Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Selected Ballads Selects...Coffee and Baked Goods

Stumptown is my go-to supplier for coffee beans, as they have a great selection, they get consistently good beans, and they seem to know how to roast to just the right level. Just about everything I try from them makes a great cup of coffee, though I tend to like the Guatemalan and Ethiopian coffees the best. Hopefully this was an anomaly, but on my last trip to the Ace Hotel location, I had a hard time finding any beans roasted most recently than a week before. I feel a little silly even mentioning this, but Stumptown has spoiled me with their usually dependable freshness (often selling beans roasted the previous day), and after all, the beans only have to make it from Red Hook to the Flatiron. When I see Stumptown for sale in Brooklyn stores like Union Market and Blue Apron, it's much more common to see that they've been sitting around for a week or two.

After running out of my last bag of Stumptown beans, I decided to give Gorilla Coffee another try. I'd written their coffee off as overroasted, with the consistently heavy hand on the roaster eliminating flavor differences between single-source beans from different parts of the world, but based on the Guatemalan beans I just bought from them, they seem to have eased up, much to the coffee's benefit. After only one cup, I can't judge the new-and-improved Gorilla yet, but if I was going to name some honorable mentions behind Stumptown, the first two that come to mind are La Colombe, the Philly roaster that now has cafes in Manhattan, and Blue Bottle, the San Fran "microroaster" with a Williamsburg location. Blue Bottle is probably Stumptown's nearest competitor in quality and attention to detail in their cafe - they've been getting serious with their baked goods lately and they serve NYC's best (and possibly most expensive) iced coffee. La Colombe takes a different (Italian-influenced) approach, focusing on blending rather than single-source coffee, and roasting darker across the board. Though I tend to like lighter roasts than the typical La Colombe coffee, they seem to really know what they're doing, and if I'm in the mood to switch things up with a darker roast, I'll go with one of their blends. Intelligentsia beans (from Chicago), some of the best in the country, are available at a couple places in NYC, but haven't been fresh when I've looked at them as I don't think they're being roasted locally. I'll pick up a bag next time I'm in Chicago.

[Update: good piece on Stumptown here - "the Jesus Christ of caffeinated beverages"]

For me, the undisputed king of NYC bakeries is still Almondine - their bread is the best (they wisely stick to a few basic French styles that they've mastered, rather than trying to be everything to everybody) and they can contend with anyone in the pastry and cake department (I was very fortunate to receive some of Almondine's superb macarons as a gift recently). Grandaisy is not far behind, though, and may be the best bakery in Manhattan, also very strong in both bread and sweet stuff (my observations are based on the W 72nd St location). In Brooklyn, Marlow & Sons, though only having a small pastry case at the front of the restaurant, produces consistently excellent scones, biscuits, and the like. I also tried Peels on the Bowery for the first time recently, and the two items I got (a biscuit and a banana donut) were enough to convince me of its potential elite baked goods status.

Venturing into still sweeter realms, I was in Yorkville for the first time in some time over the weekend and stopped in at Two Little Red Hens. I was glad to be reassured that it's still the place to go for unpretentious and unashamedly sweet and rich desserts - cookies, lemon (or lime-coconut) bars, cakes/cupcakes, and though they didn't have it when I stopped in, the best cake/loaf-style gingerbread I know of. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for my health), I didn't make it to neighborhood landmark and old-school butter-bomb cookie and pastry provider Glaser's. I need to get back there for what may be the world's greatest prune danish before they go on their annual extended summer break.

On the doughnut front, I've been hearing great things about Dough, the new place in Clinton Hill. While a still-warm dulce de leche from Doughnut Plant has put doubt into my mind at least once and Pies 'n' Thighs puts out a fine product (though they don't taste quite as good as they look - P'n'T might have, to my eye, the most visually appealing donuts in town), I still haven't found any place that seriously challenges Greenpoint's Peter Pan for NYC donut supremacy. I do tend to favor the purity of an unadorned or lightly glazed cake donut over the yeast-raised, heavily-iced-in-exotic-flavors style Dough seems to be working in, but I look forward to trying their offerings with an open mind. I've somehow not mentioned pie in this post, but Four & Twenty Blackbirds in the Gowanus is also high on my list of places to try.

As a final note, I'm pretty sure I got fatter just by typing the second half of this post.

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