Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bouley Bakery, Sugar Sweet Sunshine, New York NY

Getting up on my last day in New York was a bit of a hassle as my friend had a doctor’s appointment and as such I had to go to the train station in New Hyde Park even earlier than usual – knowing I’d get to Manhattan well before anything interesting opened I browsed my map and realized I’d actually never seen ground zero or Wall Street in my previous trips, thus setting my morning agenda. Hopping on the train to Penn I browsed my map to figure out the most logical subway transfer and subsequently made my way south. Hopping off the train at Chambers around 7:00am I browsed the lower Tribeca area for a bit before turning north and heading to breakfast.

Walking up to Bouley Bakery I actually almost missed it – largely unadorned I waltzed right past the white building until I came up to the open seating area where one large table hosted a group of ladies and another where a man sat reading the paper - looking back I realized I’d walked right past a window full of breads and pastries. Turning around and making my way to the door I walked in to a strange smell – bread and gravy and chicken (I actually had no idea they served lunch foods at the Bakery.)

Once I got past the smell – certainly not bad – I browsed the collection of foods and was actually quite impressed that the warm bar had so many unique options – seemed like a great place for a quick lunch for anyone working in the Tribeca area. Moving on to more important things, aka the breakfast pastries, I was amazed by the raw number of choices considering they’d just opened and the fact that even more were coming out of the bakery as I browsed. Croissants, Viennoiserie, pastries, breads – everything looked excellent. Selecting 3 Macarons for my mother plus three items for myself the young man behind the counter packed everything up nicely and handed me the package to take up front – trusting to say the least the cashier simply asked myself and each subsequent customer what they purchased – haven’t seen that in a while.

Making my way to the seating area next door I pulled up to a small paper-lined table and examined the drab looking chairs and booths despite the well-lit and attractive room, rustic yet appealing and well complimented by the sunlight and fresh air streaming in – reminded me of eating at a small cafĂ© on my only trip overseas many years ago. Starting first with the Almond Croissant (a good “standard” item I select at most French bakeries to gauge quality) I was impressed by the crispy exterior, soft pull-apart interior, and overall butteriness but underwhelmed by the almond flavor and use of minimal almonds to top the item. Not bad, but certainly not as impressive as the versions at Payard, La Boulange, or Bouchon.

Moving on next to the Ispahan, described as “Two Rose Macarons with Rose Buttercream, Fresh Raspberries and Lychee. A generous portion featuring two of the largest Macarons I’ve ever seen (probably 1/2 inch larger than those at Bouchon or La Maison) I first tasted the cookie – a good crack to the shell but a center that was too gummy – likely related to the size – and a great flavor with hints of fruit and top-notes of flower. Next tasting the cookie as a whole – excellent. Very fresh berries contrasted very well in their tartness to the extremely sweet buttercream and the dish was further enhanced by the sour lychee whose slick texture contrasted nicely with the creamy buttercream. While not the best Macaron on earth, the overall effect of the cookie was largely inconsequential when viewed in the context of the dish as a whole – and Bouley doesn’t sell large Macarons outside of the Ispahan anyhow.

My final selection, the Neopolitain with Golden Raisin and Pastry Cream, was another excellent choice and much more akin to Payard’s Almond Croissant than the actual croissant was in that it was filled (like Payard and Bouchon’s croissants are.) Crispy and flaky, buttery and well portioned the exterior crack gave way to a smooth center with a dense cream absolutely loaded with what I can only guess were rum-soaked raisins. The heaviest option of the three and the best, in my opinion.

Sitting in the sun a bit longer and browsing my map I was glad I’d made my way to Bouley, despite the naysayers, and will likely make a trip back to his restaurant on a future visit. A relentless perfectionist who really hasn’t strayed from New York aside from closing his restaurant after 9/11 (and using that time to help feed workers at Ground Zero) my first experience was good enough to give me reason to invest in the real-deal next time around. Although I didn’t taste the smaller Macarons, my mother did note she liked them moreso than Payard, albeit less than Bouchon or La Maison.

After a long walk down and around the financial district, around the immense ongoing construction at ground zero, through a couple churches and a few stores, plus a stop into La Maison du Chocolate on Wall Street – where I bought my mother a box of Macarons and my aunt some chocolates (and sampled a dark chocolate covered prune and candied honeycomb that were superb) I next turned North with plans to walk back up The Bowery toward midtown. Not full and with lunch reservations at 1:30pm I decided to swing by the LES and check out Shopsin’s or Clinton Street – unfortunately even on a Wednesday at 10:15 Clinton Street told me it’d be a 20 minute wait and Shopsin’s…I don’t know, the ‘vibe’ of the place just puts me off – I don’t like waiters/cooks glaring at me while I eat. Considering making my way back to Milk Bar for a slice of Crack Pie or some cookies I realized I’d missed out on Sugar Sweet Sunshine on my day one LES-crawl and decided to check it out.

Making my way up to SSS I noted the dingy appearance – it actually looked more beaten up than Babycakes. Walking through the door I next noted the number of employees – seriously, at least 7 people stood behind the counter and (no surprise) I was greeted almost instantaneously by two – both females asking how they could help me. Still at least 10 feet from the case I told them to give me a second so I could browse. After about 2-3 minutes of assessing the options and being amazed by the bargain basement prices ($1.50 compared to Bouchon’s $4.50) I decided to select three. Packaged in a plain box and sealed with a sticker I paid and made my way to the street to eat.

Like the store, the cupcakes certainly didn’t present much eye candy – small cakes with paper wrappers and frosting that looked slapped on with a spatula. Starting with the Pistachio – the most ‘unique’ option on the list, I took a bite. Good frosting to cake ratio, admittedly, but otherwise – it really didn’t taste like pistachio. Actually, it really didn’t taste like much of anything aside from a Betty Crocker white cake with some gritty white frosting (questionably Crisco based) and covered with a bit of crumbled nuts.

Moving next to the “sexy” Red Velvet, I hoped for better and thankfully did get better – slightly. A bit more moist than the previous cake and once again with good ingredient ratio, the cake held up relatively well to my bite and had mild hints of cocoa. That noted, once again the overly sweet frosting was too gritty for my liking and my honest first thought on swallowing was “I make better cupcakes than this – and they’re cheaper.” Hoping my next cupcake would be better I set aside the other 2 bites of “sexy” for the time being (and did actually end up discarding this with the box when done – marking the first time I’ve ever thrown out a cupcake.)

The second red velvet, called “sassy” featured the same decent red velvet batter with ”chocolate almond buttercream.” Taking a bite I will admit the mouth feel of this frosting was vastly superior to the white Crisco with sugar feel of the others, but “almond” I did not get. Rich and chocolatey I actually liked this cupcake for the price, but wouldn’t put it in the same remote category as those at Two Little Red Hens, Bouchon, Magnolia, Amy’s, or Babycakes. The only cupcakes they may top in the New York Area are Eleni’s and that is based on price and customer service moreso than actual quality – which is similar.

Reading over the SSS website it appears the owners of the shop got their idea from a Betty Crocker cookbook and don’t claim to be pastry chefs – that is a good thing, because they most certainly are not – and as a matter of fact I’d not be shocked if they were still cooking from that cookbook and picking up boxed mix to do it. If you’re in the LES and craving a cupcake, in my opinion, spend the extra and go to Babycakes for something that, albeit pricey, actually tastes good and may actually not be THAT bad for you – otherwise, head north – I’d rather drop $4 on a roundtrip subway fare to spend more at Two Little Red Hens or Bouchon than go back to SSS.

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