NYC Chow: Manhattan's Humble But Phenomenal Desserts

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Magnolia Bakery
401 Bleeker St., New York, NY
Web: Magnolia Bakery
Phone: 212.462.2572
Rating:    [learn more]
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"We could hardly restrain ourselves from forking our way through bite after light, chocolatey bite, eventually scraping the residual mint cream from the wax paper lining."

New York's indigenous foods are fine, and its ethnic fare's good, but the depth, breadth, and quality of its dessert options are quite possibly the best we've had anywhere in the United States. It doesn't matter whether you're looking for something fancy like cheesecake with gold leaf, or more common snacks such as Italian pastries, homemade ice creams, famous cupcakes, or just hot, glazed cashews - anything you might desire is only a brief subway ride away, if not closer. Over the course of our two most recent visits to Manhattan, we've done our best to find some of the city's best sweets; below, we share the almost uniformly wonderful results with you.

We've previously written about Caffe Palermo (148 Mulberry St., New York, NY 10013), a Little Italy-based restaurant that richly deserves its reputation for offering the city's best cannolis. As was the case on our past visits, two versions are offered - one with a regular cone, the other dipped in chocolate - and the results are nothing short of extraordinary. Each bite starts with Palermo's completely smooth ricotta cream filling, which is lightly accented with amaretto and sparing, almost surprising dots of tiny, high-quality chocolate chips, all of which are assembled beforehand and only placed inside the pastry cones shortly before they're ready to serve. Getting this cream recipe precisely right couldn't have been easy, but it's seriously so good that you could eat it alone.

It is, however, a fantastic contrast with either of the two cones Caffe Palermo serves. The plain version is baked to a point of solid crispiness, breaking only if given a firm hammer-like tap with a fork; it's generously topped with powered sugar and filled at both ends with cream, which never has a chance to render it soggy. By comparison, the chocolate cone is amazing, dipped such that the inside and outside are both coated in a thin, glossy layer of dark chocolate, which then contrasts with the same cream filling and powdered sugar. In our view, it would be almost impossible to make cannolis better than these; the most a competitor could hope for is an equally excellent, but different recipe. Caffe Palermo remains unrated as we've barely tapped its large menu or even its dessert cases, but the cannolis are four-star affairs all the way.

Caffe Palermo on Urbanspoon

Another one of our favorites is the Magnolia Bakery, which deservedly saw its cupcakes immortalized three years ago in the Saturday Night Live song "Lazy Sunday." Frosted with an almost carefree hand, the $2.50 to $3 cupcakes sit in a corner of the place beneath a sign that restricts individual customers to no more than 12 - so that everyone can get some - and near some wall-mounted critics' testimonials to their greatness. We were already fans of the chocolate ones from a previous visit, so on a whim this time, we opted to follow one of the critics' suggestions and try the red velvet version ($3); this was a mistake. Every time we hope for a red velvet dessert to taste velvety or offer something interesting other than color, we're disappointed; this one was bland and somewhat dry, a mix of vanilla, light cocoa, and buttermilk flavors with a plain but generous topping of white vanilla frosting - as always, a load of red dye provides the color. It was nothing to get excited about.

But that was Magnolia's only miss this time. We went back again and fixated on a Peppermint Icebox Cake ($4.25 per slice) that was simple in execution - thin chocolate wafer cookies mixed with a thick, homemade sugar and vanilla cream. Yet thanks to an overload of peppermint flavoring, we could hardly restrain ourselves from forking our way through bite after light, chocolatey bite, eventually scraping the residual mint cream from the wax paper lining of the cake box. Like the standard chocolate cupcakes, it was so good that we almost forgot about the red velvet ones.

Equally excellent but different was the Banana Pudding ($4.50/12 ounces), served in an oversized takeout cup: here, Magnolia starts with oversized vanilla wafer cookies, then mixes them with a rich vanilla pudding, whipped cream, and utterly ripe, strong-flavored chunks of banana. The result isn't beautiful in the display case, and certainly isn't anything to look at in the cup, but the banana flavor is so natural and intense that it can't help but make a lasting "best ever" sort of impression. Cookie bits in every bite vary between tasting like soft vanilla wafers and chunks of cookie dough, making the experience of eating through the cup enjoyably unpredictable. Sure, the cupcakes can be pretty good, but we'll be going back next time for the cakes; Magnolia rates 3.5 stars overall.

Magnolia Bakery on Urbanspoon

Magnolia Bakery on Urbanspoon

Other stops on our visit included Greenwich Village's Yogurtland (267 Bleeker St., New York, NY 10014, 212.206.1824), the sole New York City location of our favorite California frozen yogurt chain. We'll repeat what we mentioned in our coverage of the California Yogurtland locations, and growing trend: thanks to Italian and Korean entrepreneurs, the frozen yogurt recipe you think you know has fundamentally changed, and isn't a joke any more - from the tangy, fruit-flavored yogurt to its novel new toppings, this is finally a dessert on par with ice cream in tongue appeal.

Considerably smaller and somewhat less tidy than the other locations we've seen, but still substantially similar in menu, the New York Yogurtland offered self-serve access to an array of 16 different frozen yogurt flavors - actually, 14 as two were out of stock, and one was running low - which you dispense to your heart's content in either a medium or extra-large cup, then load with toppings of your choice. The price is fixed at 39 cents per ounce, and following tradition, we loaded our cups with plain tart yogurt, blueberry tart yogurt, and for the first time, pineapple tart yogurt, adding blueberries, blackberries, and pineapple slices from a condensed but generally decent assortment of garnishes. For two of us, the total came out to $11.50, showing just how smart the 39-cent-per-ounce pricing policy is: that's almost $5 per pound, and when you're serving yourself, it's hard to stay under such an... arbitrary limit.

Though the pineapple toppings were clearly not great, and the plain tart frozen yogurt was barely dispensing by the time we got to it, the blueberries, blackberries and blueberry tart yogurt were up to their best old standards, and the pineapple tart yogurt was similarly superb: sweet, with a little sourness, and plenty of strong pineapple flavor to make up for the weak, pale yellow fruit that was on offer. It's obvious that this Yogurtland isn't quite the rival of its forebearers, but it's still better than any Pinkberry or similar competitor out there, meriting a solid 3 stars. This is the only type of dessert place that we truly, deeply miss having in Western New York.

Yogurtland on Urbanspoon

Thirty years old, the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (65 Bayard St., New York, NY 10013, 212.608.4170) has had to augment its neon front sign with a second one - "The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory" (emphasis ours) - and cites the presence of copycats for the added word. Why would anyone care to knock off the idea of a Chinese ice cream shop? Once you're inside the small place, which is packed with freezers that are themselves packed with ice cream, the reason is obvious: it's the decidedly Asian and other novel flavors, home made on the premises, which aren't easy to find elsewhere. Beyond the creamy, sweet, and yet thoroughly green tea flavored version shown, for which the place is famous, there are almond cookie, black sesame, durian, ginger, red bean, and taro flavors, longan and lychee sorbets, and a variety of more familiar options as well - you would never lack for choices. From our light sampling, which we wouldn't consider deep enough to issue a rating, the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory is guaranteed to please, but not to stun, except on pricing: a single scoop goes for $3.75. Blame the inventory and variety; if nothing else, the large menu of interesting flavors here will expand your understanding of ice cream options.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory on Urbanspoon

We'd planned to end our visit to New York City with one last meal, but cut it a little short to return home more quickly to family and friends; this, we used as an excuse to stop for just one bag of the honey-glazed cashews that appear in carts every few blocks as you walk the city's streets, next to similarly coated almonds and peanuts. The stand was called Nuts4Nuts, and indistinguishable from the dozens of others we'd walked past on this day alone. As much as we generally love these things, the cashews we had this time were nothing special; we finished the sweet, crunchy bag mostly out of hunger rather than excitement. We're looking forward to finding a better bag locally now that we're home...

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