Because bakers and pastry chefs are in a largely nocturnal trade, shelves are filled and pastries are freshest in the hours just after sunrise. I schedule my visits for the morning.
I like to pick spots that will also give me a good quality walk. All that pastry requires wearing off. These sweet outings have the built in benefit of freeing me from the often dull and over priced hotel breakfast. If you're not as ambitious first thing in the morning, but still want the sweets, prepare for a less than choice selection as the day wears on.
In making plans for a recent trip to Manhattan I had to wrestle my list down to manageable. There's a shop, or two, worth the journey in every neighbourhood in mid and lower Manhattan (and many more beyond.) These are the spots that made it to the top this time around.
The last time I was in Manhattan I walked by a pastry counter in Dean & Deluca and spied a doughnut in need of an owner. I bought it, bit into it, and never forgot the lasting sweet impression of that Créme Brûlée doughnut. No surprise that one of my first and happiest plans this time around is a visit to its maker. The Doughnut Plant is the place where the formerly trashy takeaway breakfast sweet went for a classy, cultured makeover.
It's a doughnut box sized space in the lower east side, just east of the cacophony of Chinatown and Little Italy, on a quiet piece of Grand St. The queue of doughnut seekers is processed with the same efficiency as the doughnuts. Fresh trays filled with all manner of inspired choice create a wall between kitchen and shop. There are a few tables inside and benches outside - a great spot for watching everyday New York go by.
On any given day the selection of cake doughnuts include Tres Leches, Carrot Cake, and Oatmeal. They have the buttery, rich and dense texture of an old-fashion homemade cake and a sweet crackly surface from a final dip in icing sugar glaze. Carrot Cake adds to the delight with a tangy cream cheese center. Oatmeal is all soft sweet brown sugar beaten together with butter and oats just like its namesake cookie. It only wants for a cup of a tea and a classic novel. Black Out is an outrageous chocolate fix of moist and dark Devil's Food cake, creamy chocolate pudding center all topped with a bitter crush of chocolate wafers.
Yeast doughnuts like the Valrhona Chocolate are just the right balance of light and yeasty. They can also have a creamy pudding center, as in the sumptuous Coconut Cream with its crackled sugar glaze and white coconut finish.
There are seasonal offerings as well. Woe is me to have missed the late summer pleasure of the Peaches and Cream doughnut by just a few days.
The Doughnut Plant could be a more-than-one-visit spot. There's no shortage of variety or pleasure here and it's a sweet and unique bite of New York success.
A quiet, calm, reserved, space plucked from a Parisian street corner. Everything in this much hyped NoHo (north of Houston St.) spot is French café chic - Thonet bar stools, cool Carrara marble counters, delicate glass shelves, carreaux de ciment tiles in a French blue pinwheel pattern, sparkling beveled mirrors, hanging button mushroom shaped lights, and decorative macaron croquembouche.
Viennoiserie are artfully displayed in antique filigree wire tiered trays, breads in wicker baskets, and smaller traditional sweets - macaron, florentine, and elaborate desserts - in a small glass case.
Croissant and pain au chocolat are picture perfect. Leavened layers of thin, crisp, golden pastry sheets. But like the decor - all Paris, no New York - they're lacking some essential personality. They're more about the rise and less about the taste. It's the promise of good cultured butter and yeasty deliciousness and nothing more.
The smaller offerings are superb. Canelés, the very difficult to master Burgundian pastry has a gorgeous custard-like interior and a deeply burnished crisp exterior. They are close to perfect, as are the florentines, small disks of caramelized almond and candied fruit anchored to a dark chocolate base.
Lafayette does offer a peaceful respite before the New York lunch bustle. On the right day, lovely bright morning sunshine streams in from the east, warming up its cool interior.
Abraco is the way every day in Manhattan should begin and if there were just one spot to visit this would be it. Located in the Bowery, a neighbourhood that is at once gritty and civilized, full of apartments, thrift shops, and cafes. Abraco's unremarkable exterior is a perfect fit, giving no hint of the wonders within. It's a tiny place packed with personality. There's enough space inside for 2 or 3 to lean and more seating and leaning space outside. It's a place where only a few can stop.
It caters to the foodie hipster set - young service workers and art students who value a good cup of coffee and unique sweets like Plum Cake and Cured Olive Cookies. It's a largely local crowd and the staff carries on a collage of conversations as customers come and go.
The coffee, from Stumptown is the best in New York. A cup of Guatemalan had such a lively, fruity flavour I ordered a second pour-over (which I only rarely do.) The baked goods are sublime, out of the ordinary offerings, most containing olive oil or olives. Olive oil cake - really a loaf - is just the right sweet. Sugar doesn't overpower the flavour of the oil. It's a golden slab with a pleasing, slightly oily crumb.
But the real treat is the Cured Olive Cookie - it's an impossible feat of restraint to just have one (I bought 4 more to go.) Sweet, buttery, salty shortbread punctuated with large pieces of cured black olives. It's the shape and size of a plain chocolate bar and is rolled thin enough to give it a very pleasing crisp texture when baked rather than the sandy softness of thicker traditional shortbread.
I had a hard time pulling away from this gem of a sweet spot on this quiet, gingko tree lined street.
In the bustling Chelsea Market Sarabeth Levine stakes her claim as the grand dame of New York pastry. There's an abundance of crowd pleasers, like small cherry pies with a hint of spice and buttery light biscuits, for the mix of tony locals and tourists who frequent the market.
It's a big place - two-thirds of its square footage is production space visible through glass walls. In a largely unfinished basement, customers can get a good long look behind the scene as their sweets are being made.
The retail shop is small and the service is smooth. It's spilling over with the Sarabeth brand - jars of jam, bags of granola, bottles of tea, and the bakeries cookbook. Sarabeth knows that visitors also want to take away a side of sweet memories.
Glass cases contain pastries and desserts. One holds single serving puddings like crème brulée, chocolate mousse, and rice pudding. Another has breakfast covered with scones, biscuits, croissant, pain au chocolate, and muffins. There's a case just for small, individual pies and tarts like lemon meringue and finally, a small glass case filled with tender buttery cookies fit for afternoon tea or petit fours - Palmiers, Linzer, and Rugelach.
It's classic American baking, with a small measure of European influence, that's perfectly good. A few of the cookies and tarts come close to absolutely delicious. The production size scale may be a factor in it leaning more toward bland than spectacular. There are 5 Manhattan locations and the business has been strong for a whopping 33 years.
On a mostly quiet and shady street in the west village, Bosie is a small, cool and civilizing spot specializing in tea and impeccable French pastries and viennoiserie. The chef spent time with the legendary Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé and it shows. Glass cases are full of delicately rendered traditional French sweets - Paris Brest, Tarte au Citron, an array of colourful macarons and madeleines (a natural with tea.) An apricot and thyme scone is a perfect balance of sweet and savoury and has the fine and tender crumb of a well-made biscuit.
Tea is Bosie's raison d'etre and there's no shortage of this gentle beverage. It's deftly and imaginatively blended into offerings that include Dorian Grey, a black tea with the rich aromatics of bergamot and lavender, Toasted Coconut, and an ethereal green jasmine tea direct from Japan.
Beurre and Sel
If cookies are the way to start a day then the Essex Street Market in the lower east side is the place to be. Here, a tiny, all white stall is outfitted in a very sleek, modern, and artful manner. The delicious buttery cookie creations are the handiwork of celebrated baker and cookbook author Dorie Greenspan and her son, the "cookie monster", Josh. Plastic tubes of the sweet and savoury cookies protrude from one of the white walls. Fruit jammers are blueberry or strawberry filled shortbreads finished with a delightful sweet crumb topping. But no visit is complete without the chocolate cookie called World Peace. The creation of French pastry chef Pierre Hermé (whom Dorie has a long working relationship with) they are a sweet tribute to French Valrhona chocolate and the unrefined sea salt from Guérande. Biting into these dark and delicious salty chocolate cookies is sure to begin a serious addiction. There are also small herb and cheese savory offerings perfect for with a glass of champagne or an aperitif.
And what fell off the list this visit? Brooklyn's Bien Cuit and Robicelli's. The French expats Eric Kayser in the Flatiron district, Dominique Ansel in SoHo (famed inventor of the too hyped cronut), and Francois Payard on the Upper East Side are just a few more of the sweet reasons to begin laying plans for the next journey.