The Incomplete Great Bakery Bike Ride

On Friday, as Yvonne and I discussed our weekend plans, my lovely girlfriend stumbled upon an idea that was as tasty as it was healthy.

“Why don’t we choose the ten best bakeries around the town and bike from one to another picking one pastry at every place? I will take some pictures and you will write it up,” Yvonne suggested.

“What are you waiting for? Choose the bakeries!” I enthusiastically blurted.

Yvonne burrowed inside her Apple delight for half an hour, browsed the internet and came up with a list of 12 French (oui), American, Turkish, German and otherwise-excellent-but-lacking-an-identifiable-ethnic-character bakeries all around town, from 58th street and Fifth avenue to Dumbo, Brooklyn.

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Twice the sun sank into New Jersey and rose out of the East River and Sunday finally came. The British used to say that sun never sets on the British Empire. How come New Yorkers never say that the sun always sets on New Jersey?

Anyway, Yvonne and I woke up, brushed our teeth, goofed off and didn’t eat anything, making sure we would have enough space in our stomachs, and finally led our steel and aluminum horsies out of the apartment by noon.

The weather forecast predicted another sweet summer day in New York:

Today Aug 5

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Today’s high is 91°F  with 70% relative humidity at 3:05 pm.

It was indeed pleasantly warm on the street, the sun smiled towards us from the sky and the tendrils of steam leisurely coiled and rose into the air like playful snakes.

“Great day,” I smiled at Yvonne, “We can definitely save on tickets to a steam room”.

We started biking, down Cabrini Boulevard, onto 181st street, across Henry Hudson highway, and down onto the Hudson River bike path.

Forty minutes and nine miles later we reached Gulluoglu Baklava Cafe – making baklava from 1876 – at the intersection of 52nd street and 2nd avenue. The place was packed with people and more than half of them spoke Turkish. Have you noticed something about ethnic food places? The better ones are frequented by the people from the corresponding ethnic group, while the worse ones are filled with the random white American tourists. This rule works particularly well as a negative filter – if the only Indians in an Indian restaurant are the waiters, this place is guaranteed to serve, ehh, an American version of Indian food.

Reaffirmed by the high Seljuk concentration, we decisively walked into the restaurant, got a table and studied the desert menu. The place had five different types of baklava, including, most excitingly, baklava with sour cherries.

Now, concerning sour cherries. Like everything else in this world, I change as the time passes. I divorce wives, change apartments, quit jobs, and find new friends. But, one thing will always endure – my love to sour cherries, known to Russians and Turks as vişne. Language tells a lot about people. In English, the word cherry comes first; it describes a real fruit. Sour cherries are just sour i.e. bad cherries. They are an inferior product that nobody would eat. It’s only acceptable to cook them into pies while adding heaps of sugar and chemicals. Recently, under pressure from Europeans and Asians, sour cherries are being slowly re-branded as tart cherries but it still doesn’t sound particularly convincing. For a Russian or a Turk, vişne is a wonderful fruit in its own right. We eat them raw (a lot), cook them, and make wine out of them. In fact, many people – including your humble servant – would rather eat ripe sour cherries than cherries.

Naturally, I ordered sour cherry baklava and a scoop of lemon sorbet to have a sweet and sour desert. A small cup of Turkish coffee finished the magic triangle by adding just a bit of rich bitterness. We sat at the table and waited, hungry and thirsty. Three minutes later the food arrived. I sank my teeth into the baklava.

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This Turkish desert often tends to be very sweet and dense but it’s not the case this time. The baklava was light and airy. It tasted more like a honey soaked French puff pastry. Slightly caramelized sour cherries inside were tart enough to offset the honey sweetness. The lemon sorbet was tart. I almost felt my throat seizing as the snowy substance melted in my throat.

The Turkish coffee was quite Turkish – rich and dense. I soon arrived to that existential moment that I always dread of – whether or not to take that last sip just above the sediment.

As I was eating my justly earned deserts, Yvonne’s food arrived. Now, I always knew that my girlfriend was an unusual woman, but I didn’t expect that: as a Turkish desert, Yvonne ordered two poached eggs with a yoghurt sauce. 

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I have to say that in a strange way it did work out well aesthetically. The yogurt sauce blended with white egg; the bright red and green speckles of pepper and parsley gave the dish something of a childish giggling dessert look. Yvonne attacked the eggs mercilessly. The dish melted and disappeared with magical speed right in front of my eyes. 

The waiter clearly liked Yvonne more than me. Which is not surprising for a heterosexual young guy. He brought her coffee in tiny silver pot.

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Yvonne finished the drink in a few minutes and we separated with Gulluoglu, our hunger muted and our souls merry.

As we stepped out into the loving sun rays, the warmth enveloped us into its wet embrace. We mounted the bikes and rode towards the next destination – Momofuku Milk bar. Forty blocks and two miles later, we parked our bikes in the East Village and walked into a hole in the wall. An almost invisible sign Milk hang over a door and a five foot wide window. The door frame was clearly designed in the 19th century since most modern Americans outside of New York City could squeeze through it only sideways. The room inside was slightly smaller than a middle class family tomb in a medieval cemetery. Inside, a girl who looked eerily like Yvonne offered us the local favorites of the cheddar green apple soft serve ice cream and a crack pie.

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We grabbed the food and crossed the room (in two small careful steps) to a bar stand next to the window. I sank my teeth into the crack pie:

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The pie didn’t seem to contain any crack. Instead it tasted like a fresh homemade pecan pie without pecans. The crust was thin and well baked, the insides gooey and sweet but not overly so. It was a reasonable choice if you lived in the neighborhood, but it definitely wasn’t worth a 2 mile bike ride. Yvonne slowly sipped on her 150 ml bottle of British (very) ginger beer while eating her (very) cheddar green apple ice cream. The bottle reminded me how the world has changed since 1950’s. Then, underfed people ate small portions of food, drank out of tiny bottles and effortlessly entered hobbit-size doors.

I looked around the bar. It looked like an East Village microcosm. A 7’x7′ tenement microcosm densely packed with east villagers like sardines in a can. Three kinds of people were present: the NYU students with liberal arts majors, the ex-NYU students with liberal arts majors and one pimply soon-to-become an NYU student with a liberal arts major. Girls, guys and gays, white, Asian, and black (just one), 15-30 years old, trendily dressed in fashionable but inexpensive clothing, skinny and constantly chatting.

Two wooden benches stood just outside the cafe and the crowd spilled over there enjoying a free sauna day. Yvonne and I finished another liter of water and walked out into the gentle sun. It was so warm that a strong breeze from the south failed to cool our bodies. My T-shirt and shorts were soaked with my own sweat. Accordingly to some of my friends, I was undergoing a detoxification – the gallons of sweat were naturally washing all the poisons out of my body. I wished these friends were here, sharing the joy of detoxification with me.

As we biked towards the next place on the list, we passed Washington Square park. As I glanced there, I was transfixed by the most amazing sight.

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A mini grand piano was standing right in the middle of an alley and a pianist was playing Puccini. Two large buckets stood on each side of the piano to collect contributions from the appreciative public and a large fountain rose behind the musician’s back. Some people listened intensely and some quietly chatted clearly enjoying the music. A park police car slowly drove buy and stopped for a while, engine turned off. Both officers were clearly Puccini fans. The pianist finished playing the piece and announced that he was switching to Schubert.  People didn’t mind. An steady stream of $1-$10 bills trickled into the buckets.

I walked closer to the piano. The musician looked slim but surprisingly wiry and strong. Maybe not so surprisingly, actually. I asked him later, during an intermission, how he moved the piano there.

“No big deal, I just put it on the side on this cart,” he pointed at 2’x3′ wheeled cart, “and dragged it here across the street.”

Accordingly to Google, a baby grand piano typically weighs 400-500 pounds. Oh, well, no big deal.

Somehow, seeing a piano in the middle of Washington Square park made me strangely proud of being a New Yorker. I generally don’t identify myself with groups of people, I lack patriotism feelings of all stripes, there are no sports teams that I am fan of, I don’t belong to any party, religion or organization. Still, for the first time in my life I felt this weird pang of pride for belonging somewhere. For being part of a city, where a musician would single-handedly drag a baby grand piano into a park to play Puccini and even cops would stop for fifteen minutes to listen to the music.

Yvonne and I finished our spiritual nourishment and proceeded towards Mille-Feuille bakery, a recently opened but already highly reviewed French place on La Guardia street. We parked our metal horses outside – unlike us they didn’t need food, water, or shade and walked into the bakery. Compared to the previous bakery, this was definitely a big upgrade, both in the quality of food and in the looks. Behind the counter stood a tall black girl from Benin who wore a white trilby hat and spoke with a French accent.The girl had a quality around her that was difficult to define – timeless and delicate – reminding me of a 1940’s movie star, like a 5’10” African Audrey Hepburn.

Yvonne ordered a passion fruit macaroon, her standard favorite. I looked around for a bit and saw a morello cherry pie. Since morello cherries are one of the most popular varieties of sour cherries, my choice was, well, I didn’t have much of a choice. The waitress served me the pie and I happily proceeded destroying it.

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The pie reminded me of Spanish architecture – unassuming and modest on the outside only to hide the collection of beauty behind the walls. Inside the simple brown dough, slightly caramelized fresh and dry sour cherries were mixed with sweet farmer’s cheese. There was absolutely no trace of preservatives, liquid, pectin to solidify this liquid into goo, corn starch, tapioca, fresheners and all the other disgusting stuff that seems to accompany every sour cherry concoction in the otherwise blessed United States of America. The pie just tasted like fresh fruit and cheese.

For the next ten minutes of happiness, I slowly savored every bite of the pie and sipped on a glass of lemonade. By the way, the lemonade was made out of lemon rather than natural lemon flavor and it contained an absolute minimum of sugar.

Time flies all too quickly when the life is good. The last piece of cherry pie started its travel into the dark insides of my body. Meanwhile Yvonne was talking to the waitress and the latter persuaded my girlfriend to try another desert. Accordingly to the girl, it was their best work – a raspberry croissant.

It did look very pretty, but earlier we had established a rule – no more than one desert per person at every place. But, it looked so pretty. And, it’s important to occasionally break the rules. So here it was, a raspberry croissant on a small plate lying in front of us.

Yvonne had an honor of getting the first bite.

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Her facial expression was quite explicit. I almost felt jealous – I wish she had this facial expression more often in, ehh, more intimate situations if you know what I mean.

I joined the fray, opened my mouth, stuffed the croissant inside and slowly closed my jaws around it. Yvonne looked at my face and laughed. I wonder if she also felt a pang of jealousy as the feeling of happiness that had nothing to do with her spread throughout me. Before I tried the pastry, I would confidently claim that the best croissant in New York City was chocolate and almond croissant at Maison du Macaroon. But now, I was not so sure anymore.

The damn raspberry thing just melted in my mouth. The little red flakes on top were dehydrated raspberry powder – they tasted like the essence of the berry. The flaky dough was just perfect – rich, light, airy, buttery, blah blah blah, I am not a food critic and I don’t know the proper terms but you can just take my word for it – it was good dough. The cream inside was mixed with fresh raspberry puree and it filled my mouth with the sweet, sour, fruity, fresh and custardy taste. The whole thing was like a Platonic idea of a raspberry croissant. Unachievable in its perfection, it was still right in front of me.

More time went by as Yvonne and I slowly savored every bit and morsel of the raspberry delight. But it also came to an end. It took us less than 1000 seconds to turn a Platonic perfection of a croissant into a chewed stinky mess mixed with saliva, hydrochloric acid and a bunch of enzymes. Every man kills the thing he loves, as Oscar Wilde once said. So we ravished and destroyed the beauty of the raspberry croissant.

We said goodbye to the Benin girl and walked back into the summer. Now we faced a choice. I was drawn towards Brooklyn. I felt quite full already and another forty minutes bike ride would be quite conducive to creating more space inside my stomach. However, Yvonne disagreed. She felt like she had enough bike riding in a steam room and she couldn’t face going another six miles to Brooklyn. Some people are just so sensitive – winters are too cold for them, summers are too hot…

So, we cut our tour short and started pedaling towards our next Manhattan destination, Patisserie Claude at W. 4th street. In only a few minutes we reached our goal. It was the third small bakery (Gulluoglu was a regular restaurant) that we visited in a row and it was interesting how little correlation there was between the decor and the quality of food in the these places. The Milk Bar was an unassuming hole in the wall selling nice but boring deserts. Mille-Fauille had pretensions and it lived up to them. Patisserie Claude was another hole in the wall, not quite dirty but not particularly clean, somewhat rundown and without an air conditioner. The deserts however did not look all that shabby:

ride 11

The plum pastry looked particularly seductive. As I was looking at the counter however, I realized that I couldn’t take any more sweet stuff. I was just done. I hadn’t realized before that it was possible. I always thought that my dessert eating capability was only limited by my financial state. Apparently I was wrong, my whole body was saturated with sugar and tartness and my soul couldn’t take it anymore. It was almost a traumatic experience. So, Yvonne and I bought the plum tart, packed it in a small white featureless box and left the place. I was ready to bike home but Yvonne insisted on proceeding towards the new German bakery on 7th Ave. I sighed and followed my indefatigable other.

We didn’t even bother to bike. Landbrot bakery, the place of country breads, was only five or six blocks north from us. It was close to five pm but, unlike trade unionized labor, the sun was not going to take off for a hard earned rest. Oh no, it was in working full power. The city generously shared with us all the heat it had absorbed earlier. The fortunate souls caught in the middle of this thermodynamic exchange, i.e. Yvonne and I, perspired with profuse passion.

We passed through Landbrot and immersed ourselves into the welcoming coolness of climate control. We looked around. This was no hole in the world. The spacious two story black and white place was decorated in a friendly industrial style. Warm (not temperature, only aesthetics) wood offset harsh black steel ceiling and white walls. The German dessert menu had a dozen or two of actual desserts, half a dozen sausages, a dozen brots, and a flaming pie. Naturally, there were four German beers on tap and big selection of bottled alcohol.

We didn’t even consider ordering a dessert – enough was enough. On the other hand, it was just too hot for meat. A $12 cheese place was the best choice as we enthusiastically agreed. A waiter brought us a two foot long plate with raclette, black label gorgonzola and smoked gouda. The apple butter listed on the menu turned mysteriously into apricot jam, little pickles and fresh zesty horseradish completed the plate. A generous helping of freshly baked Landbrot also arrived.

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Yvonne got herself a sparkling Rose wine and I opted for a light beer on tap. Suddenly we realized that we were actually more hungry than we previously thought. So, we happily made each other bread, cheese, apricot jam and horseradish sandwiches. The strange combination worked out amazingly well. There is something eternally satisfying about the perfect simplicity of Good bread with Good cheese. Soon enough, the cheese was gone and only few slivers of rind remained.

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Sic transit gloria mundi. And only ashes remain. We sipped at our drinks contemplating the sweet pointlessness of existence.

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And we biked home, patting our bellies swollen with happiness.

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