3960 Niagara Falls Blvd., N. Tonawanda, NY 14120
Web: Muscoreil's Fine Desserts
Rating: [learn more]
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American Desserts Italian Tonawanda
"These places illustrate the difference between truly excellent, impressively constructed desserts and ones that merely sate the body's need for modestly interesting sugar treats."
Once in a while, we're thrilled to come across a truly "national-class" local restaurant - a place that stands out from the pack thanks to superb food quality and presentation. Muscoreil's Fine Desserts in North Tonawanda is amongst these Western NY treasures, an upscale yet affordable bakery that almost completely impressed us: with only minor exceptions, everything we've tried here was pleasing or legitimately great. By contrast, we were less than thrilled by Williamsville's Village Desserts, which is discussed briefly at the bottom of this combined review.
As we've noted before, one mark of a truly great restaurant is an ability to do pretty much everything on its menu really well - a challenge exacerbated when, as at Muscoreil's, there are perhaps a hundred choices spanning cakes, pies, cookies, flaky pastries, and cannolis. How can a place offer so many things at once and have them all taste both fresh and good? Even in the past few weeks, we've visited dessert shops where beautiful cupcakes were stale, and signature items were out of stock for days, so it's obviously not easy for a sweet shop to maintain ample supplies of good, fresh desserts.
The key appears to be a combination of brisk business and smart inventory management: between Muscoreil's prices, quality, and selection - and perhaps its suburban location - it's obvious that people are willing to drive there and stand in line for the sweets. As we waited to be served, we watched multiple cakes disappearing from display cases for on-the-spot personalization, and saw others sitting enticingly behind glass, popping our eyes with their interesting designs. A Lemon Raspberry Cake was topped with an enticing yellow and red swirl, while Snicker Pies and Peanut Butter Mud Pies looked like the gooey, chocolatey results of controlled demolitions at candy factories. Muscoreil's does high-brow cakes with class, and low-brow cakes with a wanton, Jackson Pollack-like hand, each a form of artistry that impresses the eye at least as much as the tongue; they suggest that the chefs here aren't trying to shoehorn every type of dessert into the same sterile shape and look. Moving from display case to display case, we couldn't help but be seriously impressed by the beauty and variety of what was inside. New! See the display case photos on Buffalo Chow's Facebook fan page here!
More importantly, the items we tried tasted as good as they looked. Billed as the place's signature dessert, the White Almond Raspberry Cake ($4.29) was just right - a light, perfectly dense slice of yellow cake with a fresh layer of raspberry filling in the center, small streaks of raspberry throughout, and hints of almond extract in both the vanilla frosting and the cake. By "perfectly dense," we mean to say that the cake wasn't chewy, airy, or dry; it was moist enough, soft enough, and properly balanced in texture and flavor. We were very pleased.
Though we tried the White Almond Raspberry Cake as a staff recommendation, we picked Muscoreil's Turtle Cake ($5) purely on visual appeal. This dome-like chocolate cake-filled dessert looked like three hockey pucks wrapped in a layer of chocolate icing, giving way in drips to thick caramel and a generous ring of pecans. While we liked the cake inside, it could hardly compete with the interesting sugar crunch in the chocolate icing, which accomplished the daunting task of helping the chocolate compete with the strong caramel and nut flavors below. This was a fun dessert rather than a gourmet one, and we really enjoyed it for what it was.
The only definite miss in the bunch was the Mini Key Lime Pie ($3.29) depicted in our first photograph. In looks, texture, and size, it was spot-on, a perfectly tiny little pie complete with a neat piece of sliced lime on its top puff of whipped cream. Unfortunately, all it took was one bite each and we found ourselves making sour pucker faces; we love sour tastes and Key Limes, but there was clearly way, way too much lime juice in this recipe, possibly a full-sized pie's worth. Error or intentional, we wouldn't rush back for this one again: each nibble was more dare than dessert.
Though we could go on in detail about four pastry items we sampled, we'll spotlight only one, the Almond Claw ($3). We've had too many "bear claws" - oversized, hand-shaped pastries - to count, but this one was surely one of the very best we can recall. Lightly and tastefully glazed on the outside, the Claw was judiciously filled with a sweet almond paste on the inside - even to the edges of the paw's fingers - and the pastry body was utterly fresh and flaky, adorned with icing and sliced almonds. By comparison, the wand-like Raspberry Twist Pastry ($1.49) was delicate, light, and even flakier, topped with a similar icing, and an Almond Biscotti ($1) was just as we'd expected it to be: a dry but not too dry cookie, nicely almond flavored without being over the top in sweetness or nuttiness. The freshness continued with Muscoreil's approach to even its tiny Small Cannoli ($1.89) - rather than leaving a bunch in the display case, these finger-sized tubes are filled fresh to order with a sweet, soft Ricotta cream that we really enjoyed, then dipped in your choice of chocolate chips or nuts to order. It mightn't have been as memorably awesome as the cannoli at Caffe Palermo, but if anyone locally has a shot at replicating that nationally recognized formula, this place could do it.
With the exception of the Key Lime Pie and one other thing - multi-tier cakes, like wedding cakes, which may be frozen during prep and therefore not as moist or impressive as the items on display - we were truly wowed by Muscoreil's: along with Dessert Deli, this is unquestionably amongst the area's very best dessert destinations, and a place that we'd recommend without question to our readers. It's one thing to do an item or two well, and another entirely to do virtually everything from delicate pastries to grand desserts with great skill; Muscoreil's is an artisan dessert shop and comes very close to offering that complete package. Unlike Dessert Deli, it also merits special praise for its pricing, which is affordable enough for diners of any budget to enjoy with some regularity. Muscoreil's is highly worthy of our rare 3.5-star rating.
We're less enthusiastic about Williamsville's Village Desserts (5542 Main St., Williamsville, NY 14221, 716.632.6004), from which we've sampled items over the past year and never been totally blown away. This week, we decided to do a brief writeup, choosing a representative sample of its "gourmet cupcakes" and cookies, hoping that they'd wow us more than the items we've tried in the past. For cupcakes, we chose the signature Pink Lemonade, Orange Creamsicle, Oreo Cookies n Cream, and Mocha Bliss; in cookies, we grabbed the Macadamia Nut & Sugar, a Peanut Butter, a Snickerdoodle, and a Lemon-Iced Cookie.
Notable about all four cupcakes was their size and ratio of frosting to cake: like Delish, these are all stacked high with sugary frosting, but unlike Delish, the cupcakes start small, and in our experience have been fairly moist, but not anything special in cake flavor. Where Village Desserts excels is in injecting certain cupcakes with fruit fillings: as cross-sectioned in our photo, the Pink Lemonade has a squirt of lemon running through its center, while the Creamsicle has a similar filling of lightly orange-flavored cream. Each of these cupcakes was topped by a little something - a cookie, a candy, or a dab of lemon frosting - to spice up its almost cartoon-like top icing.
But as three of us made our way through the cupcakes and the cookies, none of us was really thrilled. The Pink Lemonade received the most praise, as we all agreed that the lemon center really helped to add flavor to the otherwise bland cake; two of us also liked the Creamsicle, though a somewhat stronger orange taste would have pleased us all. We shrugged off the two chocolate cupcakes, though we preferred the coffee frosting in the Mocha to the plain frosting on the Oreo cupcake; all of us felt that there was too much sugary frosting and too little benefit in flavor to eating it. The cookies were all semi-dry, and while modestly different in flavors were all similarly shrug-worthy - the sort of things we could have made ourselves at home. An upside: the entire collection of eight cupcakes and cookies cost around $13, far less than a similar number of admittedly larger items would cost at Delish.
Our 2-star rating of Village Desserts was reached unanimously by our group of three tasters, without anyone voting higher or lower. While this is a fine enough place to buy baked sweets, our use of the word "fine" in this case is instructive: Muscoreil's employs the word classically in its name to indicate "superior quality," but in common parlance, "fine" most often means "alright" or "passable." There is a difference between truly excellent, impressively constructed desserts and ones that merely sate the body's need for sugar in modestly interesting forms, and these two places illustrate that dichotomy as well as any local pairing we've come across.