Franchise Heaven

Well I’m back from Manhattan, and none too soon. Any more decadent franchise foods and I would have popped. Normally New York isn’t like that for me. The wife is usually busy with something-or-other at NYU and I’m left to roam. Which I do, obsessively. I walk, walk, walk, up the island, down the island, across the island, round and round in circles on the island. On a typical day I’ll do 150 blocks, easy. For all that I tend not to eat much, subsisting on the odd bagel, slice of pizza or felafel ball. It’s the energy of the place, it holds me up. By the time I leave I’ve usually worn the heels off a pair of shoes and lost three pounds, but I’ve re-familiarized myself with one of my very favorite places.

This time was different since there was no academic business to attend to, so Mrs. Pastry and I were wandering together. Being as short and slight as she is, she needs to make regular stops for rest, nourishment and bathroom breaks. Works for me. I have nothing against food, mind you, I just get so distracted by what’s going on in the New York streets, I simply forget. As it happened, there were several items on my culinary hit list.

One of them was Beard Papa, a bizarrely-named Japanese cream puff chain that I’ve mentioned once or twice here on the blog. I’ve been hearing about Beard Papa for a while now (the name is a rough translation of the Japanese word for “grandfather” I’m told). It’s such a weird idea (Japaneses bearded cream puffs?) that I resolved to try it at the first opportunity. That opportunity came when the wife and I were traipsing along Broadway down around Astor Place. I looked up and there it was, staffed entirely by Japanese. The cream puffs were good but not great. Surprisingly crispy for having to sit as long as they do, they’re nice and sweet and light. It’s the cream that’s the bummer, more vanilla pudding (which is typical of these sorts of fast food-type affairs). I could see where they could be addictive though. Just a few blocks away we stumbled over another one in the West Village off 6th (again with an all-Japanese staff). I guess there are four or five in Manhattan these days. The other US locations are situated mostly where you’d expect to find Japanese people: California (where there are some two dozen) and Hawaii. Two or so years ago the company announced plans to open more than a dozen in the Midwest, but obviously canceled them in short order. Honestly, I can’t see something like that working very well off the coasts. Americans love sweets and baked things, but unlike the Japanese, they aren’t as a rule nuts for French-style pastry.

The other franchise that I was anxious to try was Pinkberry. The celebrity-fueled hype over this (again) mostly-California chain has been intense since 2005 when the first of them opened. Another Asian import, this time from Korea, Pinkberry is credited with single-handedly reinvigorating frozen yogurt as an idea. These days there are about fifty of them in California and maybe fifteen in New York — but that’s not counting the imitators, which are legion. The buzz about Pinkberry is that the yogurt, being based on an exotic Korean lactic acid bacteria culture, is lighter and tangier than the Central Asian strains we’re all familiar with (those of you still experiencing PTSD over last fall’s extensive posts on the subject know what I’m talking about). And in fact it is quite tangy and citrus-y, somewhere between traditional yogurt and Italian lemon ice. It’s downright addictive with all the goofy toppings they put on it (everything from fresh fruit to Cocoa Pebbles). No wonder people on the coasts call it “Crackberry”.

Other than that I was amused to be handed a brochure for Insomnia Cookies, something many of you who live in big university towns are already familiar with. What a great idea: bringing hot cookies and milk to people in the middle of the night. How can you lose? We were, however, too full that night to go ordering cookies.

Why? Because we ate at Otto, Mario Batali’s notorious pizzeria on Fifth. The guy owns a score of restaurants these days, so even though there’s only one Otto, it still counted to me as a franchise. And indeed it really gives the impression of a franchise when you go into it. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just got that familiar sort of factory-like feeling that anyone who’s every eaten at a hot “concept” restaurant knows very well. Were we really looking to get both barrels of Batali square in the face we might have gone to the legendary Babbo (we did in fact stay right across the street), but on the one hand we didn’t have $300 to drop on dinner and on the other I was curious about his pizza crust. It was cracker-thin and crispy, not at all what I was expecting. But good. Nicely charred on the bottom. Since there wasn’t anything baked on the menu for dessert, no Gina DePalma-created cakes or tarts, we followed Otto up with a $7 scoop of gelato at Grom. I was done for the evening.

So that, in a nutshell, was my major market baking and dessert trends tour of Manhattan. I enjoyed it, but now that we’re up-to-date I think we’ll go back to the old haunts the next time. When we first met and were kicking around Greenwich Village some ten years ago now (Lord that makes me feel old), the future Mrs. Pastry was a master of the cheap eats scene. She was a student, you see, and had a scant $300 a month to live on after rent. On the rare occasion she was able to eat out, the food had to be cheap and it had to be good. What’s true of Manhattan — and which it is true of very few other places — is that you can have some of the most memorable meals of your life for under ten bucks…and then again over a hundred (what’s in between is hit and miss at best). Mama’s Food Shop on Third Street between A and B in Alphabet City was one of those great cheap spots. Next time we’ll go back.

The thing about eating anywhere, and I’m not saying anything new here, is that the indigenous foods — the things the natives have been making and enjoying since forever — are always the best. So, in absence of a spot that you are absolutely certain is worth $300 (as Babbo would have been), always ask somebody who lives locally where to go. On a tip from just such a person we had lunch at a place called Barney Greengrass the Sturgeon King on Amsterdam, where we ate potato latkes off a grey formica tabletop next to the worst wallpaper you’ve ever seen. The small mound of smoked sturgeon, scrambled eggs and caramelized onions I ate there ranks with the best meals of my life (worth every dime of the seventeen bucks it cost). It was, by a mile, the culinary highlight of the trip.

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