Tuesday, March 07, 2006

NYC in 24 – cupcakes, cheesy poofs & way-better-than-average eggs

Daniel gives Magnolia Bakery's frosting two thumbs up.

I had to go to New York for a meeting yesterday and it’s not in my DNA to go to New York (one of the food capitals of the world) and not go out to eat, even if it is for just 24 hours.

Snacktime, 5:22pm
My first stop was Magnolia Bakery, famous for its cupcakes. I was walking to my friend Mary Beth’s place in the West Village and just stumbled upon it. Everyone raves about this place including Martha Stewart. The bakery even made it into the lyrics of a funny rap song called "The Chronicwhatcles of Narnia," performed by 2 of the cast members on Saturday Night Live. This “bit” made it onto the Internet and was one of the most highly circulated videos over the holidays last year. So that’s the level of fame Magnolia Bakery had reached (only in New York). Apparently now tour buses stop there and the lines are around the corner. Luckily, it was late afternoon when I went in so it wasn’t too crazy.

So does Magnolia Bakery live up to the hype? Well, the place is absolutely adorable. Exactly what you’d expect a bakery that specializes in cupcakes to look like. Small and quaint (or cramped depending on whether you’re a glass half full or half empty kind of person), pastel colors, several Kitchen Aid mixers working overtime on batter, glass cases full of yummy treats including banana pudding with vanilla wafers, multi-layer cakes, etc.

The cupcakes are “self serve.” You go over to a table where all the cupcakes are on display, pick the cupcakes you want and put them in a box that fits 4 cupcakes. Due to such high demand, 12 cupcakes is the maximum you can buy. Apparently they sell over 2,000 cupcakes a day! Clearly I am in the wrong business.

It’s a little stressful acquiring your cupcakes because the place is so “quaint.” Picture this – Lynne (aka “bull in a China shop”), in this dainty shop, with a huge laptop backpack and overnight bag, trying to maneuver over to the cupcake table through the crowd, balance a pastry box, pick out a few freaking cupcakes so I could then wait in line to pay for them. Okay, so this isn’t the scenario for most people going into the bakery. But it was a challenge! And I can’t imagine during their busiest time how crowds of people get near that table. I’m sure it’s not pretty.

The cupcakes were definitely delicious, especially the red velvet chocolate cupcakes – creamy frosting and rich, moist chocolate cake. Pretty much worth the $1.75 each. However, this past summer I had a cupcake that far exceeded these. In West Stockbridge, MA. When I went to visit my sister and brother-in-law there, the first order of business was to get me to try the most out of this world cupcake they had ever had. I was thinking to myself, “How good can a cupcake be?!” Well, I soon found out. They whisked me off to Edible Adventures in West Stockbridge where Owner/Baker Matt Hauck frosted the cupakes right then and there for us. The cupcakes were much bigger than Magnolia’s and the FROSTING (it was pretty much all about the frosting although the cake part was good too) was a chocolate ganache (chocolate with cream folded in). Wow. Now THAT was a cupcake worth standing in line around the block for (we didn’t have to although a “pre-order” was necessary).

Dinner: 6:47pm

For dinner, we walked a few blocks down the street from Mary Beth’s apartment to an unassuming Mario Batali haunt (he's a partner in the biz) called The Spotted Pig.

This restaurant has a great ambiance. Dark wood, small tables, glass mirrors on the wall featuring the fairly extensive beer and wine list. The menu is a bit eclectic but I would classify it as upscale comfort food. “Bar snacks” include marinated olives, roasted almonds and “roll mops” (a house specialty - pickled sardines).

Appetizers (or what they call “plates”) run the gamut with salads (Apple and Pear with Mrs. Quickes’ cheddar and walnuts; Fennel and Celery salad with lemon, olive oil & bottarga; and Jerusalem Artichoke Salad with goat’s cheese and hazelnuts) and other interesting dishes like Spiced Lentils with crispy parsnips & crème fraiche and smoked haddock chowder with homemade crackers.

The list of entrées is smaller and features a nice range of choices as well from the Chargrilled burger with Roquefort cheese & shoestrings to Pork Belly with cabbage, carrots & juniper.

There were a few specials the night we went. Two appetizer specials really appealed to us so we ordered those. I had the Gruyere cheese beignets (which we affectionately renamed “cheesy poofs”). They were bite-size balls of cheese flash fried, nicely salted and gooey in the middle. It would be impossible for me to find anything negative to say about these except, perhaps, that they must be extremely fattening. C’est la vie. Mary Beth’s appetizer was tasty as well. The waiter told us that it is an Indian appetizer. Deeply brown fried onion rings with a side of raita (yogurt and cucumber mixture) for dipping. I wasn’t sure it fit with the rest of the menu but it was very good.

For dinner, Mary Beth was well behaved and ordered the Apple and Pear with Mrs. Quickes’ cheddar and walnuts. She enjoyed it but was not “wowed” by it. I ordered the Roasted Sea Bass with cranberry beans and herb salad which was wonderful. The sea bass was a wonderful cut – thick and narrow with the skin on which was very crisp and flavorful. The side of cranberry beans (my absolute favorite kind of beans not often found on menus) was in a brown sauce that I loved. No complaints here.

I almost thought about passing on dessert until the waiter told us that their Flourless Chocolate Cake had been recently voted the best in New York. The words “We’ll have one of those” immediately slipped out. My one complaint is that calling it “cake” is false advertising. THIS is no cake. It is more like a mousse. Rich, very light, no fork necessary. And it was served with a fluffy sour cream side which was a nice balance for the richness of the dessert. I would highly recommend ordering this should you be in the neighborhood.

Morning Fuel, 8:47am

My morning train out of Penn Station was at 10am which meant I had time for one more meal in Manhattan. When a local favorite diner of Mary Beth’s in the Meatpacking District was not open, we stepped over camera equipment and walked past a movie crew to the corner and settled in at Pastis (sister restaurant to one of my all-time favorite restaurants, Balthazar). Walking into Pastis is like walking into a Paris café (minus the lack of smoke). Small bistro tables and chairs, enormous distressed mirrors, dark wood bar.

Last time I was at Pastis, smoking was still legal. The place was packed, smoke-filled and you could cut the attitude in the air with a Wusthof (even though the food was good). This morning was a completely different experience. It was relaxed, people were reading their morning paper, the heavenly smell of lattés and cappuccino’s filled the air, life was good. I wished I could be staying for lunch.

Mary Beth ordered a latté which she said was outstanding (I’ve given up coffee so could only enjoy the smell). She also ordered eggs with home fries which she said she orders there often. I ordered some tea, a flaky, almost-as-good-as-France croissant and some eggs with ham. I know this sounds weird because eggs are usually eggs but I took one bite of my eggs and thought…these are different. They tasted lighter, fluffier, creamier. I know there’s probably a bad reason why they were so good (cooked in fat, extra butter, something) but I didn’t ask. I just enjoyed. What a great way to start the day and get fueled for the long Acela ride home.

Thanks for the hospitality, Mary Beth, Jim, Daniel and Sarah!

When in New York…
Magnolia Bakery, 401 Bleecker Street, West Village, 212.462.2572
The Spotted Pig, 314 W 11th Street, West Village, 212.620.0393
Pastis, 9 9th Avenue, Meatpacking District, 212.929-4844

Or if in West Stockbridge...
Edible Adventures, 5 Center St. West Stockbridge (Western part of the state), MA, 413.232.7722


Anonymous Madeira Mama said...

It's nice to know a New Yorker who can introduce you to good eating places. Everything sounds mouth wateringly delicious. Your photos add to the descriptions.

6:08 PM  

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