Every year for Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) Jonathan and I fly back east to visit family and friends. It’s our annual pilgrimage to the mother country, which, for us, happens to be a mash-up of New York and Washington DC.
And every year we book the same flight: the Friday night redeye that touches down at JFK somewhere between 7:00-7:30 AM. We do this for two reasons: to maximize the time we have in NYC over the weekend when our friends aren’t working, and so we don’t have to lose a vacation day by leaving during work hours. I think it’s all a big ruse to justify wearing his pajama sweatpants in public, but Jonathan will never admit that.
Ugh! Just the thought of those frayed hems with the faded sewage-brown straggly bits around the heels makes me cringe. Ever since the elastic waist lost all its elasticity, I’ve been trying to get him to buy a new pair. But no, “they’re comfortable,” he says. And as much as I want to toss them out without his knowing, part of me is proud he sports them. Glad to have a partner who embodies function—the perfect compliment to my obsession with form. I’m happy that he’s so self-assured and confident—an observation I make from the window seat in front of him, because I’ll be dammed if I’m going to sit too close and have his ill-fitting ensemble rub off on me.
This is the interplay that goes through my mind while I wait for my sleep-aide to kick in. And before I know it, we’re touching down in the Empire State.
Levain Bakery and the Gluten Gauntlet
This year, our first stop upon touching down was Levain, a tiny subterranean bakery on the Upper West Side at 74th Street and Amsterdam. My foodie friend Bianca, had it on her NYC list of places to check out so looked into it. All the write-ups and reviews referenced the “best cookie in New York” or the “amazing chocolate brioche,” as items I HAD to try.
“I’m exhausted Philip,” Jonathan winged from his side of the cab backseat, “let’s just go to the hotel and you can go to this Lavosh bakery or whatever later.”
“It’s Levain Bakery,” I corrected him, “which is French for leaven, as in ‘the unleavened bread of affliction!’”
With all the plans we’d made to see people during the few days in NYC, I knew a trip to Levain Bakery would just fall by the wayside. Not to mention the fact that any bakery worth the buzz Levain was getting, would be sold out of the good stuff by 11am. So I insisted we check it out, and 30 minutes later, Jonathan was grabbing our bags and paying the cabbie while I claimed my spot in line.
The line of patrons started in front of the counter inside—a magical case filled with fresh baked goodies—and wove itself up the steps, across the storefront and down the street. Thankfully most New Yorkers don’t get up early on the weekends, so the line was totally manageable.
Once I made it to the middle of the stairwell, I could see why this place is loved by so many. It’s a no frills establishment, celebrating the art of baking. Stacked boxes, metal sheets and pans, and bags of flour filled what little space there is where the staff wasn’t running around to serve customers or baking for the late morning crowd.
The gauntlet of gluten filled the two shelves of the display case. Only a single pane stood between us patrons and the piles of muffins, baguettes, country boules, plain brioche bread, the infamous chocolate brioche rolls, banana bread loaves for slicing, scones, sticky buns, fruit tarts, coffee cakes with cinnamon and lemon, ciabatta, bomboloncini (think jelly filled doughnuts) and more. The spread was overwhelming and I was hesitant to go overboard considering the amount of food we had planned for our trip, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of missing out on something fantastic. So I did what any traveling foodie would do—I invoked the power of the local fatty….and there was one standing behind me in line.
“What’s good here?” I asked the young woman teetering on the step behind me.
“Everything!” she said, clutching her wallet to her chest. “I used to work here so I’ve tried it all.”
“Well I know about the chocolate walnut cookies, because that’s all everyone talks about on Yelp, but what else?”
“Well the pizzas and the sticky buns are only available on the weekends,” she said, “so you might want to try those since they’re not always available.”
“What else?” I asked, thinking sticky buns…are…well…sticky, and a pain to eat, and it was too early for pizza. “Are the whole wheat walnut raisin rolls good?”
“Personally I think the best thing on the menu is the baguette with strawberry jam and butter. I used to eat one every day when I worked here.”
It was game time and I took my rightful place at the glass.
“What can I get you?” the clerk asked. There were like 20 of them shoved into the small bakery space behind the counter. Some worked the front, making coffee and filling orders, while others actually baked and shuffled sheets in and out of hot ovens.
The heat was made me nervous. I could feel the sweat pooling on my brow, and the pressure crescendoed with the addition of each eye-roll from one of the peeps impatiently waiting for their turn at the helm.
“Are these scones?” I asked, and pointed at the pile of giant irregular-shaped baked goods behind the cookie sign.
“No, those are the cookies,” he said, with a hint of irritation. “If you need a minute I can help the next customer and come back to you.”
“No no no, I’m ready.” I said, feeling confident in my selection, and this is what I ordered.
A plain brioche roll, because there’s nothing better than a good buttery—and slightly sweet—soft brioche roll. Levain Bakery pulls it off perfectly! The brioche is dense yet light, and sweet with a hint of yeasty goodness.
Obviously we got one of the chocolate chip walnut cookies…..and an oatmeal raisin cookie, and a dark chocolate chocolate chip cookie too. Okay fine, I got a box!
It only takes a nibble for you to understand why these cookies are so good. They’re sort of a cross between a dense scone and a buttery cookie. The butter is plentiful and keeps them moist, but with the slightest amount of pressure they break apart. The walnuts are halved (not chopped too small), so when you bite one, you get a nice crunch with that nutty oily flavor too.
To cut through some of the sweetness of my selection I splurged for one of the flatbread pizzas. The caramelized onion and gruyere was awesome. A crust that’s both crunchy and chewy, and tons of sweet onions covered in cheese. No sauce needed.
And per my new BFF’s recommendation, I got the baguette with strawberry jam and butter……and, well, that was hands down the best thing we got that day. The bread was nice and crusty. With each bite butter and jam oozed out from between the halves of bread, but there wasn’t too much of either.
Do yourself a favor the next time you take the redeye to New York and have your cabbie stop by Levain Bakery. It’s the perfect jumpstart to your morning, trip, or whatever!