As has been the case with myriad previous visits to Manhattan, breakfasts and snacks throughout the journey once again saw me visit a number of bakeries and sweet shops along the way – sometimes out of necessity to get to the meeting on time and sometimes out of gluttony because something simply sounded delicious and there was room in my supposedly limitless stomach. With the conference taking up substantial time during this trip and my meals otherwise largely scheduled to fill in breaks in the conference my ancillary eats would be limited to five stops on this particular trip to Gotham – the requisite visit to Bouchon being the first.
With my fondness for Thomas Keller now well documented and the location on the third floor of the Time Warner Center opening at 8:00am on a day when lectures initiated at 8:30 Bouchon would once again prove a perfect breakfast stop and this time all the more so with the further expansion of the Salvador Dali exhibit from my previous visit. Arriving before the doors opened and waiting patiently as a small line formed behind me it was interesting watching the team meeting before opening as the hot items were brought out from the kitchen and arranged nicely on the shelves.
With the doors opened at precisely 8:30am and the line moving swiftly to the door it excited me immediately to see a number of new (or new to me) items on filling the cases and knowing that the conference was to be long that particular day I decided to stock up with a medium coffee along with five choices to go – or at least five choices that had the potential of possibly making it from the Time Warner Center to The Hilton. With service pleasant as always and the bill paid I thanked my server and after sitting down for a moment to look out on to the Streets of New York and take some pictures I made my way to the conference eating as I walked.
Beginning first with the standard order at Bouchon I started my morning with a Caramel Macaron – large and as tasty as ever with flecks of fleur de sel visible on the buttery caramel and the cookie itself the best I’ve ever had at Bouchon thus making a strong argument for early morning visits on all future occasions.
Having promised myself to try the Sugar Brioche this time as I’d heard great things from a friend I was admittedly torn at first when I saw them also selling Hot Cross Buns for the upcoming Easter Holiday but after a momentary debate I decided “both” was the best course of action and with each selection still warm I am most certainly glad I made the choice I did because while the duo was quite similar in their golden exterior giving way to warm and wispy insides the flavors and textures could not have been more different as crunchy crystals of sugar and notes of vanilla lofted from the first while the unmistakable flavors of butter, cinnamon, and currants punctuated the eggy Cross Bun.
Saving the other selections for later my next bites of team Keller’s wares would be a few hours later during a mid-morning break in the conference and picking up where I left off both selections were exacting an delicious, beginning first with a lovely Paris Brest with a crackling choux shell giving way to creamy hazelnut crème that was thick enough to be tasty without being so heavy as to overwhelm the sugar dusted pastry – it was as good as all but one during my subsequent trip to Paris; that version served as dessert in Michelin 3-Star Le Pre-Catelan.
For my final taste of Bouchon I opted to save what was surely the most decadent for last and on biting into “Pain Aux Trois Chocolat” my assumption was confirmed instantly – this was most certainly not a breakfast pastry, but rather the sort of item you eat with milk, coffee, or both while relaxing at a café. Beginning first with chocolate number one – the cocoa powder imbued croissant dough was light, buttery, and crisp. For chocolate number two – a core of dense Valrhona running from end to end and drizzled atop. And finally number three – dark chocolate pastry cream, slightly sweeter than expected acting as the mortar holding together the three separate layers and completing a pastry that may be the best thing I’ve had at any of the three Bouchon Bakeries to date.
Moving from the good to not so good another stop on my trip would be Kyotofu – a visit prompted by their previously being named “New York’s Best Cupcake” by New York Magazine – a distinction I found hard to believe considering they ship these cupcakes all over the country as well as to Dean & Deluca, and a distinction I guess I’ll never be able to judge considering that when I got there they were completely sold of their cupcakes and no longer making more (despite it being only 5pm) due to “a large order for a private function” thus relegating me to two muffins – one a dry and grassy “Matcha Blueberry” and the other a slightly better but rather dull and chewy “Apple Cinnamon” – both of which I can only assume had been baked that morning because to assume otherwise and think they were fresh is…well…unthinkable.
Moving on to bigger and better, a third stop on this trip would bring me to Buttercup Bake Shop, a bakery I’d heard of before as it is well regarded and owned by one of the co-founders of Magnolia but a placed I’d yet to visit largely due to its location on 2nd Avenue – a location that however inconvenient on previous trips became an impromptu destination this time due to a detour based on my hotel location (The Beekman) and the POTUS arrival at the United Nations for a $5000/plate fundraiser dinner.
Making a long story short and saving you the details of me carrying a poster tube down 2nd Avenue as I was approached by Secret Service inquiring as to the nature of my package (a poster, not a sniper rifle as it turned out) I was told it would be about ten minutes before pedestrians would be allowed to progress to the hotel and taking this as a sign I made my way to Buttercup where I was greeted by a trio of young women busy baking, frosting, cooking, and chatting plus the intoxicating smell of butter, vanilla, and…well…butter. With bars, puddings, cookies, and cakes lining each case I was told to “take my time” in choosing and additionally offered a bite of the banana pudding – thick, rich, and delicious with slightly crisp vanilla wafers adding contrast – while I made my decisions; a pair of cupcakes for the road as I still had dinner plans to reckon with and a cup of coffee to wash them down as I waited for the hubbub outside to subside.
At $2.25 and $2.50 respectively my choices would include the standard Red Velvet plus one of my favorites, the Hummingbird – both quite good with sweet and tangy cream cheese icing atop a moist and toothsome cake with the velvet surprisingly not-too-sweet yet dense with cocoa and the hummingbird chockablock full of walnuts, pineapples, and bananas – both first-rate examples and save for the unnecessary red sugar crystals atop the Red Velvet some of the best in the city.
With the conference beginning bright and early for a third consecutive day another breakfast boulangerie targeted for my visit was La Bergamote on 52nd Street and with a long morning run from the UES down to the LES and back plus the trek from my hotel on 2nd all the way to the bakery I was admittedly quite hungry when I arrived – enough so that the already impressive collection of French style pastries looked that much better and the aromatic notes of vanilla, cinnamon, and coffee smelled all the more seductive. With the doors open at 7:00am and my arrival shortly thereafter my entry to the shop was met first by the sights and smells, then by a young woman asking me if I was there for breakfast or just for pastries to go and while I’ll admit the thought crossed my mind to skip the first lecture and try a croque madame I decided to behave and instead order five choices to go – all which were boxed up nicely and placed in a bag while I was offered a sample of the lemon tart and a delicious raspberry thumbprint cookie.
With the bill paid – a bargain compared to the prices at Bouchon Bakery (or especially when compared to prices in Paris) – and taking my order to the street I first stopped for pictures and then decided to eat the more portable items as I walked while saving the others for later at the conference. Beginning first with a recommendation made by my server (and apparently one of the store’s most famous items dating back to the original Chelsea location founded in 1998) I started with a warm slice of almond brioche – intensely buttery with a golden exterior and dense eggy crumb coated in caramelized sugar and sliced almonds; it was the kind of thing that made me want to stop in my tracks, turn around, and order a loaf or an order of the French Toast made with that very bread.
Moving next to my French pastry standard and continuing the almond theme La Bergamote’s Almond Croissant would prove to be a good example despite spending a bit too long in the oven as the crisp exterior crackled on my bite giving way to a fragrant interior with wisps of pastry slightly moistened by a layer of frangipane but holding up nicely and loaded with smooth buttery notes.
With my next three options far more messy (and one requiring a spoon) I was glad to see free coffee at the Hilton when I arrived and taking a seat towards the back I surely made the surrounding diabetologists cringe as I moved on to sweeter things beginning first with my second Paris Brest of the trip – a similar version to Keller’s but unfortunately suffering from a bit too much sweetness in the cream and (again) a bit too much time in the oven as the crunchy choux shell was simply lacking any character alongside the dense filling.
Next up on the hit list was a pastry I’d only seen once before and a selection I knew I had to order the moment I entered La Bergamote – La Religeuse – and with options ranging from coffee to vanilla cream to chocolate the only real decision was witch to order…a decision easily made when my server told me the coffee one was her favorite item in the store “if you like coffee.” Served less ornately than most yet with the choux in this case light, crisp, and perfectly baked before being topped with a coffee glaze and filled with caramel tinted coffee cream this dish proved the highlight of the breakfast and more importantly served as the influence to many breakfasts during my subsequent trip to Paris.
With the progression of flavors from mild and buttery to more creamy and dense my last bite of the morning would be by far the most potent and lacking means for cutting it up without making a mess I decided to take the “Baby Baba” in a way befitting its flavor – as a shot – a yeasty, buttery sponge of a shot topped with sweet cream and so loaded with rum that it made me a bit weary to talk with any of my colleagues until I’d drank some more coffee, but a baba so good that it would trump any I’d had at a bakery prior.
Closing out my bakeries and snacks tour of New York was another unplanned stop, but one that I simply couldn’t pass up due to the novelty of there being no line; Shake Shack. For those who don’t know the history of Danny Meyer and USHG suffice it to say the man is a giant and his restaurant group is the brain trust behind Michelin Starred locations like The Modern, Gramercy Tavern, and Eleven Madison plus half a dozen other locations around New York City, but of all of his locations perhaps none seemed as shocking to me as Shake Shack – a stand where always-on-the-run-New-Yorkers will willing wait in line for over an hour for a burger, fries, and a shake…or more appropriately a “concrete,” the object of my desire on this particular day.
With the line non-existent I made my way up to the window where I was greeted by a pleasant young man who asked me what I’d like and having not realized how many choices there were I told him to give me a moment while I stepped back to weigh the options (and my capacity) before electing for the $6 daily special “Hopscotch Concrete” described as containing Vanilla Custard, Salty Caramel, Valrhona Chocolate Chunks, and Chocolate Toffee and after paying the admittedly steep price I stepped to the receiving window where the decadence would appear shortly thereafter.
Making my way to a bench (like the line, empty, confusing me greatly) after grabbing a spoon and preceding to dig in two thoughts came to mind – the first being that if Batali can get away with $6 for a small cup of gelato at Eataly across the street then Mr. Meyer should raise his prices, and the second that I’m very glad most other ice cream parlors opt to make their shakes, blizzards, and flurries with inferior ingredients because if they were all this jammed packed with outstanding ingredients and such a mélange of sweet, salty, smooth, and crunchy my health and waistline would be in jeopardy and seeing now that the chain has expanded significantly I can only hope the quality remains the same and that New Yorkers can show some restraint – or at least spend that extra time they’re saving by not waiting in line walking off the delicious ice cream.