After a great meal at Crop in Cleveland I made my way back to Toledo for the evening and subsequently flew out of Detroit the following morning with little in my belly aside from a salad from 7:00am (had to finish off what was left in the fridge.) Arriving at LGA and waiting around forever for the tram I noticed I was quite hungry – a good thing considering my plans for a Lower East Side Food Crawl for breakfast followed by the New Museum, Morrison Hotel, CoSM, and parts of Chelsea prior to lunch snacks and an evening dinner at Scarpetta.
Hopping off the awful super-shuttle (yes, I travel cheap, it allows me to eat expensive) into the heart of Chinatown with map in hand the first stop on my list was impromptu. Having tried an egg custard for the first time weeks ago in San Francisco and seeing myriad Chinese bakeries I stopped and asked a man (the first I passed who I heard speaking English) who had the best Custards and he said “you want Egg Custard King – Mott Street.” Pointing me in the right direction I was afraid I’d miss it due to the all-Chinese signage, but thankfully the brightly colored restaurant stuck out like a sore thumb.
Entering the shop I was greeted by wonderful smells of sugar, butter, and yeast as well as multiple pastel colors – both on the wall and on the egg custards. Inquiring what the difference was it took three employees to understand my question and tell me that the colors were flavors – “regular, lime, strawberry, and coconut” are what I think I heard. At 90 cents each I asked for regular and a strawberry and made my way to the street again. Still warm from the oven I first tasted the “regular” and was instantly struck by the relative blandness of the custard – eggy and well prepared, yes, but not sweet and with only the butter in the crust as a notable taste. Disappointed I next tasted the strawberry version which, while better, tasted only mildly of berry (more “fruit punch” to my palate) and moreso like the sugary egg custard I sampled in San Francisco. Again well prepared and still warm/fresh I certainly can’t say it was bad – especially for the price – but I’d not rush back either.
Continuing my walk, the next stop planned was the much hyped Donut Plant, but on the way I saw something too famous to pass – Kossar’s famous Bialys. Having tried a bialy once prior I vaguely knew what to expect – garlic/onion/carbs but honestly I must say I was surprised that such a famed institution was so – boring and unfriendly. Despite there only being 2 customers in the place aside from myself the small elderly lady at the register snapped at me quite annoyedly when I failed to order immediately on command and asked me to step aside until I “figured it out.” Not wanting to further inconvenience her I asked for one bialy to go. Ninety cents later I was handed a warm and garlicky piece of flat bread that despite its good texture really didn’t blow my mind – it was basically a warm pita pocket, nothing more and nothing less. Reading others opinions perhaps I’m just more a bagel guy than a bialy guy, but either way I don’t think I’m a Kossar’s guy – I like friendly service.
A bit let down so far, but still miles from sated, I continued to my previous destination just two doors down – Donut Plant. In a city that seems to live and breathe Dunkin Donuts (for reference, I think we have two total in Columbus) I have to admit I was intrigued as to how a small shop in the LES had gotten so much attention from foodies and I was even more interested by some of the flavors listed on their online menu. Arriving at the small bakery (smaller, even, than Kossars) the place was packed (IE, 10 people) so I stood outside and read the specials board for a moment. Given the fact that my trek still contained a few more stops I decided I would order two donuts – a crème brulee and whatever was fresh from the oven.
Entering the doors I was greeted by a relatively strong yeasty-yet-sweet scent that mingled with strong coffee tones and was greeted, once again in a less than friendly manner, by a young lady behind the counter. Seeing the crème brulee donuts were just being passed from the baking area to the front along with tres leches and a square donut entitled peanut butter and raspberry jelly. Opting for the PB+J as my second option and paying the exorbitant cash-only fee of $7 for 2 donuts I sat down in the window to enjoy.
Starting with the crème brulee – small, yet heavy and dense and loaded with well caramelized vanilla custard I must admit the yeastiness of the donut managed to shine through the sweetness and although the custard was good it did suffer from a graininess that was somewhat unexpected. Considering the focus on high quality ingredients and the overall pretentiousness of the shop I must admit that although good I was underwhelmed.
Moving on to the second donut I expected better – I love Peanut Butter and Jelly, especially Raspberry. Lacking artificial flavors I fully anticipated a great peanut butter flavor from the donut, however what I got was anything but. Apparently using a “peanut butter glaze” on the outside, the overall taste of the donut was actually “burned peanuts” – like the shell of a peanut at Yankee Stadium after you suck the salt off – while the inside featured a miniscule amount of fresh jam which, while good, was not even close to the level of the filling in Keller’s Bouchon Beignets or the wonderful Raspberry Donut at Payard. Another disappointment in the LES, I actually saw these donuts two more times during my travels (at dean and delucca) but opted not to taste any further flavors. Perhaps I’m more a cupcake guy, but if I’m craving a donut in NYC I’d rather spend 1/5 the price and get a Pink Donut from Dunkin.
Exiting Donut Plant I’d begun to think that this trip was to be for naught and I’d have been better off going for a proper brunch at Allen and Delancey or the Spotted Pig – too full for either of those and seeing the 50+ person deep line at Clinton Street I decided to conclude breakfast with a cupcake – the decision was whether to go with Babycakes or Sugar Sunshine Sweet. Considering the options, my location, and my plan it seemed that Babycakes would be the better of the two options for the day and I checked my map and started moving. Arriving shortly I was amused by the shoddy appearing exterior and even more amused by the fact that there was a short line. Entering the store I was greeted by a very friendly pair of females and heard Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre playing loudly over the boombox. Browsing the selections I must admit there was a bit of sticker-shock, but considering the ingredients the prices didn’t seem TOO outlandish. Making two selections (not the gluten free versions – I don’t have Sprue yet!) I received my cute “holder box” and paid (cash only) before making my way to the streets.
Planning on one for now and one for later I decided to go with the Red Velvet first. Moist and dense without much crumb I must admit my first bite was actually quite the surprise – I did not expect a vegan cupcake to be so good! Sweet and slick frosting without that “grit” which plagues many sugar-based frostings was another bonus. All that noted, I must admit that despite being tasty it really didn’t taste much like Red Velvet – it lacked the cocoa essence and tasted more vanilla and sweet.
Given the small size of the cupcake I decided “what the hell” and proceeded with cake number two (hey, I’d just had healthy Donuts, a Kosher Bialy, and now Vegan donuts – this is HEALTH FOOD!) Entitled Carrot cake I assumed a vegan restaurant would do a good job with the preparation and I was indeed correct this time. Notably sweet and dense like a carrot cake should be, I found the rough-cut texture of the carrots to be particularly pleasing in contrast to the smooth (I-know-its-not-cream-cheese-but-it-damn-sure-tastes-like-it) frosting. Small bits of nuts and raisins added additional sweetness to the agave and all told the cupcake was excellent.
Given the fact that I have no allergies and am not a vegan I can’t say I’d frequent Babycakes if I lived locally, but at the same time I’d certainly try their desserts before going back to Donut Plant or many other New York Cupcake joints. Pricey, but at least for the price you can pretend you’re being healthy and receive service from friendly people with good business ethics.
Sated for the time being, it was time for some fine art – first the New Museum on The Bowery and then Morrison Hotel, the amazing John Varvatos converted CBGB’s, Big Robot, and a second Morrison Hotel gallery. After this a walk across the lower half of Manhattan to the famous Jacques Torres to pick up some confections for my aunt – and a hot chocolate for myself. Impressed by the immense size of the store and the open manufacturing area as well as the helpful staff, I must say I was less impressed by the hot chocolate. Described on the walls as everything from “amazing” to “famous” to “spectacular” I ordered a small on reputation alone and on first sip honestly wondered if my taste buds were out of whack – a second sip confirmed that my buds were correct – creamy, thick, and hot – but the flavor was so bland and ...chalky perhaps...that I considered adding splenda. At $3.50 for the cup I tried another couple of sips before giving up and tossing the rest. From what my aunt tells me the chocolates were much better (and comparable to La Maison, Payard, and Max Brenner) but to me, the hot chocolate was not only unimpressive, but downright bad.
Browsing some random shops and galleries between the LES, SoHo, and the lower part of Chelsea plus stopping into Scarpetta to secure a reservation I next made my way through the Chelsea Market – a place that failed to wow me on my previous visit and really offered nothing new this time aside from L’arte del Gelato. Having heard good things about the small-batch artisan approach I approached the counter and was immediately greeted by a pleasant young lady offering samples. Beginning with a taste of potent chocolate sorbet that was absolutely wonderful and following with samples of a mellow pistachio, potent and splendid uva (grape) and finally a decadent cinnamon based sorbet I decided to order a small ($4.00 for 2 small scoops in a cup) of the Butterscotch and Cafe au lait.
Using traditional Italian mixing methods (essentially a mixing process occurring during freezing to eliminate air and ice) the flavors were incredibly creamy and the Butterscotch was absolutely a joy to taste – enough so that I would rank it in my top-10 frozen treats ever. The coffee/milk flavor, however, did not fare as well as the butterscotch and actually tasted more like Hazelnut and Vanilla than truly coffee – not bad, but not what I expected. With a limited number of flavors changing each day I could definitely see myself coming back if I were in the area, but for my money I’d sooner pick up some Ciao Bella from Whole Foods and the overall taste certainly wasn’t on par with the artisan ice creams at Jeni’s of Columbus or Humphry Slocombe of San Francisco.
With the day still young and evening plans secured I turned northbound for a trip through Soho up to visit the (unfortunately relocated and much maligned) CoSM of Alex Grey. Arriving slightly earlier than opening time I browsed some of the Prime discount stores for a bit and after seeing the exhibit decided to stop in for another somewhat famous New York treat – a pretzel croissant at City Bakery. Mired in construction the location seemed a little obscure to me, but the lines indicated something good was going on – entering the doors I made note of their “famed” chocolate room – and was vastly underwhelmed by its small size and limited selection. Browsing the warm foods and baked goods I was more impressed and subsequently made my way to the register to make my purchase. Friendly service despite the large lunch-time lines, I noted a fresh batch of pretzel croissants being brought from the back and asked if I could have a fresh one – “sure thing!” Reading the signage I was made aware, again, of a “famous” hot chocolate – this time, however, available as a “shot” so I figured I might as well see if this was better than Jacques Torres or if New Yorkers simply don’t know good Hot Chocolate.
Taking my items to a seat by the window I had a good time watching the passers-by while I ate. Starting with the croissant – how in the world has no one else thought of this before? With all the flakey/buttery/deliciousness of a well prepared French classic, the pastry pulled apart effortlessly yet somehow also managed to maintain the salted/doughy texture of a pretzel from a street vendor. Duely impressed I moved on to the hot chocolate and was met by yet another surprise – THIS is what hot chocolate is supposed to taste like. Thick, rich, smooth – like a piping hot chocolate milkshake – and with the unmistakable flavor of a high quality bittersweet dark chocolate, honestly I was glad I’d only ordered a shot given its potency – any more would have been risking overload. Simple, straight forward, and without unnecessary “extra flavors” or mix-ins, I imagine this stuff would be sublime on a cold wintery day in Manhattan.
More walking and shopping led me to a stop at the James Gallery at CUNY where I must admit the ongoing exhibit is definitely worth the stop – despite the somewhat raunchy topic, and subsequently some more browsing and walking to check out the NYU Medical Center – damned impressive, though I’d hate to be a patient dealing with traffic and parking in the area. With 4ish hours before dinner I decided to make my final stop of the breakfast/lunch scavenger hunt at Momofuku Milk Bar and Bakery.
Despite being a fan of “haute cuisine” and service like that at the French Laundry and Charlie Trotter’s, I come from a (very) humble background and as such David Chang’s approach and personality strike me right. Even after getting shut out on Ko reservations because they don’t answer their phones (long story, but my buddy cancelled and I had to drop reserves for 2 because I was uncertain if I’d get dinged for the $150 penalty if I simply showed up solo) I have respect for the process – random and not dictated by status, money, or clout – truly an egalitarian and “every-man” in approach. Chang’s interview with Charlie Rose further solidified my love – if you’ve not seen it, invest the hour, it is well worth it.
Entering Milk Bar I was first struck by how empty the place was despite being 2pm on a Sunday – Ssam was hopping. I was second struck by the artwork and wonderful smells – and the music, Rage Against the Machine’s (unedited) Killing in the Name Of – nothing quite like eating fatty pork while Zack drops the F-bomb. Browsing the items and chuckling at the sacrilege of the chorizo-challah, the hilarity of the crack-pie, and the frank bizarreness of sour gummy and fireball soft serve I opted for their breakfast sandwich – the pork & egg bun with pork belly, deep fried soft poached egg, cucumber, hoisin, and scallions and a piece of pie – plus a sample of the red licorice soft serve – it really does taste like a twizzler and a coffee. Service was aloof, as expected, neither friendly nor surly – just sort of indifferent.
Standing at one of the tables awaiting my food after filling my cup (the first of three) I was a bit annoyed by the lack of sweetener options – I really don’t understand why New York hates Equal so much (thankfully I carry some with me and reloaded at Bouchon the following morning.) Produced by a company called Stumptown I will admit I was impressed by the nutty yet mild undertones of the coffee and actually enjoyed it much more than the non-refillable options at Starbucks these days. Approximately 5 minutes passed before my food was “order up” at the open kitchen.
Receiving my two Styrofoam containers I opened the first to find my bun. Having tasted Chang’s Pork buns at Noodle Bar last year and loving eggs in all forms I fully anticipated loving this dish, but overall I was left underwhelmed – especially for the $9 price tag. Receiving only one bun with minimal hoisin, the purportedly “soft poached egg” was actually quite solidly poached with no liquid to the yolk at all and the cucumbers/scallions were overly cooked and soft. While certainly tasty and dripping with fatty pork, I rather wish the preparation had been more on par with the descriptor – more textural contrast would’ve been ideal instead of moist/chewy pork, moist/chewy egg, moist/chewy vegetables, and moist/chewy bun.
The second dish was definitely a step up from the pork bun - cinnamon bun pie served warm with brown butter and cheesecake filing was actually quite excellent and the price ($5) much more in line with the portion . Like Cinnabon with more nuance and infinitely more texture and butter, the pie crust did a great job of standing up to the molten cinnamon/strudel/cheesecake filling without being too tough to cut with a fork. While not quite as superb as the cinnamon Monkey-Bread at Craftsteak LV, I can definitely say that this was the second best Cinnamon Roll-esque dessert I’ve ever tasted and on the “must order” list for any future visit.
All told on the morning/afternoon of 05/17 I managed to stretch breakfast and lunch across the span of nine hours and 6 miles of walking, shopping, and galleries – in the process I got to sample a whole lot of what New York Foodies rave about in the lower half of Manhattan and while some choices were less impressive than anticipated, others were truly impressive and I had a great time – while I love the urban sprawl and country-side of the Midwest, I love the “neighborhood” feel of many big cities, the people, and the never-ending list of options.