rustic touches like plain wooden tables and chairs, and a lovely bricklaid outdoor patio with a fountain. The restaurant serves American cuisine with a focus on farm-to-table ingredients cooked in classic styles, like braising and roasting.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

The open staff pantry and kitchen, with the all the dirty work on display.

 

One of the most interesting elements was the open staff pantry and kitchen which connects the bar area of the restaurant to the dining room. During our meal I saw various staff plucking herbs and vegetables out of the pantry, and got to briefly watch my dessert being assembled. My 3 year old niece loved being able to watch the chefs at work (especially when they were scooping ice cream).

Dessert in progress -- can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

Dessert in progress — can I get one of these setups for my apartment?

 

BDT gets extremely high marks for service. I wasn’t planning on eating at any place fancier than a Chipotle, so I found myself woefully underdressed for our dinner, rocking jeans and a Penn Class of 2010 sweatshirt (go Quakers!). However, our wonderful server Mike and the rest of the staff treated us just as politely and attentively as any of the more finely coiffed diners. It might have helped that we were dining pretty early, around 5:30pm, but I’d like to think that BDT just prizes itself on exceptional customer service. Certainly they bent over backwards to accomodate us, from giving my niece “plain twisty noodles on a plate” (her direct quote) to switching my drink order from a glass of Riesling to Viognier (a great, underappreciated white wine variety if you ask me). Throughout the entire meal Mike was happy to explain any piece of the menu and offer his recommendations on serving size and side dishes. It was a level of service I’ve only encountered at the highest level of fine dining, but here was paired with a more low key approach that fosters a sense of high caliber family dining.

 

The Food:

Just like the service, the food at Blue Duck Tavern is straightforward and well-executed. This is not the realm of modernist gastronomy — you won’t find any foams or maltodextrin, just farm fresh ingredients cooked in classic fashion. Since there were 8 of us ordering, I was almost overwhelmed by the variety and multitude of dishes we tried, so my commentary might be somewhat limited. There’s also the problem unique to my family that we all eat unhealthily quickly, so snagging a taste of everyone’s dish requires catlike reflexes.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

One of many complimentary bread baskets, already largely demolished by my family.

 

Our meal started with a we’ll-show-Olive-Garden endless bread basket of white and multigrain sourdough, served with fresh butter. I preferred the multigrain, which was chock full of various seeds and had a great toasted, rye flavor.

Mike informed us that the best strategy at BDT is to plan on a family style meal, since many of the entree portions fall on the generous side. With that in mind, we each ordered appetizers — ending up with groupings of the Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, the Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad, and the House Smoked Trout.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a delicate presentation that belies the richness of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart, a rustic presentation that belies the delicate balance of the dish.

The Swiss Chard and Onion Tart came with goat cheese and bitter greens, and was pretty much a decadent quiche with a buttery, flaky crust. The chard and the greens helped to temper the richness of the goat cheese, and I appreciated the contrasting bite of the onion. Although I had assumed this would be my favorite appetizer (plying me with cheese and pastry is like offering Buster Bluth several flavors of juicebox), I actually ended up liking my salad more.

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The Shaved Brussels Sprout Salad — crunchy, creamy, and making me rethink my position on brussels sprouts.

The Shaved Brussels Sprouts Salad was served with walnuts, parmesan cheese, and a creamy dressing. It was salty, with a strong parmesan taste, but nicely balanced with by the inclusion of  apple pieces for sweetness. Garlic croutons, radicchio, walnuts and the parsley added texture to the dish, so it was alternately crunchy and soft, depending on your bite. I don’t usually like brussel sprouts, but the combination of flavors and textures, plus the delicious dressing made me scarf it down.

The Smoked Trout -- not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

The Smoked Trout — not my slice of fish, but my father and brother enjoyed it.

It will come as no surprise that my least favorite appetizer was the Smoked Trout, served with potato salad, ramps, and spiced pecan. As I’ve mentioned previously, I am an embarrassment to my family and my heritage with my distaste for smoked fish (luckily I have the Jewish guilt gene in spades). However, I found BDT’s smoked trout more mild — the dominant taste coming off less briny and smoky and more fresh fish.  The dish came with a creamy sauce and new potatoes that were soft without being mushy.

 

We supplemented our main course orders with several sides to share. The Blue Duck Tavern is one of Charles’s favorite restaurants in DC, so he had plenty of suggestions for slam-dunk side dishes. Based on his recommendation, we ordered the Sauteed Wild Mushrooms, the Hand Cut Triple Fries, and the Creamy Stone Ground Grits with Red-Eye Gravy. For entrees we got the Braised Beef Rib, the Wood-Fired Wagyu Culotte of Beef, the Buttermilk Poached Chicken, the Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops, and the Wood Oven-Roasted Baby Vegetables. Oh, and our plain twisty noodles of course.

The Braised Beef Rib -- a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

The Braised Beef Rib — a family favorite, except for this black sheep.

Consensus was that the Braised Beef Rib was the prize dish, although iconoclastic rebel that I am (not), I actually like the Wagyu more. The Rib came with housemade steak sauce, and was cooked to the point of falling-apart tenderness. It had a strong beef flavor, slightly smoky. I’m going to play the Momma’s girl card and say that in terms of brisket, I either like my mother’s sliced brisket (a Seder requirement, natch), or the more intense smoky and flaky BBQ brisket (in NY, Dinosaur BBQ serves my favorite, although there are some new competitors I need to try).

The Wagyu Culotte -- better than a lot of cuts of meat I've had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte — better than a lot of cuts of meat I’ve had at steakhouses.

The Wagyu Culotte was served with a charred onion vinaigrette, and it was a wonderfully flavorful piece of meat, cooked perfectly to medium rare and slice thinly. My own personal entree was the scallops, but if I had the chance to go back to BDT, I would probably opt for the Culotte as my next choice.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops -- fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

Wood Oven-Roasted Maine Scallops — fresh, salty, and with a hint of bacon.

As a sucker for scallops (they’re hands down my favorite seafood), I was absolutely delighted by my order. The menu lists them as coming with spring vegetables, sea beans, and bacon, but I’m fairly certain the bacon was only used to cook the scallops in. Overall it was a very light, but satisfying dish — the scallops were cooked to the perfect texture, soft but not rubbery, and the bacon added a rich, salty flavor. The most prominent of the vegetables were peas, which I’m pretty ambivalent about in general, but here were elevated again by the dish’s sauce, a thin, bright liquid that made the veggies shine.

Speaking of veggies, the Wood Oven-roasted Baby Vegetables was a solid, if not particularly exciting dish. It was served with fresh herbs, Meyer lemon and crispy garlic, and I was excited to see a fiddlehead fern or two throughout the farro. I found the farro a bit too crunchy — I like my farro to have a little bit of firmness to it, but I almost thought the grain was actually wheatberries instead (I am an obscure grains nerd — let’s talk about millet!).

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken -- beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Buttermilk Poached Chicken — beautifully arrayed but underseasoned.

The Poached Chicken was the most disappointing dish. Poached in buttermilk and served with preserved lemon and pistachio spring fricasse (according to the menu — I’m actually not really sure what those three nouns mean collectively), it seemed to have the potential to have a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures. Unfortunately, while poached to the right soft consistency, the meat was relatively bland in flavor. The chicken was also the largest portion, which seemed like an attempt to make up for the lack of spark in the dish.

The Wild Mushrooms -- no Beecher's Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

The Wild Mushrooms — no Beecher’s Mushroom Tart, but still very much worth ordering.

Luckily the side dishes more than made up for the lesser entrees. The wild mushrooms were sauteed with garlic and parsley and served with olive oil croutons, leaving them delicate and well-balanced in flavor, with the earthy mushroom taste balanced by the sharper garlic. It’s hard to top the mushroom tart I had at Beecher’s, but Blue Duck Tavern’s rendition had significantly more depth of flavor than the average side of mushrooms at a steakhouse.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries -- at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT Triple Cut Fries — at first glance, they almost look like churros.

The BDT fries were possibly the thickest cut steak fries I’ve ever since, cooked three ways before arriving at our table. The triple baked technique yielded a crisp outside with a thick, starchy center. Although I’m a big fan of thick cut fries, I actually found the crisp to starch ratio too heavily weighted towards the less-cooked innards. BDT serves their fries with a garlic aioli (this seems to be a common pairing these days), but I’m more of a plain jane ketchup gal when it comes to my taters.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits -- the stealth side that stole my heart.

The Creamy Stone Ground Grits — the stealth side that stole my heart.

The dark horse side dish Creamy Stone Ground Grits ended up being one of my favorite components of the whole meal. Incorporating smoked gouda, full kernels of corn, and the espresso-infused Red-Eye gravy, the grits had a smoky, earthy flavor punctuated by the richness of the cheese and sweet corn. The use of espresso in the gravy helped to deepen the flavors, much like the addition of hot coffee can elevate a chocolate cake. I tend to lean to oatmeal when I think of porridges, but maybe it’s just because I hadn’t had grits like these before.

 

Let’s be frank with each other — everyone was expecting this meal to end in dessert. With my family, turning down a proffered dessert menu is a suspicion-inducing faux paus (What do you mean you don’t want some dessert? Are you all right? Let me feel your forehead.). Fortunately, the Blue Duck Tavern, in true reverence of American eating, happily indulges our national (and familial) sweet tooth. It was actually hard to pick between the assortment of cakes, tarts, pies, cookies, and homemade ice cream and sorbets, but we ultimately decided on Milk Chocolate Banana S’mores, Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream, and Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel. It was especially hard to turn down the La Colombe Espresso Creme Brulee, which magically manages to combine both my favorite coffee (La Colombe is a Philly-based company) and my favorite non-chocolate dessert. Guess I’ll just have to add that to my return trip order.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

You can see how dark the chocolate is in the Chocolate Brownie Ice Cream.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat's Milk Caramel -- a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

The Honey Vanilla Ice Cream with Goat’s Milk Caramel — a milder ice cream that highlights the sweetness of the caramel.

 

The ice creams were delicious — the Chocolate Brownie had a strong dark chocolate flavor, and the Honey Vanilla was mildly sweet and mostly tasted of fresh vanilla bean. I’m not sure what the goat’s milk base added to the caramel, but it was still a lovely accompaniment to the vanilla ice cream.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S'Mores -- an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

The Milk Chocolate Banana S’Mores — an over the top version of a classic, aka my favorite type of dessert.

 

My personal order was the S’Mores, which I shared with my mother. The dish arrived as a giant homemade marshmallow atop a milk chocolate and banana mousse mold, with graham cracker crumbs and bruleed banana pieces on the bottom, topped with a cruncy banana chip. The mousse actually had a very mild milk chocolate flavor, with the freshness of the banana really shining in the dish. The marshmallow was just melted enough to keep it’s shape as my fork sliced through it, but remained sticky and gooey as it mingled with the different pieces of the dish. Upscale, but homey, BDT hit a homerun with this dish in both flavor and execution, serving as a perfect indication of the overall vibe of the restaurant.

 

Final Thoughts:

My meal at the Blue Duck Tavern was a fantastic experience, from start to finish. The quality of service, the unpretentious yet meticulous decor and cooking, and the diversity and freshness of the foods offered left everyone at my table satisfied, from grandchild to grandparent. It’s pretty impressive that a restaurant my brother Charles, who avoids most vegetables, considers a favorite, also offers a multitude of vegetarian options that are just as thoughtful and impressive as their carnivorous fare. BDT was strong from the complimentary bread basket to the final bite of dessert, but perhaps more impressive was the deep knowledge of the staff and their willingness to accommodate any and all requests. Here we were, a party of 7 and a toddler, a few of us verging on shlubby in appearance, and to Mike and the rest of the staff we could have been the Rockefellers. Each person we interacted with was professional, courteous, and never aloof. If you visit the Blue Duck Tavern, count on a lovely dining experience, well-curated for the palate and with a personal touch. I know I’ll stopping by next time I get the chance. I’ll just make sure I leave my sweatshirt at home.

The Blue Duck Tavern

24 & M STREETS, NORTHWEST, WASHINGTON, D.C.

http://www.blueducktavern.com/gallery/blueduck/home.html

Review: Sprinkles Cupcakes, or My Adventures in Public Eating

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I’d like to think that beyond providing a shameful tally of my gluttony, this blog also serves as a compendium of “New York Firsts” for me. I live in the city that never sleeps, and goddamit, I am going to have some unique experiences, no matter how early my bedtime is or how retired pensioner-inclined my habits of baking, drinking tea, and playing boardgames are. Well, I stayed true to that attitude during my recent visit to the venerable California-born cupcake chain Sprinkles. Not only did I try a new type of cupcake, but I also had the singular experience of eating in an ATM vestibule. Man, do I know how to party on a Saturday night or what?

Now I know that cupcakes are the hip and happening dessert (after all, they have their own battle show on Food Network — the absurdly titled “Cupcake Wars”), but I’m really not much of a cupcake person. It’s not that I’m against the dish itself — when done properly, a cupcake can be a wonderful melding of textures and flavors that simultaneously evoke the nostalgia for your perfect 1st grade birthday party and more adult cravings like Guinness or bourbon vanilla. But I find that there are so many potential pitfalls that make for unsatisfactory cupcakes — the cake being too dry or flavorless, the frosting being hard or overly sweet, or the inventive combination of a Thanksgiving-flavored cupcake being way better in theory than in practice (savory cupcakes– not my cup of tea … er cake, I guess).

This is why I’ve often been disappointed by the “trendiest” cupcake shops in New York. Don’t tell Carrie or Samantha, but I think Magnolia’s is supremely overrated — their cake tends to be on the drier side, and their frosting, while certainly well-piped and classy yet adorably pastel, tastes largely like pure confectioner’s sugar to me. Recently I also tried the oft-touted Butter Lane — a choose-your-own-adventure cupcake shop in the East Village where you can create your own unique combination from the handful of cakes and frostings they offer. Again, their highly reviewed banana cake was too dense and dry for me, and in terms of frosting, well, I can’t even really remember which one I picked. I think it was the maple pecan, but clearly it didn’t leave much of an impression.

So basically, if you were to offer me an ice cream cone or a cupcake, I’d choose the ice cream 9 times out of 10. But I’ve learned on my NY foodie journey to trust in the palettes of my close friends, and several Californians I know have been after me to try Sprinkles. I tried to go in with an open mind, but if we’re judging a cookbook by its cover, Sprinkles seems to embody all the style-without-substance problems of the gourmet cupcake fad. For one, the owner is a judge on the gladitorial pastry show I mentioned earlier. And Sprinkless most recent innovation? A 24-hour cupcake ATM, which sounds plenty helpful for stoners, but begs the question of how those cupcakes can possibly be anything but stale after hours in a dispensary? It just seems like another blatant ploy to take advantage of the cupcake craze. But then again, maybe, just maybe there was a reason that this cupcake mini-empire was so popular. Worst case scenario, I’d hit up Sixteen Handles on my way home.
First Impressions:

The narrow storefront devotes most of its window space to the topping-markers design.

The narrow storefront devotes most of its window space to the topping-markers design.

Despite being the “progenitor of the haute cupcake craze”, as the LA Times put it, Sprinkles has just one small store in New York. Located at Lexington and 60th, the modest storefront is well positioned to capture the throngs of tourists and shoppers streaming out of Bloomies and the myriad other stores nearby. The outside is decorated with various multicolored dots, which seem to be a piece of kitschy design until you go inside and realize those dots are used to differentiate between cupcake flavors (each color combination is explained via a key on the menu). Inside, the bakery has a small collection of ottomans for seating, some retail offerings (shirts! doggie apparel!), and the dominating white counter/display area for the cupcakes. The aesthetic is the same as you see in a lot of the frozen yogurt shops now — modern, sterile white countered by bursts of bright colors, in this case stripes on the wall (and an intriguing zebra wallpaper).

Although I don't quite see the connection between African members of the equine family and cupcakes, I think it adds a dash of whimsy that keeps the pretentious "original cupcake bakery" vibe at bay.

Although I don’t quite see the connection between African members of the equine family and cupcakes, I think it adds a dash of whimsy that keeps the pretentious “original cupcake bakery” vibe at bay.

The Cupcakes:

Note the corresponding multicolored dots that serve as a flavor key.

Note the corresponding multicolored dots that serve as a flavor key.

To give them credit, Sprinkles does not skimp on varieties of cupcake offered.  There were 8-10 flavors available at the time I went, but if you go on their website, Sprinkles offers a literal calendar of cupcakes, which features flavors of the month, special holiday cupcakes, and on which days those cupcakes will be baked. The sheer multitude of options was a little intimidating, but ultimately Laura and I settled on the January special S’mores cupcake, and the standard menu Pumpkin.

Our cupcakes -- the S'mores to the left, and the Pumpkin to the right.

Our cupcakes — the S’mores to the left, and the Pumpkin to the right.

The cakes themselves were reasonably sized — unlike the monstrosities offered at Crumbs and a lot of NY delis these days. Sprinkles seems to use the same size muffin tins that I have at home, and while I appreciate the bang-for-your-buck that you get at Crumbs, it’s nice to know I’m not ingesting the caloric content of a Friendly’s Fribble in one go (yeah regional milkshake references!).

Now here is where the story gets a little odd. When we entered Sprinkles, Laura and I saw that there were a number of open spots for us to sit and eat our cupcakes, and so when prompted by the cashier, we decided to have our cupcakes “to stay” — laid out on a small plate with optional fork and knife. But lo and behold, upon turning around, the place was packed to the gills with tweens and families. Clearly Sprinkles is the place to be at 6:30 on a Saturday night. So Laura and I glumly made our way out of the store into the chill night air, carefully balancing our cupcakes on our plates. In retrospect, it seems obvious that we should have just asked for to-go boxes before we left, but we all do irrational things in the face of impending dessert consumption.

We walked down towards the 59th St. subway station searching for a bench. Obviously sitting in the cold wouldn’t be the best experience, but I wasn’t about to eat a cupcake on the platform for the uptown 6. Please, I have some standards. Finally, we managed to find a bench, and noticed it was right next to a Chase Bank. Somehow, the need for warmth clouded all sense of propriety or pride, and in we went, past the sensible public bench seating and into the ATM vestibule. So yes, I ate cupcakes (and messy ones at that) on the deposit slip table of the lobby of a Chase Bank, amidst the stares of a number of banking customers. I can only assume that Laura’s and my giggling and repeated pronouncements of being loyal Chase customers (which is true) is captured on a security log somewhere. Talk about your fifteen minutes of fame. As I keep finding myself saying — only in New York.

The site of our cupcake consumption -- yes, I do see the irony in mocking Sprinkles's cupcake ATM, and then eating Sprinkles next to a bunch of ATMs.

The site of our cupcake consumption — yes, I do see the irony in mocking Sprinkles’s cupcake ATM, and then eating Sprinkles next to a bunch of ATMs.

Now as to the cupcakes themselves. The S’mores is billed as a dark chocolate cake with a graham cracker crust, topped with toasted marshmallow frosting. Upon splitting it open, it became clear that the graham cracker crust was not firmly attached the to cake. Most of it ended up collecting at the bottom of the wrapper. To be fair, I’ve had this problem myself when trying to use graham cracker crumbs — too little butter, and the crust falls apart when you try to lift up the cake. However, despite the structural problems, the combination of the dark chocolate cake and the crust was well balanced. The crust was a little dry (hence its crumbly nature), but the cake was nice and moist, with a rich, velvety texture that might have come from the ganache mixed into it. It didn’t have the real bitterness of dark chocolate, but it was sweet without being cloying. I would happily choose that cake as the base for another cupcake combination. Unfortunately, the downfall of the S’mores cupcake came from the marshmallow frosting. I had high hopes because of the visible caramelization of the sugar on top of the frosting, but like many of my experiences with marshmallow fluff, it just didn’t taste like much of anything. Generously piled on top of the cake, the only hint of flavor came from the toasted part on the very top. The majority of the frosting was just a sticky messy that distracted from the superior elements of the cake and crust. While the S’mores was by no means a total disaster, it was far from a successful reproduction of my campfire memories.

Note the proportions of the components -- a thin layer of graham cracker crust on the bottom, a solid hunk of cake, and then globs of frosting in which only a very small area is actually toasted.

Note the proportions of the components — a thin layer of graham cracker crust (seen mostly on the bottom of the wrapper), a solid hunk of cake, and then globs of frosting in which only a very small area is actually toasted.

However, both Laura and I agreed that the Pumpkin cupcake was pretty special. The cake base was evocative of pumpkin bread without the density of your average quickbread loaf. It retained the lightness of an actual cake, unlike Butter Lane’s banana bread cake, which reminded me of a slice from Starbucks with some icing on top. For Sprinkles’s cupcake, pumpkin was the dominant flavor, but there were clear notes of nutmeg, cloves, ginger — all the spices that make you think of fall and winter. Once again the cake avoided being a sugar bomb, with the sweetness coming mainly through the frosting. Now I am a cinnamon fiend, so I was delighted to see that the frosting was not only cream cheese frosting (win), but in fact cinnamon cream cheese. Truly excellent cream cheese frosting creates a marriage of the sweetness of confectioner’s sugar and the tang of the cream cheese, and Sprinkles totally hit the mark on this one. Between the success of the dark chocolate cake in the S’mores, and the cream cheese frosting in the Pumpkin, I’m eager to try Sprinkles’s version of a red velvet cupcake next time.

The Pumpkin cupcake -- richly spiced and simpler in its construction. Just cake and frosting in balanced proportions, and both well executed.

The Pumpkin cupcake — richly spiced and simpler in its construction. Just cake and frosting in balanced proportions, and both well executed.

The Verdict:

All right, Sprinkles, you got me. I now get why you’re so freaking popular. Even with my slightly underwhelming S’mores cupcake, the combination of the flavor options and innovations and the high quality of the cakes themselves makes a second trip a certainty. I’d like to think what really sold me was the fact that the baking itself was clearly still a top priority. It would be easy enough to mass-manufacture these cupcakes, to slack off and know that the brand recognition of Sprinkles would probably be enough to keep turning a profit. But I’m still thinking about that Pumpkin cupcake, several days later, and like I said, I’m not one to linger over cupcakes. I guess it’s kind of like owning up to liking The Beatles — yeah they’re everywhere, yeah, everyone is a fan, but when you come right down to it, they do make some amazing music. I may roll my eyes at the cupcake bloodsport on Food Network, but now I have to admit — the woman behind Sprinkles has some real baker clout.

Sprinkles
780 Lexington Ave (between 60th and 61st)
sprinkles.com

Holiday Snaps

Since last week’s post rivaled War and Peace in length, I thought I’d dial it back this go-round and share some quick moments from my holiday season so far:

  • My mother and I decorate a gingerbread house each year with an intensely egalitarian flair. Note Santa on the roof and the icing menorah on the back. I think it would be fair to say that we manage a ratio of 2:1 for candy put on the house vs candy consumed. Which I believe shows a fair amount of restraint. Pretzel sticks with icing and some M&Ms stuck on them? Totally delicious.
Casa de Gingerbread 2012

Casa de Gingerbread 2012

Side view with a better shot of Santa's sleigh

Side view with a better shot of Santa’s sleigh

photo 3

It’s like a holiday mullet: Christmas in the front and Chanukah in the back.

  • And of course a huge part of the holiday season is the endless consumption of treats at parties and gatherings. I contributed to that seasonal necessity with gingersnaps (with and sans white chocolate chips), some Biscoff Rice Krispy Treats (Biscoff = “cookie butter” — do yourself a favor and look it up), and the obligatory pile of latkes I made for a Chanukah shindig.

Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures (working on it, I swear!) of the latkes and Krispy treats while making them, and they were scarfed down before I could think to snap a pic at the party itself.

More chewy than “snappy” really, but appropriately ginger-flavored. I promise the unsightly broken ones still tasted great!

  • Another tradition I share with my mother is using baked goods as holiday gifts. When I was in school we used to make her famous chocolate chip cookies to give out to my teachers before the winter break. Unsurprisingly, as my cooking and baking have become more serious habits, my ambitions for elaborate holiday gifts have slightly outpaced my sensibility about the actual amount of time I have to spend on 30-odd care packages for coworkers and friends.

This year I went all out and tried a new technique I had never even dabbled with — homemade marshmallows. It was my first time working with gelatin and making a simple syrup, and once I got over my fear of the candy thermometer, it went very smoothly. Ultimately,  I was pretty damn proud of my achievement. All those hours spent watching Top Chef taught me the value of mise en place (literally “everything in place” or laying out all your ingredients and materials ahead of time), so as long as I kept to the directions provided by the all-knowing Alton Brown, it really wasn’t that tough. The most difficult part was dealing with the stickiness when trying to cut through the giant mallow mass you’ll see below. Better yet, somehow despite all of the sugar in the recipe, I found the flavor of the homemade marshmallows really mild, and a nice complement to the rich chocolate fudge. Eating a bunch of Jet-Puffed marshmallows usually makes my teeth ache a bit, but I was perfectly happy to dutifully taste test my homebrewed batch — alone, roasted over the stove, and in some s’mores. I’m happy to report that in all scenarios, the homemade marshmallows performed exceptionally.

Raw, unfiltered marshmallow glory on the right, and unreasonably decadent fudge on the left. The gingersnaps make a cameo appearance bottom left!

So far my holiday baking efforts have been very well-received, and I find myself excited to keep experimenting with new techniques. I’ve had Gesine Bullock-Prado’s Sugarbaby cookbook on my shelf for over a year now, and now that I’ve cracked the outer shell, the siren call of candy is kind of drawing me in.

Hope you’re all overindulging! ‘Tis the season to eat chocolate (falalalalah)!

A Shamefaced Admission

I had a really lovely Thanksgiving — full of friends and family and an utterly incomprehensible amount of food. I have so much to be thankful for, from a great job to an unbelievable support system, to even the basic necessities of light, heat, food, and a roof over my head, which I am all the more so grateful for in light of Hurricane Sandy. But I do have one regret from Thanksgiving, a disappointment in my own behavior. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’ve discovered my threshold: I ate myself to the point of nausea.

To be honest, I’m hardly a prodigious eater on an everyday level. I don’t usually try to push the limits, Kobayashi-style (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bj0CXP_xSL4) (gross, I know), but on certain special occasions, I try to bring my A-game. The most recent incident was at Rosh Hashanah this year, when I challenged the notion of how much dessert is too much dessert (I don’t know, because I didn’t reach a point of saturation. BOOM.) But this Thanksgiving I … I just don’t know what happened. Maybe it was all of the cheese and crackers (Trader Joe’s Raisin Rosemary Crisp, check them out) and stuffed mushrooms and chips and salsa I ate for appetizers. I tried to compensate by reining myself in during the main meal, knowing the importance of sampling the dessert platter — after all, I have a reputation to uphold. But even with an enforced sabbatical of 90 minutes to settle and prepare my stomach, I found myself incapable of coherent conversation after just a small slice of pie and a single lump of rice pudding. I excused myself from the table in pain and humiliation.

Let’s try to focus on the positives, though. While my consumption was somewhat underwhelming (on a public showing level, of course. Clearly stuffing my myself to the brim personally counts as eating a lot.), the holiday provided a venue for me to try out a number of recipes I’d been sitting on for a while. And man, did I let my foodgawker freak flag fly. Here are some of the dishes that graced our table during Thanksgiving:

Round One: Appetizers

For the appetizers I made stuffed mushrooms and rolled a log of goat cheese in a mixture of chopped pecans and craisins. My mother provided an excellent selection of Spanish cheeses plus good ol’ cheddar, and chips and salsa. New favorite tortilla chip (because yes, I am this specific in my tastes)? Tostito’s Multigrain Scoops.

Round Two: Main Course Overload

This gives you the panoramic view of the Thanksgiving table. Starting on the left, we’ve got the classic turkey (expertly carved by my mother) with gravy and stuffing nearby, then Ina Garten’s cranberry conserve, popovers and phyllo deli rolls in the background (by my brother’s girlfriend), butternut squash-pomegranate quinoa (by my good friend Sarah), my take on a veggie gratin, Sarah and my attempt at honey fig goat cheese stuffed muffins, green bean casserole (Pioneer Woman by way of my mother), and my mom’s classic sweet potatoes and marshmallows. Phew.

Round Three: Dessert Extravaganza

Now here are some major stops on the train to dessert-town. First up, my Bourbon-soaked Raisin Cinnamon Rice Pudding. It was my first attempt at rice pudding, and I think it turned out pretty well. Thankfully I managed to snag some leftovers, since my stomach could only handle a teaspoon of it on Thursday.

A Cookie Menagerie

Okay, so here we’ve got a mishmash of authors. From the left we have my mocha white chocolate cookies, then my pumpkin-pecan tassies (tartlets), then my mother’s white chocolate mint M&M cookies, and finally her world-renowned, lifechanging chocolate chip cookies that are a staple at my house, regardless of the time of year.

Chocolate Ganache S’Mores Pie

And last, but definitely not least, we have my favorite dessert of the holiday. Sarah made a mocha ganache s’mores pie with a Nutella-graham-cracker crust and marshmallow topping. Now I’m not a Nutella fan for the most part (I know, I know, but I just don’t like hazelnuts! I’m a mutant, I get it), but whatever web of magic Sarah wove with this pie, I could not get enough of that crust. And obviously my previous posts on both chocolate items and coffee make it clear that I’m a mocha fan. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have 2/3 of this pie sitting in my apartment’s fridge right now, just biding its time.

There was also a tray of assorted M&Ms (peanut butter ftw), a fruit salad, and a bowl of jelly beans, because heaven forbid there isn’t enough variety on the table. Although I guess the fruit salad counts as a last-ditch effort to be virtuous. I had a couple of grapes.

In the end, I was pretty satisfied with my first Thanksgiving as a foodie and aspiring home cook. Some of the dishes turned out only mediocre (veggie gratin, I’m looking at you), and some I was really proud of (those mushrooms were delicious). But it was a nice preview of how my Thanksgivings down the road could be, with all the stress of managing oven temperatures and scheduling when you’ll start dishes, combined with the sheer joy of sharing my passion and efforts with family and friends. Oh, and all the eating, that was pretty great, too.

And yes, now my fridge is full to the brim with tupperware, although I already used up most of the turkey with my new go-to leftovers recipe — Turkey Pot Pie Soup!