Born again sticky bun lover

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Sticky buns, where have you been all my life?

My first real job as a teen—first to pay me an actual check and not  involve tutoring church kids or reading mail to the legally blind old woman who lived next door—was as a cashier at a Panera rip-off in Miami.

As would become the pattern of my work life, I hated it. The ugly khakis I had to wear, upselling bread bowls, even the fact that my sister worked there, too. I hated all of it.

All of it except one thing. Even more so than my meager paychecks, the one redeeming perk of the gig were the pastries I rescued at the end of each shift. Muffins, cookies, croissants, cinnamon rolls, danishes—they were all up for grabs at the end of the night and I rarely left without a bag. (Shout out to the thousands of calories consumed without so much as thinking of working out. Ah, youth!)

There was one thing, however, that never appealed to me: sticky buns. All that shiny, sticky gunk reminded me of the rubber cement I’d used as a kid, each bun a tacky tar trap of molasses. And those nuts, stuck in the gluey goo? A warning to my teeth.

Maybe it was all those neglected sticky buns I left to be tossed, all those passed over pastries, that subconsciously drew me to the sticky bun at Little King’s coffee window a few weeks ago. Maybe it was divine intervention.

Normally a cocktail bar with a small menu, Little King recently opened a walk-up window, selling Intelligentsia coffee and Roberta’s pastries to L train-bound locals weekday mornings. Glad to have an option that wasn’t Dunkin or bodega brew, I stopped for a coffee one day, and on a complete whim, a sticky bun to go with it.

Palm sized and more popover shaped than the swirled rolls I was used to, these sticky buns from the hipster mecca Roberta’s, were airy and fluffy, all buttery brioche under their salt-flecked, caramel glaze.

I am addicted. I’ll drive myself into financial ruin buying these every morning. Sometimes, I wake up and count back to when I last had one, trying to justify if it’s been enough days to treat myself to another one. If I have a run planned later, I’ll grab one and chalk it up to carbo loading. I daydream of that soft dough and buttery, salted caramel.

I would say I’m sorry to all those sticky buns of my youth, the ones that got away and got chucked, but I’m pretty sure they were nothing like these doughy, sweet buns I now constantly crave. I can’t imagine there are any left over each day, but if by chance there are, I hope whoever’s in charge of clearing them away knows how very lucky they are.

 

The magic of hype

Dominique Ansel's Magic Souffle

Dominique Ansel’s Magic Souffle

The moment I read that Dominique Ansel, the evil genius behind the now infamous Cronut, had come up with something new called the Magic Soufflé, I immediately got to plotting when and how I’d get my hands on one.

When Cronuts first came out, I didn’t want to believe all the hype, but as soon as I had one I fell under their spell just as fast and hard as all the other Cronut zombies out there. (And let me tell you, New York is crawling with these pastry loving fiends. They will shank you if they think you have a Cronut, so watch yourself.) Suspecting we might have another pastry craze on our hands with the Magic Soufflé I wanted to cast my vote early, before things got crazy.

Earlier this week, I moseyed over to Dominique Ansel Bakery, making sure to get there before noon (because they’re apparently already gone by then), and ordered a Magic Soufflé. Inside a cute little red and white striped open box, reminiscent of an old school popcorn box, was the rectangular Magic Soufflé, golden brown with a white star of powdered sugar on top. But even better than the pretty packaging was the fresh-out-of-the-oven smell of warm pastry dough, sugar and chocolate wafting out.

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Mmmmmm warm chocolate souffle.

The Magic Soufflé’s outer layer is a buttery, golden, orange blossom brioche, brushed with Grand Marnier caramel, but the real magic, the chocolate soufflé part, is inside, warm and soft and almost melty at its core.

So what do I think? It was pretty good, but not magical good, and certainly not $7 good. Even the Cronut doesn’t cost that much and it’s waaay better.  I guess I’ve just never been one for magic.

A delicious welcome

Four and a half days wasn’t nearly enough time for me to do all the eating I wanted to get done in London. I mean, it was a good little chunk of time and let me tell you, I made the best of it, but really, I needed days more.

I knew that going into it though, which is why as soon as I had dumped my bags at the hotel, I headed straight out the door, hopped on the tube (which by the way, is precisely a million times better than the rat-infested NYC subway) and made my way to Fergus Henderson’s St John Bread and Wine across the street from Spitalfields Market just in time for lunch.

While musing over the menu, wondering how many plates I could order by myself and not blatantly give myself away as a fat American on vacation, the server came by with a plate of bread and butter. I’d show you a picture of what was a stack of beautiful, thickly sliced fresh-baked bread with a pale yellow butter so perfectly rich and salty I wanted to dig into it with my fingers, but I was so famished that I hoovered it before I could think to pull my camera out. So yea, sorry about that.

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Crispy pig skin, for the record, is a fantastic way to start a vacation

St John’s is all about nose to tail eating, the idea of not wasting any part of an animal and using all the odd bits for making delicious meals, so I felt the crispy pig’s skin was an obvious choice. And this folks, turned out to be an excellent example of phenomenal decision making, because that damn pig skin was de-freakin’-licious. Crispy, crunchy strips of fried pig skin mixed in with tangy, sweet cooked red onion, sweet and slightly bitter chicory, all tossed in a spicy, mustardy dressing made for the best welcome to London lunch I could’ve ever asked for.

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Good looks to match its deliciousness

To go with it I also ordered the goat’s curd and mint, a gorgeous green heap of big, fat mint leaves drizzled with a bright green, spicy olive oil (not that it had spices in it, but just spicy in that way of really good, new olive oil) all on a thick, creamy spread of tangy, cream cheese like curd from goat’s milk on a crunchy slice of toast. Vibrant, bold, fresh flavors and a great mix of textures made me one very happy fat kid on vacation.

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A most delicious end to a great first lunch

To be completely honest, I could’ve easily put down another plate or two but I was feeling a bit self conscious as it was, sitting at a table alone, so I just skipped to dessert  and at the suggestion of the server, ordered the rhubarb and ice cream. Any hesitation I’d had (and there definitely was some since bread pudding and butterscotch sauce was also on the menu) disappeared when the server said it would be a few minutes while the kitchen prepared the brioche. YES, I thought, there’s brioche involved? YES YES YES. Not long after, she came back with a fat scoop of creamy, spiced ice cream, a small dish of warm, rosy, poached rhubarb and a golden, glistening, perfectly-toasted brioche. I chomped into it, making it ooze with a mix of butter and honey, and then spooned some of the rich, creamy ice cream and the tangy, warm rhubarb into my mouth, and well… there were fireworks going on in my head.

I can’t say enough how much I loved this place. Simple, unpretentious and casual, and with food so good it made me weak in the knees,  I think I’d go here once a week if I lived across the pond. I was really looking forward to eating at his other restaurant, St John, the first one in the bunch, but like a moron I showed up when they were closed. (I forget that outside of New York places actually close from time to time.) But really, St John Bread and Wine was so good and I loved it so much, that it might just be enough to hold me over until the next time I get over to London.

A light wallet and a happy stomach

Even though it’s impossible to forget, this city constantly reminds me what a ridiculous place it is. Where else would you pay $45 for two vodka Red Bulls (ahem, The Box, I’m looking at you)? And where else would paying just slightly under $2,000 a month for a STUDIO apartment be considered a good deal? And where, please tell me, would it be reasonable to pay $79 for a roasted chicken?

Sigh. Here in New York. But you know what, I’ll keep paying for all of these outrageous things because there’s no where else I’d rather be. (Well, except London, where I’d relocate at the drop of a dime if possible. No joke. London, call me. We could be so good together.)

I was skeptical right from the get-go of the $79 roasted chicken on the menu at the NoMad Hotel’s restaurant. I mean, really, $79? Do you know how many whole, organic, happy, well-adjusted, all-natural-diet fed, shipped straight-from-some-idyllic-farm-where-they-ran-around-living-in-perfect-poultry-bliss chickens I can buy for $79? Yet everyone raaaaaved about the new restaurant, said how beautiful it was and how amazing the food was and what an incredible job Chef Daniel Humm (previously of Eleven Madison Park…another pricey food mecca in the city) was doing there. So I said fine, like I say fine to the pricey drinks and to the ludicrous rent I pay, and went to see what the fuss was about.

And well, I get it. The restaurant is beautiful, the scene is stylish and cool, the food is delicious, and the chicken? The chicken will make you wonder whether you might possibly ever eat such a ridiculously good, eyes-rolling-in-the-back-of-your-head-in-food-ecstasy, wonderful and oh so succulent bird again.

My humble, fat kid opinion? This place is worth the hype. Yes, it is stupid expensive but it’s gooood. And as I’ve said before, I’m a firm believer in occasionally treating myself to something nice. Not usually to a $79 chicken, but this time yes. Below, my dinner with coworkers at the NoMad Hotel’s restaurant.

Butter-dipped radishes with fleur de sel

Butter-dipped radishes with fleur de sel

From the tapas style “snacks” portion of the menu we started with the butter-dipped radishes and fleur de sel. Like chocolate dipped strawberries, each little radish was coated in a thin butter shell, which really did a lot to make these not feel like rabbit food. Clean, crunchy and bright, I was a fan.

Beef tartare with cornichons and horseradish

Beef tartare with cornichons and horseradish

Also from the “snacks” section, was the recommended beef tartare with cornichons and horseradish. The beef tartare itself was delicious, creamy and flavorful with a subtle tangy hint and the little toasts that came with it were perfect bread specimens if you ask me, toasty and crunchy on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside.

Bread

Bread to beat all bread baskets

Next our waiter brought out a loaf of some of the craziest looking bread I’ve ever seen. It had a greenish-purplish color to it and looked like it might’ve been picked up off the floor in some enchanted forest, the kind where you could do that and find delicious bread. There were bits of rosemary, thyme and other herbs baked into and on the bread and the consistency itself was soft and doughy.

Whole roasted chicken stuffed with foie gras, black truffles and brioche

Whole roasted chicken stuffed with foie gras, black truffles and brioche

And then, the $79 chicken. Not that it softens the blow much, but I’ll mention that this dish is meant for two. After much deliberation, my coworker and I decided that as much as we hated to pay about $40 for chicken, we really just needed to know what this was about. So here’s how it works: the waiter brings out this beautiful, almost-glowing whole roasted chicken in a pan, with what looks like a whole bouquet of aromatic herbs sticking out of one end. They show you the chicken, you ooh and ahh, and then they take it away for a moment.

Part 1: chicken breast with stuffing, lentils and Brussels sprouts

Part 1: chicken breast with stuffing, lentils and Brussels sprouts

What they do is they take apart the chicken and bring it back served two ways. First, on separate plates, two  large pieces of juicy, tender chicken with the most perfect, just-right crunchy skin, served on a bed of rich, hearty lentils and plump, soft Brussels sprouts. Underneath the chicken breast, warm black truffle laced stuffing of brioche and foie gras. I mean, really, this chicken was fancy. Everything was just… perfect. Delicious, decadent and absolutely perfect.

Part 2: Chicken’s dark meat served with mushrooms and truffles in a creamy, butter sauce

Then, in a smaller, sort of cast-iron dish was the chicken’s dark meat, served in a rich, buttery sauce of mushrooms and truffles.  Again, totally over the top and decadent but so, so, SO good. I could easily have eaten this whole $79 chicken production by myself it was so fantastic.

Carrots

Slow-roasted carrots with cumin, wheatberries and crispy duck skin

To accompany the chicken, the waiter recommended we get a vegetable, so again taking a cue from our pricey poultry, we ordered the $20 carrots. (Pause to freak out and consider the excessive amount of carrots you could buy for this amount at the market. Ok, now stop.) These fancy roasted carrots were long, elegant, stylish things, all glazed and dressed up with cumin and crispy duck skin for a completely new and so much better carrot experience than I’ve ever had.

Milk and Honey

Milk and Honey dessert

And finally for dessert we shared the much lauded milk and honey, a plate of ice cream, brittle and shortbread that won points for color, flavor, texture and consistency in my book. The ice cream was milky and thick, the brittle and shortbread crunchy and buttery in a caramel, toffee way (even though one coworker said she was stabbed in the mouth by a particular shard of brittle) and the dehydrated milk flakes were crisp and airy, like pieces of sugary meringue.

Compliments of the pastry chef

Compliments of the pastry chef

But just when we thought it was all over and we could leave with lighter wallets and heavier, happier stomachs, out came one more thing: an assortment of sweet treats from the pastry chef. There were macarons, fruit gelees  and what turned out to be my favorite, lapsang souchong truffles. They were smokey, rich and chocolatey and if I had a dozen of them in front of me, I’d probably go through all of them.

So yes, like so many other things in this absurd city, dinner was expensive. But you know what? Like this crazy, sucking-my-bank-account-dry city, it was awesome.

The NoMad on Urbanspoon

Pigging out in Chitown

While I might appear slothlike, I’m really not, and especially when I travel, I like to hit the ground running. Even after a taxi-flight-taxi combo, the extra added annoyances of flight delays, last-minute carry-on bags having to be checked, and spending almost 3 hours wedged into the dreaded middle seat, as soon as Flaneur and I got to our hotel in Chicago I wanted to go OUT. There was a restaurant I was itching to go to and the next day just wasn’t soon enough. What if I died in my sleep and never made it?

So instead of kicking back and relaxing,  off we went in search of The Purple Pig, a restaurant one of my friends in San Francisco raved about and insisted I go to. Next time I see this friend, I owe her a drink at the very least because The Purple Pig was ridiculous–in the best way. Fireworks and a parade wouldn’t have made for a better welcome to the city.

Below, some food porn from our first night in Chi-town:

First out, from the antipasti section of the menu, were the fresh spring peas and bacon with spearmint. Fattest, most delicious peas I’ve ever eaten. I could eat this all day, every day.

Peas unlike any I’ve ever had.

From the salad portion of the menu,  rabbit panzanella with mixed herbs and lettuce, crispy capers, pickled fiddlehead ferns (that’s one of the curliecues in the left corner) and black truffle vinaigrette. Panzanella, a type of italian bread salad, is one of my favorite easy dishes but this took it to a whole new level. So many colors, flavors, textures. So. Much. Deliciousness.

A crazy heap of panzanella. Crazy good, that is.

Then from the fried items: sardines with shaved fennel salad and lemon vinaigrette. This is one of those dishes that makes you wish you were on vacation at the beach somewhere, maybe in Italy. But then when you realize you’re not, you’re still ok because you have these damn tasty sardines in front of you, and that’s more than enough.

Fried sardines: salty, tangy and just perfect.

Next, from the a la plancha part: pork jowl and grilled asparagus with oyster mushrooms and fried duck egg on top. This was probably, no definitely, my favorite. The pork jowl was tender and meaty, and when that perfect, orange duck yolk spilled over it? I could have cried if I wasn’t busy stuffing forkfuls in my mouth.

Pork jowl and fried duck egg. The people sitting next to us were blatantly staring at us while we ate this, food envy written all over their faces.

Last in our succession of savory eats, the pork neck bone gravy with ricotta from the smears section of the menu. A hearty, saucy, rich dish served with crunchy toast for smearing and dipping, this was a great example of what i consider comfort food.

Pork neck gravy and ricotta smear. As in, I want to smear this all over my mouth.

And then finally, dessert.  It wasn’t easy choosing but at the server’s recommendation, we went with the Sicilian Iris, a ricotta and chocolate chip filled fried brioche. Sounds magnificent doesn’t it? Oh, and it WAS. Something like a cross between a canolo and a bombolone, this thing was unreal. When it came it out, it looked like a round, fat, sugar-dusted donut but inside, it oozed, warm creamy ricotta with dark chocolate chips. Totally decadent, and so, so, so very good.

Sicilian iris: the sweet lovechild between the canolo and the bombolone

Not only was this one of my favorite meals in Chicago, but one of my favorite ever. I’d go back to Chicago just to eat at The Purple Pig again.

The Purple Pig on Urbanspoon

Grilled cheese daydreams

It’s been a bit quiet here on the blog front. I last left those of you that care and drop in ocassionally with a post about me stuffing my face full of pie. (Feel free to re-read below.) Shortly after that, possibly as I was digesting said pie, I realized that while I always feel like I could shed a few pounds (who doesn’t?), as of lately I really have been feeling like a monstrosity of a whale. No, really. A giant, fat, pie-scarffing whale.

So for about the past week or so, I’ve been on the teeny tiniest bit of a diet. I know, so lame. But it’s actually not that bad. I’m just trying to get some good habits going in regards to my eating and maybe cut back on the sweets. (It kills me just to say that, so you know.)

But on this so-called “diet” (ugh, what a dirty icky word), I get a couple of  breaks from the healthy world and during those moments of freedom I like to dive head first into the world of delicious, gluttonous and reckless abandon. Enter The Queens Kickshaw.

I’ve been harrassing my friend Daphne about going with me to the Queens Kickshaw for monts, since they’re both in Astoria, and last week, during one of my eat-whatever-and-however-I-want meals, we finally did it. We went and had ourselves some mighty fine grilled cheese sandwiches, which are what the Queens Kickshaw specializes in.

Egg & cheese sandwich... why can't there be a diet based on this guy?

They had a classic mozzarella and cheddar version (complete with the requisite tomato soup) and some mouth-watering (no really, like a slobbering dog) sandwiches with cheeses like manchego, gruyere and fontina and other ingredients including avocado, anchovies and mushrooms.

But when I saw egg and cheese as an option, I was sold because, really, it’s practically impossible to go wrong with such a delicious marriage of foods as eggs and cheese. It’s just always awesome. Always. But this wasn’t your average corner store $2 egg and cheese sandwich that you eat when you’re hungover and on the way to work. No no. This was creamy ricotta, gruyere, egg, thyme and a sweet, slightly spicy maple hot sauce, all between soft, warm brioche.

Let me tell you, people, there’s nothing that will make you hate a diet more than the mere thought of a grilled cheese sandwich like that. I want to take ten of those sandwiches, stack them one on top of the other, unhinge my jaw like a python, and eat the whole cheesy, eggy mess.  And it would be glorious.

Until the next break from healthy eating, I’ll continue daydreaming about a world where I could be rail thin and still eat grilled cheese and egg sandwiches all day long. Sigh. A girl can dream.