Thursday, February 17, 2011

Clinton Street Baking Company and Bouchon Bakery, New York NY

Thursday morning started early with me in the LES and a need to be in midtown by 9:30am. Having twice attempted to go to Clinton Street Baking Company on previous visits to New York only to be thwarted by waits greater than one hour for a single person this time I made no mistakes – I arrived at 7:45 and was there when Neil Kleinberg arrived – and when a young man delivering fresh fruits and vegetables arrived on bike. By 8:00am when the doors opened there were nine people behind me in line and by the time I was leaving at 8:45 there was a 20-30 minute wait for a table – sure it was National Pancake Month and Clinton Street reportedly makes the best in the city, but it was also a Thursday morning.

Seated promptly at a small two-top along the wall I was handed a menu and told they had four styles of pancake on the menu that day – the famous blueberry version, a chocolate chunk, a banana walnut version, and Almond Frangipane with Fresh Raspberries, Toasted Almonds, Raspberry Sauce, and Almond syrup. Ordering a coffee that would remain topped off by my server, Shelby, and her team I additionally ordered up a muffin while my pancakes were made to order.

Sitting back and listening to the whimsical 80’s soundtrack overhead and the unintentionally overhearing the previous night’s escapades from my hipster neighbors it would only be moments before the Banana Chocolate Chunk Muffin would arrive along with the mildly acidic and not particularly impressive coffee. Streusel topped and buttery, the muffin itself was still warm from the oven and as such rather messy given the substantial load of dark chocolate within. Served with fresh raspberry jam and butter the muffin was a fork and knife affair and quite excellent – as a matter of fact, all the baked goods at Clinton Street Bakery looked excellent.

With seemingly every table around me opting for either pancakes or the buttermilk biscuit sandwich (and a particularly hung over fellow to my right getting a maple butter pecan ice shake and burger for breakfast) mine would be the first to arrive and I have to admit I instantly understood the hype. Light and fluffy, stacked three high, and absolutely loaded with raspberries and toasted almonds plus a sidecar of buttery almond syrup these pancakes are the prototype for what a buttermilk pancake should look like and feel like in the mouth. Rather understated despite the bold ingredients each flavor complimented the other nicely and despite the large portion size everything was quite light – very much unlike other pancakes which can sit in the belly like a lead weight. At $15 the price is a tad higher than one would expect, but the ingredients are clearly top notch and while not the best pancakes I’ve ever had, they are certainly the best I’ve had in New York.

While there was a line forming outside, I was told to take my time with the check and even received a last refill of my coffee at that time – asking for the coffee to go (no sense in letting it go to waste) I was given a paper cup and upon settling the modest tab and making my way to the streets I had plenty of time to walk uptown and arrive at my destination almost 5 minutes early. Having tried to visit in the past I can say now that had I waited more than an hour I’d probably not have been as enthused about my visit to Clinton Street Baking Company, but if you are motivated enough to beat the crowd then Clinton Street is definitely worth the visit – though in retrospect I wish I’d have gotten a shake instead of the coffee.

With my daily obligations filled by 11:00 and no lunch reservations until 12:30 the next stop on my culinary tour would be a personal favorite that always finds its way onto my New York (or Vegas, or Yountville, or now Los Angeles) agenda – Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery. Fully admitting to be a fan of Chef Keller and equally so of his ever changing rotation of baked goods I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived at Time Warner Center to find not only some new options, but also myriad large metal works celebrating my favorite artist – Salvador Dali – on display. Browsing for a while before making my way upstairs to place my order I fully admit it took longer than usual to decide as there were at least ten new options I’d not tried.

With decisions made, purchased, and bagged I made my way through the rest of the Dali exhibit while enjoying my selections – the first a raspberry almond croissant – what can I say, after breakfast it seemed like the only logical choice. Having always found Bouchon croissants to be amply crunchy and plenty butter but lacking the airy pockets inherent to most French Croissants this one was no different – it was rather flat but absolutely loaded with fresh fruit and pockets of butter mixed with sweet spots – almost a half-scone/half-croissant pastry.

For my other half of the order – how can one turn down those fist sized macarons – especially when the flavors are Peanut Butter and Jelly and Orange Vanilla Bean – IE, Creamsicle. With that perfect crackle giving way to Keller’s slightly less than airy style sandwich cookie each were again stunning examples that purists may call too “gummy” but for me pretty much summarize why I keep coming back again and again – the flavor. While I still believe La Maison du Chocolate to make a slightly superior Chocolate and Pistachio than Bouchon, the variety of flavors and sheer size of Keller’s collection will invariably keep me coming back each and every time I’m in a city where they are available – and in the case of New York, I’ll look forward to visiting the second location at Rockefeller center just as soon as it opens.

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