Friday, June 15, 2012

New York & the Ultimate Cupcake Challenge.

As a distraction from bar prep (ugh), I decided to take a little getaway to NYC and see one of my best and oldest friends, Elie. While there, I of course took advantage of NY's amazing food scene, including one very special challenge: I did research on the bakeries that are considered the best in the city, and then tried cupcakes from each one to figure out once and for all who makes the best cupcake in all of the Big Apple. 6 days, 5 bakeries. It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta do it.

On my first full day, I went to Katz's Deli (205 East Houston Street) - thanks to my cousin Cynthia for the recommendation. You may know it as the scene where Sally had her fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally, and I now know it as the place with the incredible knishes. I also partook in some incredible pastrami (my first pastrami sandwich ever!) and some pickles. I swear not all of this food was for me, by the way.

After stuffing ourselves at Katz's, my dining companion Brennan and I went to get some gelato. Both Brennan and I studied in Italy, and we had a pretty heated disagreement about the best gelato in New York (spoiler alert: I'm right). Still, I'll admit that Laboratorio Del Gelato was pretty scrumptious (188 Ludlow Street). Pictured is blackberry and almond.

That evening, Elie and Jess took me to the top of the Empire State Building. So touristy, I know - but everyone should do it once! Or in Elie's case, 80 times. Thanks guys.

Are you ready for the first cupcakes in our challenge? They're from Sugar Sweet Sunshine Bakery (126 Rivington Street). The bakery itself is kitschy and adorable, with pictures of people and their dogs up on the wall. I ordered one vanilla with chocolate-almond frosting, one vanilla with vanilla frosting (green), and one strawberry with peanut butter frosting - like a PB&J! I absolutely loved these cupcakes. They gave me a feeling of nostalgia when I bit into them, because they tasted like a delicious version of the cupcakes you would get at a friend's 8th birthday party. Elie said the vanilla with chocolate frosting was the best he'd ever had! Then again, this was day one of the Cupcake Challenge. These were delicious, and only $1.75!

That night we had a touristy dinner in Little Italy. I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but I'm going to guess that it was Pellegrino's (138 Mulberry St.). The atmosphere of the streets really reminded me of being back in Italy, and especially the lights that hung above the streets. My pasta was delicious and tasted really similar to a recipe I've made out of the Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan (highly recommended).

After dinner we hit up Rice to Riches (37 Spring St). Yes, it was a big day for desserts. Don't judge me. I loved the store's attitude, and the rice pudding was AMAZING. We got cookies and cream and caramel topped with peaches and graham cracker.

The next day I stumbled down a couple blocks from Elie's apartment to bask in the glory that is Brooklyn Bagel (35-05 Broadway, Astoria). I know New Yorkers are intense about bagels, but trust me - this shizz is good. My first BB of the trip was toasted egg with chive cream cheese, red onion, and tomato. There are so many varieties of cream cheese that I don't know how anyone could ever get tired of eating there.

Later that day I met up with Elie to enjoy some delicious falafel. During my research into New York's falafel scene I found a lot of suggestions for the best places in the city, but I just couldn't make myself forget about good old Maoz (multiple locations, I went to 683 8th Avenue). I first had Maoz falafel in 2005 when I studied abroad in Paris, and I still love it to this day. Those toppings! That crispy falafel! For my bay area folks, there's a location in Berkeley. yummm.

Guess what else we ate that day? I bet you guessed it: CUPCAKES! Today's confections were from Amy's Bread (multiple locations, I went to 672 Ninth Avenue). Amy's cupcakes had a couple of problems. First of all, the frosting on one totally slid off. Booo. Second of all, my red velvet cupcake had a spot of mold on it. Green, yucky mold. Yes, really. I got my money back the next day, and to be fair they were very gracious. All of the other cupcakes seemed just fine, and I had already eaten my half of the red velvet before Elie spotted the moldy offender. Pictured: Vanilla/vanilla (pink frosting), vanilla with mocha, and red velvet. These cupcakes were good, but not great. The cake was on the dry side, and the frosting was super sweet. I liked how light and fluffy the red velvet was though.

That Saturday morning we went for a rather long brunch at Lido in Harlem (2168 Frederick Douglass Blvd). I blame the length of our stay on the bottomless mimosas, natch. I had something akin to eggs benedict made with short rib hash. Dee. Lish. I also ordered a side of bacon and it came with every piece of bacon ever. Oh, and I ate every last piece.

After lunch and before a much-needed stroll through Central Park, I treated myself to an amazing Levain Bakery chocolate chip & walnut cookie and some milk (multiple locations, we went to 2167 Frederick Douglass Blvd).

Central Park is pretty. Duh.

Later that evening we went to the Frying Pan, a super cool bar and restaurant on a boat (Pier 66)! I chowed down on some short ribs, plus our third cupcakes: Baked by Melissa (multiple locations, no idea where we were). These cupcakes are miniature, so every cupcake is just a mouthful. Pictured are Tie Dye, Wedding Cupcake, two Chocolate Chip Pancakes, Cookie Dough, and Peanut Butter Cup. I liked the Tie Dye (vanilla) the best. These were tasty, but really sugary sweet. Sorry for poor photo quality!

The next day we had a lovely Brooklyn Bagel (egg everything bagel with jalapeno asiasgo cream cheese and tomato) followed by a trip to an even lovelier beer garden (Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden, 29-19 24th Avenue, Astoria). I was also reunited with my love bug Nadia. We even saw a double rainbow!

Ready for our cupcake of the day? They're from Billy's Bakery (multiple locations). We shared vanilla/vanilla, chocolate/chocolate, chai, carrot cake, and banana. The banana was absolutely OUTSTANDING, but the rest didn't leave a huge impression on me. I liked them better than Amy's and Melissa's, though. The banana. Just do it.

That night was, in a word, amazing. I was reunited with some old friends and with a place I love - EATALY! We shared a meat and cheese platter, and I had some tagliatelle with braised short rib ragu. Have you noticed my short rib obsession on this trip? We also shared an excellent pizza. The flavors really brought me back to Italy. Thank you sweet nostalgia!

The next day Brennan once again gallantly accompanied me to another meal at Ippudo for ramen (65 4th Avenue). We shared pork buns and both chowed down on some incredibly flavorful ramen. The legend of the pork buns is true.. they were incredible.

After lunch I forced Brennan to go to Grom with me - another blast from my Italian past. To me, Grom is the best gelato in the world, since I used to eat it almost every day while I was in Torino. Pictured: bacio and crema di Grom.

For my last night in New York, Elie and I went to King of Falafel and Shawarma (30th St & Broadway, Astoria) where I got a "Freddy's Junior" platter - kefta & chicken over flavored rice, served with a delightful falafel ball, salad, and tahini & hot sauces. We also downed some rambutinis.

That brings us to our last cupcakes, and the most lauded: Two Little Red Hens. I was pretty skeptical about them, but guess what? They're as good as everyone says. I got two vanillas, a red velvet, a marble, a "Brooklyn Blackout" (it has pudding INSIDE IT), and a banana. The banana was just as good as Billy's, if not better. The cake was moist, fluffy, and soft. The frosting wasn't overly sweet or overly flavored.

So who's the winner of my cupcake challenge?...

Overall, the best cupcakes were definitely from Two Little Red Hens. Everything about them was awesome. But to me, great food is about how it makes you feel, and no other cupcake made me happy the way Sugar Sweet Sunshine's did. So my advice to you is to try both! :)

My last meal in New York? Brooklyn Bagel of course (egg bagel with veggie cream cheese and tomato)!

Ciao for now!