Saturday, January 21, 2017

NYC: Bakery Review - Levain Bakery

Levain Bakery - visited November 18 and 20, 2016
After all my posts about the various Levain Bakery copycat recipes I've been trying out, it's a given I'd go to the real Levain Bakery on my New York trip. Matter of fact, I went twice. So I'll end this NYC series with the post about the real thing.
I went twice because the first time was a practice run, so to speak, to make sure I knew where it was. I mapped it from our hotel and since it was only 2.5 miles away, that was eminently doable on foot so while Shawn took a break (euphemism for she probably thought I was crazy to do a 5-mile round trip for a cookie), I set out for my cookie mecca, I mean, Levain Bakery.
This is another one where you have to follow them on Instagram. Be warned you may find yourself drooling more often but such lapses are forgivable when you see their posts.
It wasn't hard to find the bakery even though they were in much smaller premises than I expected. It's slightly below street level so you have to go down a few steps to get into the bakery. Don't rely on finding the bakery via their signage though because the line of people outside will block your view. But look for the line and you'll know you're in the right place. Not only is there a line because their products are in high demand but there's literally not much room for customers inside so a line outside forms by default. More than 6 people inside and you'd be standing in sin. Okay, that's a wee bit of an exaggeration but not by much.
The kitchen behind the counter had bigger space and that's what you want because you want all the hard workers back there with enough space to keep cranking out those amazing behemoth cookies.
For my first foray, I got the Levain classic of the chocolate chip walnut cookie. Yes, my lifelong prejudice not just against nuts in cookies but walnuts in particular (I don't care for walnuts - too bitter) was held in check. It was New York, it was Levain Bakery and I had a fresh cookie in my hand.
Just look at that goodness. Need I say more? Actually, what I will say is, as I suspected, all the earlier copycat recipes I've done were mere pale shadows to the real thing. I've been able to duplicate the inside of the cookie with its moist chewy goodness. But the outside crisp-crunch? Nope, haven't even come close. This is a cookie worth my 3000-mile trip, even if it did have walnuts in it.

My second visit was on the morning of our last day in New York. I'd promised my nieces I would bring them back some Levain cookies. And let's be real, it's not like I was going home empty-handed myself. I presumed they would freeze nicely so what's an extra cookie or three to take home? Plus I needed a snack for the plane ride, 'kay?

The bakery opened at 9 am on Sunday morning. I got there 10 minutes before 9 and this line above was already happening. I was #14 in line. But it was a good thing I got there when I did because by the time the bakery opened 10 minutes later, there were a good 2 dozen people behind me. Apparently, I'm not the only one who knows my cookies.

I do think it worthwhile to mention that Levain Bakery doesn't just do cookies. As you can see from some of the pictures below, they offer other baked goods as well. I was tempted to try at least one non-cookie item, particularly the Valrhona chocolate roll, but we had plans to go to Shake Shack for lunch, I was only doing 5 miles of walking that day and I didn't think I'd have room for a Levain cookie and a chocolate roll. Regretfully, I passed. Maybe next time.

I will save you my (further) rhapsodizing about the cookies, especially since technically I didn't try all the different flavors I bought, but I will call out the chocolate chocolate chip. This is the one my friend Caroline had sent me long ago and I had even made a copycat recipe of it which I thought turned out pretty well.
Chocolate Chocolate Chip - $4
I still like that copycat recipe but I have to admit, that too pales in comparison to the real thing. Look at the inside of that cookie. That's pretty much perfection when it comes to a chocolate cookie. It's set, it looks and tastes like baked fudge that's just barely in the cookie category and it was rich decadence. I could only eat a half cookie at a time since it was so rich but you better believe I went back for that second half later once my sweet tooth came down from its sugar high.

Seriously, if I could only have one Levain cookie, I'd probably get the chocolate chocolate chip one. Then run a marathon.

Alas, that ends this series and the 20,000 calories I consumed in New York (it was probably more than that but let's not quibble). My 3 days were up - until next time, New York.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip Cookie - $4

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie - $4

Friday, January 20, 2017

NYC: Restaurant Review - Grimaldi's Pizza

Grimaldi's Pizza - dinner on November 19, 2016
I have a coworker who, every time he goes to New York, brings home a takeout pizza from Grimaldi's and posts a picture of it. Once I'm done licking my screen in pizza envy, I make plans to go visit Grimaldi's when I'm in New York.
They have several locations in NYC and there's one within walking distance from our hotel at Grand Central. Well, walking distance to me. Shawn took a cab to meet me there, lol.
The location we went to looks like it was once part of an old church but had been remodeled into a little pizzeria. It's L-shaped inside with the narrow part holding several tables and the other section intersecting it holding more tables. I got there before Shawn, a little before 5 and I was the first customer in the entire restaurant. I thought New Yorkers just didn't eat that early. Turns out I was wrong because it was only a matter of minutes before the restaurant was nearly full.
The next customers after me were several women who took a table but shortly after, one of the pizzeria folks (maybe the owner?) asked them if they would mind changing to another table as a large party, mostly of kids, had come in and they needed to put together tables long enough to accommodate them; one of the tables they needed were where the women were sitting. They obligingly moved with good grace and I saw later that the owner had comped them dessert for the minor inconvenience. I thought that was a nice exchange on both sides and reiterated to me why I like patronizing small businesses. There's still a nice touch of great customer service and caring.
Not to mention, their pizza was awesome. Shawn and I ordered a medium meat lovers pizza for $28. And when they say meat lovers, they mean business. Look at that pizza. You can't even see the cheese because there's so much meat - sausage, pepperoni, ham, meatballs and a couple of other proteins. To a carnivore like me, it was pizza heaven. From this pizza forward, any other "meat lovers" pizza I order pales in comparison. Grimaldi's knows how to do pizza.
It's the first meat lovers' pizza I've had where, if you skipped the crust, you can easily Atkins diet with this pizza. Really. Now I know why my coworker almost always goes to Grimaldi's when he's in New York and why he brings a pizza back home. I would too.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

NYC : Restaurant Review - Tavern on the Green

Tavern on the Green, Central Park - brunch on November 19, 2016
I mentioned in the previous post that I was late getting to Tavern on the Green thanks to GPS deciding to dump me at the museum instead. And, cutting through Central Park, it wasn't like there were well-labeled streets. Nope, just a bunch of walking paths so the directions were "in 200 feet, turn left", regardless of whether there was a left turn or not. And don't get me started that I almost missed Tavern on the Green regardless of the fact that it was standing in front of me once I had arrived. Not like they went in for super signage or anything.
Fortunately, I had perused the menu online the night before and had been able to text Shawn my order so she didn't have to wait for my 1.5-mile hustle to the park and could put in my order when she did hers. Consequently, the waiter brought out our food as soon as I had arrived, huffing and puffing with a flurry of apologies for having a lame GPS function.
The food was good, if a bit overpriced, but I'd gotten used to that in New York...and everywhere else. I ordered the steak and eggs which came with crispy hash brown potato cakes that were divine. The steak and eggs themselves could be had anywhere but still, by then I think I had walked at least 8-9 miles already on an empty stomach so I wasn't complaining. Too busy scarfing the food down.

I was feeling fine after the brunch (meaning comfortable, not full but not hungry anymore) but then we decided to order dessert. Despite the fact that I was carting around the sucre plaisir from Laduree and a 5" red velvet cake from Two Little Red Hens. No matter, we were there and so was the dessert menu.
This is another one that falls under the "no regrets" column, although I did go past comfortable once I'd eaten it. But it was warm chocolate bread pudding with speculoos (cookie butter) sauce. Yes, it was as good as it sounded and as it looked. I actually preferred it without the speculoos sauce but it was still delicious, no matter what. The bread pudding was made with challah which is my favorite bread. Just the right amount of chocolate and a perfect bread pudding texture. Okay, that was worth ending up in the wrong place, wandering all over Central Park and walking half of Manhattan. If you ever go to Tavern on the Green, try this dessert - it was fantastic.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

NYC: Bakery Review - Two Little Red Hens

Two Little Red Hens Bakery - visited November 19, 2016
After my sojourn to Laduree on Madison Ave, I still had time before I went to meet Shawn for brunch to check out another bakery. I mapped myself over to Two Little Red Hens which was only a mile or so away from Laduree and (sort of) on the way to Tavern on the Green which is where we'd decided to have brunch. Have shoes, legs and feet, will walk miles for baked goods.
I can't remember what made me choose Two Little Red Hens as opposed to the other bakeries in Manhattan. It was probably location since I was already going to be headed to that part of Manhattan. Or it could've been a random yelp review. Or someone mentioning their cupcakes were good. It didn't matter because as soon as I stepped in, I was glad I came.
This is exactly the kind of bakery I like to try out. Lots of beautiful desserts in the display cases, small-ish space, kitchen on premise, friendly counter staff. I think I'd come with the intent of trying out a cupcake but they said they didn't make their cupcakes until the afternoon. I was there in the morning before 10 am. Bummer.
Undeterred and still having red velvet on the brain, I opted to get the 5" cute little red velvet cake instead. I did blink a little at the $15 price tag for such a small cake but when in New York.... Yes, it went into a bakery box and bag and I carted it several more miles to Central Park. I wandered around killing time before I met Shawn, GPS'd my way to what Google maps claimed was Tavern on the Green only to discover it erroneously led me to a museum 1.5 miles away. Ugh.

I redirected the GPS to tell me where I was really supposed to go - no, really, somewhere in Central Park, not the outskirts, and hustled my way to arrive 20 minutes late. More on that in the Tavern on the Green post coming up.

But in happier news, later that day, I cut into the little cake and let me tell you, it was worth every step of the 13-ish miles I had walked that day.

It wasn't just the flavor of the red velvet cake which in itself was pretty good, not quite chocolate but not just a red-colored cake either. But the cake texture was everything. Fluffy but not light-cakey. Not pound-cake-texture heavy either. But, like the Crumbs dulce de leche cupcake, it was just right.
I wish I could make cakes like this, I really do. I make decent cakes but so far I haven't cracked the code on making cakes with this kind of texture. It wasn't too soft, it wasn't too dense and it wasn't too airy but just right. Fluffy is the only way I can think to describe it although not as fluffy as my beloved banana cake from Icing on the Cake. But still a good fluffy.
That $15 for a little cake? Worth every penny. I want to learn how to make cakes with this kind of texture. I suspect cake flour for some of the flour, hence the softness of the crumb. But not all cake flour or else the texture would be too soft. I need to experiment.