215 E. State St. #10, Ithaca, NY 14850
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"Madeline's version, equivalent to a nut cake fused with a candy bar... is indescribably excellent, at once crunchy and soft, sweet and rich but neither unbearably so."
In the years we spent living in Ithaca, New York, we enjoyed many memorably great desserts - typically, several times each. Between the limited duration of our weekend visit and our ever-expanding waistlines, we didn't have the ability to visit every single one of our favorite dessert places, but we did make a strong run at three of our favorites. Our final Part of this series on Ithaca Chow concludes with a handful of sweet things from three places that were great seven years ago, and remain great today.
Madeline's. Located on the edge of Ithaca's Commons, less than 500 feet from the restaurant Taste of Thai profiled in Part 2 of Ithaca Chow, Madeline's is home to an item that we would quite literally describe as the best chocolate dessert we've ever eaten. Shown in our first photograph above, it's called the Marjolaine ($7), and described by the restaurant simply as "layers of almond jacarde, ganache, hazelnut praline, and whipped cream," wrapped in a thin shell of dark and white patterned chocolate.
However, assembly of this French dessert defies simple description. Were you to search many Marjolaine recipes - say, Godiva's, Allrecipes', or Epicurious' - you'd find many different versions, each a bit different from the others, as well as debates over the very meaning of the Marjolaine word. It is, one gathers, open to interpretation; Madeline's version, equivalent to a nut cake fused with a candy bar and served atop stripes of chocolate and vanilla syrup, is indescribably excellent, its proportions of ingredients at once crunchy and a little soft, sweet and rich but neither unbearably so.
There are other desserts - many of them - in Madeline's display cases, including a wonderful flourless chocolate and ganache Spyro Gyra cake, a flourless chocolate and hazelnut Gianduja torte, Creme Brulees and Tiramisus, Red Velvet Cake, a Prince Regent Cake, and the Zuccotto, an excellent vanilla-slash-Kahlua sponge cake dome filled with hazelnut chocolate chip and mocha cream. We've tried and loved them before. This time, we tried something different, the Valrhona Chocolate Gelato - a dish with three scoops of intensely chocolatey Italian ice cream, fused with such intense chocolate flavor that one of us tasted the bitterness of cooked cocoa; the other loved the strong, rich taste. A sectioned strawberry laid alongside the Gelato might as well have been dipped in milk chocolate for its exposure.
Madeline's is also known for its meals - which we've skipped on all but one occasion in the past - and its drinks, which we've generally enjoyed. This time, the smarter of us picked a perfectly complementary Espresso Martini, served with three floating coffee beans and the idea mix of coffee and light martini flavors; we find far too often that coffee and alcohol drinks rely upon Kahlua or come across as heavy handed, which this did not. Our drink mistake was a Lime Gimlet, essentially a Gin and Tonic minus the tonic and heavier on the lime, which tasted fine but didn't mix well with the desserts. We blame ourselves for this error in ordering, and certainly are planning to remedy it with another visit in the near future.
Collegetown Bagels, 415 College Avenue in Collegetown, not the other locations. An unlikely choice for desserts? Perhaps; unlike its owner, the once famous Ithaca Bakery, Collegetown Bagels was better known years ago for its coffees, bagels, and edgy staff (think tattoos and piercings) than for its sweets. But its display cases did include desserts, and to our eyes, they've only increased in number over the years. We looked over Italian pastries, cookies, bars, cakes, mini-pies, cannolis and the like before settling on two items, both familiar.
The first was the Almond Crescent ($1.50), an incomparable horseshoe cookie made from candied almonds layered on top of a super-soft almond paste-based center, then dipped on one side in dark chocolate. Decidedly unlike plain almond cookies in that its texture is chewy rather than crispy, the Crescent was every bit as good now as it was when we first tried it 10 or so years ago - it shouldn't be so rare outside of Ithaca.
We also tried something completely different. Wait for it... ready? A Marjolaine. Sold here for $4 and described as "almond meringue with hazelnut and mocha buttercream, chocolate ganache and marjolaine glaze," the Collegetown Bagels version of this dessert was as bad as the Madeline's take was superb, in essence layering dry cocoa powder on top of a layer of almost dry chocolate, slightly soft hazelnut glaze, and an utterly awful block of hard, vaguely almond-flavored white meringue. Merely trying to properly cut this Marjolaine required something stronger than plastic silverware; our tools hit it like a chisel. Thankfully, we had some delicious coffee - a wonderful Vanilla Latte - and a decent blueberry and vanilla yogurt smoothie to wash it down.
Cornell Dairy Bar, corner of Tower and Judd Falls Roads. Our final dessert stop of the weekend was at another old favorite, Cornell's famed on-campus Dairy Bar. As a part of the University's Department of Food Science, the Bar appears at first to be just one of the campus's many interesting little culinary surprises, but turns out to be a full-service ice cream shop with packed pints, cartons, and counter served cones. We picked regular-sized sugar cones ($2 each) in Espresso Chunky Chip and Nutty Buddy Franklin (peanut butter, Reese's cup, and fudge) versions, each packing the experience of a full ice cream sundae into two scoops of single-hand ice cream goodness. The best ice cream ever? Perhaps not - Ben and Jerry's stuff is unabashedly richer - but the ingredients and flavors here were wonderful; there's no doubt that we'll be returning again, perhaps with a portable freezer in tow.
Do you have any Ithaca favorites? We welcome your suggestions in the Comments section.