Brief Bites: Bantam Bagels

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I’ll just come out and say it: I’m a bagel snob. I don’t think I ate a Thomas’ Bagel until I was in college, and was stunned at the measly, barely-risen dough that sat comfortably in the palm of my hand. Where were the yeasty, chewy hulks of carbohydrates of my youth? The lump of cinnamon raisin dough with a solid schmear of cream cheese my father had so lovingly quartered and wrapped up for my lunches? Those staples of the kiddush luncheons after Sunday school, mini bagels piled high and awaiting the tiny, grape juice-stained hands of ravenous pre-bar-mitzvot?

What I’m saying is, I’ve got high standards when it comes to bagels. However, as explored before, I have a serious weakness for food innovation, especially those involving miniaturization and fusion. So when I read that the folks at Bantam Bagels were taking the jelly-filled munchkin approach to bagel dough, I knew I’d have to check them out in person.

The Set Up:

Bantam Bagels is a relative newcomer to the single-dish segment of the New York food scene (this is the city, after all, that has stores solely dedicated to Rice Krispy treats, meatballs, mac & cheese, and rice pudding). The shop is located on Bleecker Street, just down the block from Murray’s Cheese Bar, and the similarly unilaterally-focused Risotteria. It’s an area that has always brimmed with restaurant and bar options, but as of late seems to be undergoing a bit of a real estate revival, with Bantam, London Candy Company, and Sugar and Plumm all opening within a few weeks of each other. It’s understandable, given all the foot traffic that moves through there, from tourists checking out the Greenwich/West Village neighborhoods to students and NY natives popping into venues like the Peculier Pub or Le Poisson Rouge for shows and specials.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

Considering their petite product, perhaps the store is actually appropriately sized.

However, access to such prime levels of foot traffic may come at a cost. Unlike the relatively luxurious cafe space of Wafels & Dinges, Bantam Bagels is a purely take-away operation, the retail area of the shop barely holding the small line of people in front of us as we entered. Peering back beyond the counter, it’s clear that the bulk of the space is taken up by the kitchen, with room up front for only a small cooler for drinks, shelves for display bantams, and a counter by the window if you want to eat standing inside. The small shop is decked out in the red and black motif of the Bantam Bagels logo, the only real decoration coming from the branded merchandise placed high above the server on the right hand side of the store. Bantam’s only a few weeks old, having opened in early September, so they may still be developing their aesthetic beyond their menu items.

The Bites:

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety -- myriad mini bagel balls on display.

What Bantam lacks in space, it makes up for in variety — myriad mini bagel balls on display.

The idea behind Bantam Bagels is to miniaturize and invert the traditional bagel-spread structure. As donut holes are to the donut, bantams are to the classical bagel. The balls are made of different types of dough and stuffed with a variety of corresponding fillings, from the familiar Plain Bantam (“plain bagel filled with plain cream cheese, butter, or peanut butter”) to the more experimental Summerberry Shortcake (“freshly picked blueberry bagel filled with sweet strawberry cream cheese”). A single bantam  will run you $1.35, but it’s a better deal to sample a variety of flavors by getting one of the exponentially larger orders of 3, 6, or 12 (they go up to an order of 40 bantams before you get into catering territory, but small as they are, even a diehard bagel-eater might struggle to house 40 of these guys).

Even more flavors -- bit of a bagel bonanza!

Even more flavors — just imagine taking 40 of these bad boys down.

Laura was gracious enough to be my intrepid companion for the day, so we decided to split an order of 12, attempting to run the gamut of savory and sweet. We ended up ordering the “Bantam of the Month,” which for September was The Bleecker Street, as well as the Everything Bantam, the Grandma Jojo, the Hot Pretzel, the French Toast, and the Boxed Lunch.

Our order neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

Our order, neatly packaged and ready to be torn into.

As an evolution of the medium, Bantam Bagels does succeed in evoking the texture of a classic NY bagel. The small size (roughly the same as Dunkin Donuts munchkin) allows for even baking, creating a crisp crust that gives way to the chewy dough center. Although both Laura and I had expected the bantams to be slightly larger, closer to the Doughseed at Doughnut Plant, we agreed that the proportion of dough to filling was perfect, preventing the unfortunate cream-cheese with a side of bagel over-schmearing you occasionally receive from unmotivated deli staff. I would say the bantams are optimally two-bite treats, in order to properly savor the interplay of filling and dough.

As we paid for our box, the cashier cautioned that we should bite into the bantam at the spot where the small dollop of filling pokes through, so as to prevent the ball from collapsing and spilling filling all over you. Laura and I managed to get through our order without any major spread situations, however, the Bantam employee neglected to mention the danger of the powdered sugar on the French Toast bantam, which ended up coating every piece of our clothing that it touched.

Breakdown by bantam -- duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Breakdown by bantam — duos starting from top left: Everything, Boxed Lunch, French Toast, Grandma Jojo, Hot Pretzel, and the Bleecker Street.

Speaking of which, let’s dive into our Bantam selection. The French Toast (“cinnamon-nutmeg egg bagel filled with buttery maple syrup cream cheese”) was overpowered by the sweetness of the spread and the large amount of powdered sugar. The spices of the bagel dough were lost amongst the stronger flavors of the filling, and both Laura and I agreed it lacked the eggy-moistness that typifies real french toast.

The Everything Bantam (“everything bagel filled with plain cream cheese”) was solid, if predictable. If you’re unsure of Bantam’s take on the bagel physiognomy, try this out to get a good sense of the spread-to-bagel proportions. Bantam has a good, springy dough, a well-measured portion of spices to evoke the “everything bagel” taste, and your familiar type of Philadelphia cream cheese.

As a hardcore fan of both peanut butter and jam-filled things, Laura had been very excited to get the Boxed Lunch (“plain bagel topped with crushed, roasted peanuts and filled with peanut butter and sweet strawberry jam”). I was also very intrigued by this particular bantam, since it veered the closest to dessert of our order. Unfortunately, the reality of the Boxed Lunch could not meet our lofty expectations. The peanut topping didn’t provide much of a textural contrast, and like the French Toast bantam, the plain bagel exterior was no match for the sugary insides. Laura and I felt like we’d just be better off getting a plain PB&J on sliced bread, since the bagel aspect added no real discernible advantage.

Ultimately, both Laura and I agreed that the more savory bantams were more successful. We appreciated the simplicity of the Hot Pretzel (“pretzel bagel topped with sea salt crystals, filled with dijon and sharp cheddar cream cheese”), which nailed the snappy outer layer of a soft pretzel and had a filling that reminded me of the beer cheese dip that accompanied our monster pretzel at Reichenbach. The Bleecker Street (“pizza dough bagel topped with a thin slice of pepperoni and filled with marinara mozzarella cream cheese”) was a little more divisive, although the issue was more with my personal dislike of pepperoni than the bantam’s flavor profile.

I can’t say I tasted much of a difference in the bagel dough between the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo (“Italian spiced bagel topped with a thinly sliced, marinated tomato and filled with fresh basil pesto cream cheese”), but the pesto-tomato combination made this bantam the winner of the bunch. Both the Bleecker and the Grandma Jojo summoned up some solid nostalgic longings for pizza bagels, and stood apart from their bagel roots in the best way. Their fillings had the base richness of cream cheese that was subtly highlighted by herbs and spices, and worked harmoniously alongside the dough and toppings.

The Last Licks:

While Laura and I were a bit disappointed with the sweeter half of our Bantam Bagels order, overall I think the concept has some merit. It really depends on your expectations going in — if you’re looking to experiment and try some wacky takes on bagel flavor combinations, be bold and go for the oddball bantams like the olive-and-feta infused Athena or the Cookies and Milk. It was fun to take a leap, and I thought the bantams stretching furthest from the flavor norm were the most memorable. I’m hoping that they’ll continue to explore some of the more exotic culinary strains — I’ll come back to Bantam if they go into Indian or East Asian territories, or maybe some south of the border flair. For the moment, however, I think I’ll stick to buying full-size bagels at my usual bakery. Bantam Bagels should be commended for finding a way to make a NY mainstay into something new, but for this native they need to push the envelope more to move from a novelty to a necessity.

Bantam Bagels

283 Bleecker Street (between Jones St and 7th Ave South)

http://www.bantambagels.com

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From Nostalgia to Next Steps: Vivoli Il Gelato at Macy’s Herald Square

One of the themes I hope I’ve expressed over the course of this blog is my personal belief in the value of context when it comes to food. While certain dishes can linger in your mind due to their astonishing flavor profile, more often than not, the nostalgia we feel towards a certain meal derives from our memories of the occasion — the company, the conversation, etc. Recent scientific studies have shown that context affects the experience of eating on the most basic levels, from the type of dish you use to the material of your utensils. The steak I had at Peter Luger was certainly outstanding, but what made that night so fun was the anticipatory glee of my friends, the quirky service, and the halo of legendary status that enshrouded the restaurant.

Context has everything to do with my memories of eating and drinking in Rome. After 3 months of living in increasingly damp and chilly Glasgow, I scheduled a weekend trip to Rome in the last few weeks of my semester abroad. By that point the Scottish winter was definitely settling in, with freezing rain and snow soaking through my inappropriately American sneakers and bestowing a malevolent and interminable frizz upon my scalp. With the bulk of my finals work behind me, I hopped aboard the Continental equivalent of the Chinatown bus — good ol’ RyanAir– and fled southeast. I distinctly remember walking through some ruins near the Roman Forum and seeing a small grove of orange trees in bloom, a physical symbol of the brightness and thriving life around me, far from the early sunsets and slush-slicked slopes of my dorm back at the University. And oh, did I gorge myself in Italy, seizing upon the fresh pasta, biting espresso, and of course, the gelato. Like many of my fellow tourists, I found a way to have gelato every day of my trip, reveling in the creamy thickness of each scoop, the richness of the slivered chocolate in the Stracciatella, the goopy caramel swirls. I know I didn’t hit the haute cuisine of Rome during my stay (in fact, I’m pretty sure I ate at many a restaurant the locals would sneer at), but by taking a step back to examine the context, my rapturous gastronomic experience is easily explained. It was a break, an escape in every sense of the word, from schoolwork, responsibilities, and endless cafeteria meat pies and curries. Add in the fact that I was basically surrounded by works by my favorite sculptor, Bernini, and you can understand why to this day I enthusiastically argue the merits of Rome, and continue to wish fervently for the chance for a return trip.

With this kind of overwhelmingly positive nostalgia, it’s no surprise that I hold the gelato I had in Italy in the highest esteem, upon a pedestal that may be too lofty to reach in reality. When I mentioned a new gelato place called Vivoli Il Gelato to Jacob a few weeks back, he excitedly asked if it was owned by the same cherished Vivoli he experienced in Florence. A quick bit of Googling revealed that indeed it was, and so of course we had to see how authentic Italian gelato would fare against the recent triumph of American-bred Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Could sourcing the homeland bring me back to the bliss of yester-year?

 

First Impressions:

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

The grand entrance to Stella 34 Trattoria, right as you exit the elevators.

Vivoli’s location is liable to make a New Yorker cringe. The gelateria is not tucked away in some hole-in-the-wall corner of Red Hook as the hip foodie might hope, but instead placed smack dab in tourist-filled Herald Square, on the sixth floor of the flagship Macy’s. I’ll admit to having a true distaste for the area, generally overflowing with sightseers stumbling from Penn Station to the Empire State Building, or minimizing available sidewalk space by lingering over the window displays. But if you struggle through the crowds and hop onto the elevators on the 34th St side of Macy’s, you’ll shoot up to the sixth floor and be treated to the gorgeous views that make up a large part of the appeal of Stella 34 Trattoria, the department store’s  mammoth new restaurant/cafe.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Looking in from the entrance to Stella 34, you can see the broad expanse of windows by the seating area.

Stella 34 takes advantage of its height above the hustle and bustle, featuring a wide open, airy space decked out in swathes of white tile, accented by black chairs and benches. The bulk of the seating (both for table service and takeaway) is situated next to the giant windows looking east over Herald Square. It was a clear day when we visited, resulting in a ton of sunlight pervading every corner of the restaurant.

 

The Food:

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli's small corner of the cafe.

Veering to the right of the main doors takes you to Vivoli’s small corner of the cafe.

Along with Vivoli‘s gelato, Stella 34 Trattoria serves sandwiches, flatbreads, pizzas, salads, and pastries, and we couldn’t help but be inundated with the delicious smells of melting cheese and sizzling meat as we ate our gelato. It’s a great move by Macy’s, taking advantage of the relative dearth of high quality, quick-service restaurants near Penn Station. I would definitely meet someone at Stella 34 for a quick bite before hopping on a train or bus, or to warm up post harried holiday shopping come December.

A passel of possible scoops.

A passel of possible scoops.

But this visit was all about Vivoli, and the question of whether authentic Italian gelato can find a home in the pantheon of American commercialism. Vivoli’s section of the cafe is located on the opposite side of the seating area, facing out onto the houseware and dining department. The menu states that flavors change seasonally, but during our visit Vivoli had 13 options to choose from. All the gelati offered were renditions of Italian classics, from basic Crema (aka sweet cream) to Pistachio to Stracciatella. While Vivoli does not offer the physical evidence of the gelato making process, like Il Laboratorio (and therefore the slight air of mysterious sugar science), what they do provide is a clear-cut explanation of the natural and specialty-sourced ingredients in their gelato. The menu does not describe what each flavor is, but rather lists the ingredients that go into it. For example, the Pistachio is listed as “Bronte pistachios from Sicily, Italy, whole fresh milk, fresh eggs, sugar” (emphasis theirs).

The menu displayed by the gelato case -- it's all about the ingredients, baby.

The menu displayed by the gelato case — Vivoli lets their ingredients speak for themselves..

After some serious deliberation, we decided on the Bacio, the Croccante, the Fragola, and the Limon. Unsurprisingly, since the shop is located in a major tourist area, this is not inexpensive gelato. We opted to share the largest size, the Grande, which nets you up to 4 different flavors and costs $6.75 (full disclosure: we also just wanted to try as many flavors as possible). To be fair to Vivoli, though, you do end up with a sizable serving, and I thought there was more than enough for two people split. And as their spare ingredient list would suggest, you are getting a pretty damn high quality dolce for your dollars.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Limon, Bacio, Croccante, and Fragola.

Our Grande order, neatly apportioned. Clockwise from the top: Croccante, Bacio, Limon, and Fragola.

I was drawn to the Bacio (hazelnuts from italy, cocoa powder, whole milk, farm eggs, sugar) and the Croccante (almonds from italy, whole mlik, farm eggs, sugar) because of my gelato experiences in Seattle. After loving the Bacio di dama from D’Ambrosio Gelato, I was excited to see a similar profile at Vivoli. This flavor, however, was closer to frozen Nutella, with a deep cocoa taste and a nice crunch from the hazelnuts. I hate to say it, but I think I’m now a full-on chocolate/hazelnut convert — I still don’t particularly like hazelnuts on their own, but I’ve found I really enjoy the combination. The Bacio ended up being the knockout champ at Vivoli — with its decadent, dark cocoa plus the sweet, buttery bite of hazelnuts, I’m hoping that this is not one of the seasonal flavors that will get rotated out.

You may remember how I waxed rhapsodic over the Toasted Almond gelato I had at Fainting Goat Gelato in Seattle. I’m pretty sure I will now eat anything that is almond-related or almond-adjacent, so it’s no surprise that I was thoroughly satisfied by the Croccante. It was my second favorite behind the Bacio, just absolutely fantastic — delicate almond flavor, creamy texture, sweet without coating your teeth in sugar.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

Look at the height on that gelato! Serious bang for your buck.

The Fragola (fresh strawberry, sugar, water) and Limon (fresh lemons, sugar, water) were actually sorbets, since a sorbet is defined by the lack of dairy. Both had the strong, natural taste of their base fruit ingredients. Of all the gelati we tried, the Limon had the least creamy consistency, reminding me of the Italian ices I used to buy at local pizzerias growing up (but with way fewer additives). It was very fresh, and extremely tart, tasting pretty much like frozen lemonade. It was refreshing in small doses, but despite Jacob and my deep devotions to dessert (and cleaning our plates like good children), we actually left a bit of this in the cup, finding it just a little too overpowering in the end.

Jacob had declared that the Fragola gelato he had in Italy was unreal, so that was the one flavor I knew we were going to order going in. It reminded me of Yoplait strawberry yogurt, if Mr. Yoplait himself had picked the strawberries from the vine and hand-crafted the dish for you. Although I love strawberries themselves, I’m usually a little more tentative about strawberry ice cream, generally avoiding the pink stripe in the rare occasions I have to eat Neapolitan. However, I will admit that this was definitely a superior product. I didn’t regret ordering it, but I would probably opt for another one of the sorbets next time around, especially because I expect the sorbet selection will be the part of the menu most dependent on the season.

 

 

Final Thoughts:

Visiting Vivoli Il Gelato was a great exercise in contrast after so recently experiencing Il Laboratorio del Gelato. Both companies make an exceptional product, but Vivoli is much more mainstream, making traditional flavors with simple ingredients, rather than the mad scientist approach of Il Laboratorio (although I suppose that’s just something to take for granted, considering their name). While I can’t speak to the consistency of Vivoli compared to their native production in Florence, their gelato I had in New York was impressive in both execution and taste. It makes me curious about the rest of the offerings at Stella 34 Trattoria, and if they meet the high mark set by Vivoli.

Can any new experience truly surpass the heady heights of a cherished memory? Perhaps we shouldn’t aim as high as that — maybe it’s enough to be content with making some wonderful new ones. Carpe diem, or carpe gelato, in this case. And maybe there’s some merit to stripping off our jaded New Yorker coats once in a while to bask in the bliss of touristy ignorance. So if you have a bit of shopping to do, you might as well taste some superb gelato at Vivoli while you’re at it. Sure, you may have to be shell out a few more bucks per scoop, but just imagine that you’re taking a trip to Italy and have to deal with the Euro exchange rate. At least this time you’re saving the cost of a flight.

 

Vivoli Il Gelato (at Stella 34 Trattoria)

Macy’s Herald Square

151 W. 34th St., Sixth Fl.

http://www.patinagroup.com/restaurant.php?restaurants_id=139

A New York Steak of Mind: Peter Luger Steakhouse

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Growing up just outside of the City in Westchester County, you would think my childhood was simply brimming with classic New York experiences. And while yes, I was lucky enough to see Broadway shows multiple times a year, chilled with the dinos at the Natural History Museum like it was my part-time job, and rode the Circle Line with my 3rd grade class, I missed out on many “typical” New York activities because they seemed cliche, touristy, and lame to a blase teenaged local. Even now, having come back to actually live in Manhattan post-college, there are still certain items left unchecked on my city to-do list, simply because of the way they make the native New Yorker hairs on the back of my neck rise (we’re not going to even engage in the from the city/from the suburbs who’s a native debate here — I’m at least a New York Stater by birth).

One of the crucial things you learn as you grow up, however, is that sometimes doing the “lame” or “touristy” thing is worthwhile. For every double-decker-open-air bus tour of Chinatown, there’s a mainstream experience that is popular because it’s actually pretty effing fantastic. Sometimes the hype is actually not hype at all, but merely an abundance of exuberance that should be heeded. And thankfully, there are still a few long-time New York institutions like Peter Luger Steakhouse to slap some starry-eyed sense into this skeptical New Yorker. Nothing like a healthy dose of history (and cholesterol-raising meat) to give a jaded girl a little bit of wonder.

I’ve talked about New York dining institutions before, but Peter Luger is in a different category. The restaurant was established not in the 21st nor 20th centuries, but way back in 1887 in then-predominantly-German neighborhood of Williamsburg (to this day mere blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge). It has been awarded one Michelin Star, was named to the James Beard Foundation’s list of “American Classics,” and was named the best steakhouse in New York by Zagat 28 years in a row (a fact they proudly showcase by lining a wall with the annual award plaques). It is the kind of place that is so popular, they can operate on a cash-only policy. Let me repeat that — a cash only policy. At a steakhouse. Well, to be honest they do honor one credit card — the Peter Luger Card. When I first heard about this, I was pretty skeptical. It sounded absurd, overblown, the kind of place that preys on poor schmucks who go to New York and think that they’re having a real authentic slice of pizza at a random “Original Ray’s.” But even before I knew of all the history and accolades, I had been told by multiple sources over and over that Peter Luger was a must-visit, a unique and extraordinary experience if you liked steak at all. So I tried to stay open-minded, paid a visit to an ATM, and made my way with a group of friends to Williamsburg last Friday night.

 

First Impressions:

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse.

The unobtrusive, classic brick facade of Peter Luger Steakhouse, a legend looming large on the corner.

 

Because of its enduring popularity, my friend Peter was only able to score a reservation for 6 at 9:45pm, presumably the last seating of the night. Consequently, everything around Peter Luger was closed, and lent the restaurant a sort of “shining beacon” quality (this might have also been due to my intense hunger — I operate more on the early-bird special schedule than the Continental late night dining scene). Peter Luger sits squarely on the corner of its block, the decor traditional and old-fashioned both outside and in. Outside the worn dark wooden signage announces just “Peter Luger” — no mention of what kind of cuisine waits inside — above plain brick and large metal paned windows.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger -- plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

One of the dining rooms in Peter Luger — plain furnishings except for some whimsical beer steins.

Inside, I was immediately reminded of the German beer halls I’ve recently visited, except that here the design is based in the restaurant’s origin, rather than an appeal to a foreign cultural aesthetic. Once you step into Peter Luger you are met with oak floors, a long wooden bar, dark wood paneling and exposed crossbeams bracing white stucco walls. The impression of basic utilitarian necessity, clean but spare reigns supreme — brass chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and plain wooden tables and chairs make up the dining rooms. No tablecloths, no fancy schmancy place settings, no piped in music, and no paintings or posters. The only purely decorative objects were the series of beer steins of different colors and styles that were displayed along the dining room walls.

Even with our late reservation, the bar area was still packed with waiting parties when we arrived, so we milled around waiting to be seated and watched the staff rush from the kitchen to the three dining rooms with plates and plates of outrageously over-portioned food. Clearly this place was expensive, but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Watching the service in action, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the staff seemed to be men in their mid-40s, all dressed in the same suit of plain black pants, white shirts, and aprons, another slightly jarring sign of PL’s old-fashioned approach. Barely ten minutes later the crowds had thinned and our party was called to be seated (in fact, this was an accurate representation of the speed and quality of service — we were in and out of Peter Luger, and left very satisfied, I might add, in a little over an hour).

Sitting down to a table not so far removed from the Ikea dining set I have in my apartment (although PL’s probably has and will endure far longer than mine), we found plain white napkins, plain starter plates, stainless steel silverware and small water glasses. Oh, and a basket piled high with all different types of bread, which our waiter, a gruff but polite and attendant middle-aged man, refilled steadily until our steaks arrived.

 

The Food:

Our bountiful bread basket.

Our bountiful bread basket, with a gravy boat of Peter Luger‘s House Sauce on the right.

Our complimentary bread basket was filled with Parker House-like rolls, slightly charred at the edges, and a onion rolls speckled with salt and garlic and featuring slices of caramelized onion inside. I preferred the onion bread, although both rolls were well salted, chewy and soft. The only improvement would have been adding more onion to the inside of the rolls, to moisten the interior a bit. Alongside the basket were twin gravy boats of PL’s house steak sauce, a tomato-based, tangy condiment that reminded me of a less aggressive cocktail sauce. I tried the house sauce on nearly everything, and found, somewhat surprisingly, it pretty much compliments the menu. Peter’s girlfriend Carol (a pescetarian) even dressed her mixed green salad with it, over the blue cheese dressing she had initially chosen.

The menu at Peter Luger is as laconic as its wait staff — a bit unforgiving in the modern scene of endless options and descriptors (Grass-fed lamb shanks with rosemary clippings, chive blossoms, with a Swiss mint gelee, etc etc). Instead, you’re faced with a remarkably simple set of choices. Choose some appetizers. Choose some sides. You want steak? Choose how many people you want steak for, your options ranging from “Single Steak” to “Steak for Four,” with no elaboration on the preparation, cut, or how it is served (I guess in 1887, the idea of the empowered diner did not exist). Fortunately, most of us had done some level of research beforehand, and Diana had read that the best strategy was to get steak for (n-1), with n = the number of meateaters dining. So for our five carnivores, we would get enough steak for four people. But here’s the catch — there’s a difference between all those Steak for X entrees — what is not stated on the menu is that those are all different cuts of beef. My research had uncovered that PL’s  best cut was their Steak for Two, the Porterhouse, whereas the Steak for Four is a T-bone. We opted for two orders of the famous Steak for Two, five orders of the similarly famous bacon (offered by the single slice, and a must-try according to everyone I talked to), two orders of French Fries for Two, two orders of Onion Rings for Two, and some creamed spinach. Go big or go home, folks.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

Bacon worth breaking the rules for.

The bacon was the first to arrive, served as an appetizer. Now those who know me might be wondering why I ordered bacon in the first place. All through my childhood I operated under the premise that my family did not eat bacon in observance of kosher law (never mind our hypocritical love of crab crakes and beer-boiled shrimp), so I avoided any and all pork products I came across. Sometime during college my illusions were shattered when my father ordered a side of bacon at brunch, and since then, while I continue to avoid seeking out pork-based dishes (no carnitas for me), I don’t have a problem ordering a Cobb salad or a chowder with bacon in the broth. It’s hard to say no to a restaurant’s signature dish, however, so I was resigned to try Peter Luger’s bacon and see if it could win over a porcine-averse palate.

Peter Luger offers their bacon in single slice servings, which are doled out onto each plate by the waiter. Bacon-ignorant as I am, I could only guess that Peter Luger’s version is closer to the Canadian Bacon patties I’ve seen in Eggs Benedict than the thin crispy pieces on typical diner breakfast plates. The pink slice was thick, with a dark edge and lighter interior, and dwarfed my small bread-and-butter plate in length (it was probably the length of a standard oval seving dish). I tentatively cut into it, speared a bite, and suddenly understood our collective fascination with bacon.  The meat was simultaneously salty, savory, and unctuous. It was totally addictive, probably due to how how the fat content was — as Diana astutely pointed out, a cross section of the bacon revealed a small pink center bookended by delicious deposits of fat. Of course, the bacon was equally delicious dipped into the House Sauce, the sweet tang of the sauce complementing the sharp, salty meat. I’m not sure I could have had more than the one slice I got (especially considering the bounty of beef to come), but it was well worth breaking my person food rules. In what will become a common refrain in this post — listen to the hoi polloi when it comes to Peter Luger — the popular opinion knows what it’s talking about.

The steak, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

The Steak for Two, slightly elevated by smaller plates, mid-service.

Only a few minutes after our somewhat-inappropriate bacon-induced moans of pleasure had subsided, our waiter was back, briskly removing our starter plates and replacing them with full sized dinner plates and a new set of silverware, including intimidating steak knives. Then, the main course service began. It’s a bit of a production, with multiple waiters assaulting the table with large portions of food in a precise, efficient display of well-honed showmanship. Although far from the highly-choreographed synchronized serving in high-end restaurants like Daniel, there is still a level of theatricality to the exodus of steak from the Peter Luger kitchen to each table. When our waiter brought out the bacon, he had inexplicably placed two bread-and-butter plates upside down in the middle of the table. As our steaks arrived their purpose became clear — the platters of meat are placed with one end resting on the butter plate, so the platter tilts, allowing the juices to drain down to the other end, which are then spooned back onto the steak, effectively pan-basting the meat table-side.

 

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The hand-served elements of our meal, from left to right: creamed spinach, potato hash, steak.

The porterhouses come pre-sliced, with some meat still left on the bone. Each diner is served a couple steaming pieces of the steak by one waiter, while another spoons out the creamed spinach, and a third serves the potato hash (which we didn’t know came with the steak, another insider tip that probably would have led us to opt out of the fries). The rest of the sides were served on platters, family style, in large heaping mounds. The general consensus was that at Peter Luger, the descriptive phrase “for two” implies two adults roughly equal in size to Shaq.

 

Classic steak fries -- my favorite kind.

Classic steak fries — my favorite kind.

The enormous pile of onion rings -- if a Bloomin Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The enormous pile of onion rings — if a Bloomin’ Onion and calamari had a baby, it would taste like this.

The creamed spinach was definitely heavy on the cream, almost the consistency of a Indian saag dish. My first bite was smooth and flavorful, but the spinach wore on me in the face of all of the fried foods and rich pieces of steak. I much preferred the fries and onion rings (what? it’s not like creamed spinach is really a “healthy choice” here). The fries were my favorite variety — thick cut steak fries, with excellent crisp on the outside and a soft starchy center. The onion rings were by far my favorite side, as evidenced by the hefty amount of damage I unleashed on the plate on my half of the table. I generally find that onion rings suffer from too many potential weaknesses, from the type of breading used to the thickness of the onion slice. But these were like the shoestring fries equivalent of onion rings, as if someone had sliced through a Bloomin’ Onion to the thinnest degree and piled it high. The thin slivers of onion were lightly fried, crunchy and crispy and well-salted to provide a contrast to the meat.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

A view of the carnage mid-meal.

Speaking of, let’s turn our focus away from the hanger-ons and pan over to the star of the show, the Steak for Two. Even days later, it’s hard for me to articulate how delicious this piece of meat was. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve become a part-time vegetarian these days, and even before then I’d generally opt for duck or lamb over a steak, but when I bit into the porterhouse at Peter Luger, I suddenly remembered why I’ve never turned in my carnivore card. This was, hands down, legitimately one of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten — it was perfectly medium rare, with a vibrant pink center, and dripping with juice as you cut into it. The first bite released an explosion of earthy, funky beef flavor with great crust on the outside, tender as you chewed, and slowly melting on your tongue to linger as a smooth, naturally umami aftertaste.

 

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Bowls of shlag on a nearby table, waiting to be served.

Although Serious Eats has named Peter Luger as having one of the best hot fudge sundaes in NYC (slightly dubious since they use Haagen Daz ice cream), we were way too full to test that claim. However, over the course of our entire meal we had seen waiters walk by with heaping bowls of whipped cream (referred to as “schlag”) as topping for the various desserts. As a lifelong whipped cream fanatic (I’ll choose it over frosting any day), I jokingly said we should ask our waiter if we could just get a bowl of schlag for dessert. Peter seized on my idea, and as soon as our waiter appeared to clear the table, Peter asked him if that was possible, literally inquiring as to if they would accommodate us, maybe for a little extra  (like $3 or something). Without a saying a word, our waiter just disappeared back into the kitchen, the doors barely swinging closed before he emerged with a full bowl of shlag exclusively for our table. While the bowl had only one spoon with it, it was served alongside PL’s signature parting gift, a bunch of chocolate coins (it’s Chanukah in August!), which served as excellent vehicles to shove the shlag into our mouths (I did eventually ask for more spoons). The shlag was heavenly — real whipped heavy cream, instead of the pressurized Reddiwhip. It was thick and slightly sweet with a faint vanilla flavoring. I would honestly go back just to get the chance to have more shlag. It was a truly decadent way to end an absurdly indulgent evening.

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

A bowl of shlag to call our own, with Peter Luger gelt for dipping!

Final Thoughts:

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There are countless movies and TV shows featuring an awestruck out-of-towner “discovering” New York, marveling at the tall buildings, boating on the lake in Central Park, and spinning around Times Square, overwhelmed by the glitz and glamour. Unfortunately, it’s hard to live day-to-day in this city and not start to notice the grime coating those bright lights. Between the homeless people, the piles of garbage, and the way the streets smell faintly of urine in the summer — it can be hard to keep the magic of the Big Apple in mind, especially when something just dripped on you and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

But sometimes the City finds a way to rub some more of that metropolitan sparkle into your eyes, finds a way to remind you of the collision of history, cultures, and sheer humanity that makes up New York. The fact that within a week I can eat at both the trendy, multicultural Spice Market and the traditional, fuhgeddaboudit, historic landmark Peter Luger Steakhouse is a testament to the endless possibilities of life in New York. My dinner at Peter Luger was a great wake-up call, a classically New York experience — this is how we do things, and you can like it or leave it. Well, like most of the diners at Peter Luger, I really, really liked it. From porterhouse-pros to those less beef-inclined, everyone should check it out, and at least put those Zagat claims to the test. Get a taste of history, get a bit of a New York attitude purer than that at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and for the love of God, get a bowl of shlag. Trust me — I’m from around here.

 

Peter Luger Steakhouse

178 Broadway (at Driggs Ave)

peterluger.com

Wait, They Have More Than Milk and Honey? — Eating Adventures in Israel, Pt. 1

It's pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

It’s pretty dorky, but I really loved seeing familiar products with Hebrew names.

Sorry for the recent lapse in updates, but as implied by the title of this post, I just got back from a 2 week trip to Israel. I was on a Birthright trip, and though I wish I could be more original, I’m going to be like everyone else who has gone on those and say it was completely worth it. If you can scrounge up any molecule of Jewery in your DNA, I highly recommend trying Birthright. For someone who defines “pushing herself” as getting medium salsa instead of mild, it was an incredibly rewarding personal challenge. And of course I got to eat my body weight in hummus and pita, so no complaints here.

We criss-crossed the country at rocket ship speed, so there’s a ton to cover, even if I limit myself to just talking about food. I love traveling for many reasons, but I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that exploring the everyday cuisine of someplace new is up at the top of my list. I’ve only really gotten into Middle Eastern/Mediterranean food in the past year, so I was pumped to move beyond falafel and tahini to see what other basic dishes I could try in Israel. I’m going to focus this post on some larger take-aways about the food on my trip, to provide some context for the more in-depth discussion of the more memorable dishes.

Everyone is provided with two meals a day on a Birthright trip, which are generally breakfast and dinner at whatever kibbutz or hotel you’re staying at. The meals were all cafeteria style buffets, and usually involved tons of vegetables and salads, some meat-stew dishes, and rice or couscous. Luckily, I was perfectly happy to take a shovel to the eggplants, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

By the end of the trip, however, I was really struggling with breakfast. Israeli breakfast is very different from the typical American, or even European meals I’ve had. Israelis tend to have very large breakfasts, which our guide explained is due to the schedule of working on a kibbutz (= farming commune) back when they were first established in the late 19th Century. You’d wake up early, go work the fields for a few hours, and then come in for breakfast before heading back out to work some more. To make up for all the hard labor, a traditional Israeli breakfast involves hardboiled eggs, salads of tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, and other fresh vegetables, yogurt-based dips and sauces, and some bread (generally pita). At the places we stayed there were also fried eggs, yogurt, cereal, and pudding for breakfast (no joke, both vanilla and chocolate were offered at nearly every hotel or kibbutz).

I suppose this really isn’t too different a notion than the big farmer’s breakfasts we have here — bacon, eggs, sausage, potatoes etc. — but the foundational tastes of the meal are pretty far apart. As an American I struggled with the idea of having vegetables for breakfast, and found myself craving some sort of fruit in the morning — some berries or citrus or even a banana. I also tend to eat smaller, blander breakfasts (oatmeal with bananas and cinnamon is a frequent occurrence), so I was slightly overwhelmed by the heaviness of the buffet. This is partially because like in Europe, low-fat products are rare in Israel — the basic milk offered was 3%, and the lowest yogurt fat content I saw was 1.5%, with the highest being up to 5%. Now this is not to say that America has it right with our obsession with all things low-carb, low-fat,  and diet-branded (such as diet milk, which is a real thing), but I won’t deny the fact that I’m used to having the option. By the end of the trip I was basically limiting myself to yogurt and granola or cereal, because I knew that my options for lunch or dinner were going to be much heavier, and I regrettably couldn’t jump on the veggie bandwagon in the morning.

A few other random observations about food and drink in Israel:

– I was told by multiple people that Starbucks’ efforts to expand into Israel failed because of the country’s obsession with coffee. The most prevalent chain coffee house is Aroma, which actually has a couple locations in New York. I thought their espresso was nothing to shake a stick at, but they do have an extensive food menu with far better offerings than Starbucks — actual sandwiches and salads served with warm fresh bread.

Aroma also serves the Israeli version of “iced coffee,” which is pretty much a frappucino. I found it tooth-achingly sweet (which says a lot coming from me), but it’s clearly very popular, since almost any store that sold coffee offered a version of iced coffee from a slushee-type machine. This includes both fancy espresso bars and more common snack stands at places like the Dead Sea.

– I only found one restaurant that gave you the option of combining milk and meat (which goes against keeping Kosher) — Black Burger (similar to Five Napkin Burger in NY), but it was a separate topping, not a standard menu item. Even at a sandwich shop, you had to choose between a cheese sandwich and a meat-based one — the cheese and meat were sitting near each other in the refrigerator, but the employees refused to make a turkey and cheese sandwich.

– Fruit juice stands were everywhere, and they were amazing, partially making up for the lack of fruit at our accommodations. I discovered a new appreciation for pomegranate because of it, and I wish the fruit vendors in NY would occasionally bust out a blender or two.

But enough of the complaints, let’s dig into the times we had to buy ourselves food, because that’s where the more interesting dishes were. Given the frenetic pace of the tour, I didn’t have much time to jot down notes on food, so consider this a brief slideshow of some culinary exploration, rather than a detailed analysis of Israeli street food. I can’t say I was disappointed by anything I ate, from the strip mall shawarma to my first taste of Iraqi food.

I’ll get into the specifics of my various lunches and dinners next post, but for now I wanted to talk about the two markets or “shuks” that I went to in Israel, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. I’ve been to various farmers’ markets in my life, including the famed Union Square Market, but I’ve never seen anything comparable to the markets they have in Israel. It was like someone had turned a supermarket inside out — you could find anything you wanted there, from fresh fruit and vegetables to desserts, condiments, spices, and even full fish and butcher shops.

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A typical stall in the Tel Aviv Market — you couldn’t help but hit a dried fruit vendor every twenty feet or so.

One of the most plentiful items on sale was dried fruit, with a wide variety in copious quantities. Aside from the obvious Middle Eastern staples of dried figs and dates, I also tried dried pineapple (not the overly sweetened chunks you see in the grocery store) and dried mango. Since the vendors charge based on weight, it was impossible only get a few pieces of anything. I was lucky enough to sample others’ hauls and avoid having to make my way through 5 pounds of figs. I was also excited to try fresh dates for the first time.  The fresh date reminded me of a mellower grape — it still had the sticky-sweetness of dried dates, but the juiciness helped to mitigate it a bit. I’ve only come across dried dates in the US, so if someone knows where I can get fresh ones, I’d be extremely grateful.

This may look like cheese, but it's actually piles and piles of halva.

This may look like cheese, but it’s actually piles and piles of halva.

Another shuk mainstay are the halva stalls. Halva is a overarching term referring to a number of different types of sweets that are found in the Arab and Jewish world, from the Middle East to Eastern Europe to North Africa and beyond. The word itself just means “sweet” in Arabic, and is generally divided into two categories: flour-based and nut-butter-based. The halva I encountered in Israel was mainly sesame (aka tahini) -based, so they were dense and crumbly. As you can see from the photo, there are at least as many varieties of halva as flavors at Baskin Robbins. In both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem the stalls had free samples available, and I got to try chocolate and coffee halva, respectively. The texture reminded me a little of dried out pate, which was off-putting, although they were both certainly very sweet. I personally prefer my tahini on its own, so I wasn’t tempted to buy any halva to bring back to the States.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

Aside from raw ingredients, you could also find freshly made pastries, like rugelach and baklava.

I ate more rugelach than ever before during my trip to Israel, and it really changed my opinion on the treat. Most of the rugelach I’ve encountered in the US has been dry and stale, with the cinnamon or chocolate filling providing the slimmest amount of moisture to combat the crumbly crust. But the fresh rugelach in Israel was almost like a cinnamon roll in texture, the dough squishy and saturated by the buttery filling. More to come on the top rugelach contender in part two of my Israel posts, but the total ubiquity of  rugelach in the shuks points to the reasoning behind my fascination with these markets. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is ride the public transportation in a foreign city. It may seem odd to be so interested in a subway system, but I’m fascinated by how people from different regions have figured out urban design — with the same basic constraints of a light rail or subway system, how does someone outside of New York or the US tackle the conundrum of creating a convenient commute? It takes me out of the picturesque tourist attractions and gives me a tiny slice of everyday life in Paris or Rome or Amsterdam.

Because of safety issues, Birthright groups are pretty much restricted to the tour bus provided by the trip, which meant riding the light rail or public bus was not an option for me. But I did get to walk through the shuk in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, as average, everyday shoppers were getting their food and supplies for Shabbat. Unlike some of the more novelty stalls at the Union Square Market, these people were literally shopping for staples — peppers and onions, raisins and cinnamon and ketchup and mayo, and maybe even a little dessert for after Shabbat dinner. The markets were bustling, partially with awestruck tourists like me, but we were not the majority of people there. So while I dilly-dallied, taking in the sights of loaves of challah and being eyeballed by head-still-on herring, the rest of the world got on with its business. Mundane as it might be, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the chance to be an observer of uncurated life, similar to my own but just different enough to make me question when our paths diverged, and if there are any Super Shuk-and-Stops in Israel.

Next post I’ll get into the nitty-gritty of some of my favorite meals in Israel. Let’s just say that I found a deeper bond with the Israeli people than our common religious heritage: an everlasting desire for ice cream in all its glory. Stay tuned for shawarma, falafel, shakshuka, and of course, lots of dessert.

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