The bakery, as an institution, is a sugary analogue to the barbecue parlor, that rare gastronomic establishment immune to trends designed to make us healthier. It's a venue where, even in its most haute expressions, doctor-disapproved food is purchased at a register, in shameful quantities by solo diners, and consumed with one's hands in silence. Diners dispense with crumbs not by summoning an army of waiters, but rather by standing up and agitating each pant leg one at a time, sending localized showers of laminated dough flakes (or carbonized meat debris) down to the floor, the human version of a Labrador shaking itself off after a frolic through the mud.
Don't worry. This is a safe space, for messes, for indulgences. No matter how overwhelming this vegetable-heavy, animal protein-lite era can feel to our carnivorous colleagues, bakeries show little sign of giving up their chief weapons of choice: butter, flour, cream, eggs, and sugar. This is especially the case at the just-opened Dominique Ansel Kitchen in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, where the mille feuille is taller than a cup of coffee, where the garlic croissant, already opulent, is finished with olive oil, where the lemon yuzu tart is advertised as 50 percent butter, and where the croque monsieur is the size of a newborn's torso.
Such is the very good, if often too-rich sophomore effort by Dominique Ansel, the ex-Daniel pastry chef who rose to fame by inventing the internationally recognized object of desire known as the cronut. The hysteric success of that croissant-doughnut hybrid was an indisputably positive development for the dessert world; it incentivized pastry chefs to up their innovation game as the larger American eating public, already intrigued by the impressive wares of Milk Bar and Maison Ladurée, began to view patisseries and boulangeries as destination venues rather than functional institutions for free wifi, good coffee, and serviceable snacks.
At Dominique Ansel Kitchen, the drip coffee (La Colombe) is good — very good. But there is no wifi. And there are no cronuts; those are only available at the original Spring Street location, where the focus remains on envelope-pushing creativity (think: cookie milk shots and indoor s'mores). Here on Seventh Avenue, the emphasis is on slightly tweaked classics, often prepared a la minute. Stadium-style seating even lets patrons peer into the kitchen from above and watch their chocolate mousse being whipped.
A brand new restaurant always has kinks to work out, but since a figure like Ansel can attract heavy crowds early on, think of this early writeup as a way to expedite the de-kink-ification process. So here's what to order and what to avoid.
Matcha beignets ($5.50): They evoke memories of hot carnival zeppoles, with a blend of green tea and milk powder substituting for pure confectioner's sugar, resulting in a sweet, savory, sometimes seaweed-y finish. When you encounter these at street fairs across the U.S., you'll have Ansel to thank.
Sage brownie ($4): The finest brownie in the universe. Ansel tops the rectangular cake with sage, wraps it in cedar paper, and torches the aromatics. Take a bite; deep flavors of chocolate give way to gentle notes of wet earth and pine. Let it sit for a day in the fridge to let the sharp, savory overtones express themselves with greater clarity. Very Heston Blumenthal-esque.
Croque monsieur ($11): An epic version of the traditional ham and cheese sandwich. Ansel dips the bread in a French-toast-like batter before crisping everything in the oven. The end product is chewy, gooey, fork-and-knife bliss.
Hefty plate of ice cream ($7): Frozen creme anglaise so rich the subtly sulfurous taste of eggs is apparent in every bite. The chefs empty the contents of an entire vanilla bean onto the custard before serving, imparting the dessert with an aroma so powerful it serves as a reminder that vanilla is a compelling flavor, rather than the absence of one.
Brown sugar DKA ($5.25): Stunning. Ansel's kouign amann, a Breton pastry best described as a cross between a palmier (for crunch) and a croissant (for buttery softness), gets a different treatment here than at the original location; it's made with brown sugar for a darker, richer flavor.
Almond croissant ($4.25): Infinitely softer than the typical specimen, which frequently sports an overly-dense crunch. Ansel packs the pastry with a filling of almond paste so perfumed with lavender you could leave it out on a table as a substitute for a Glade Plug-In. Gorgeous.
Garlic croissant ($4): A French-y riff on garlic bread, wherein slow roasted cloves and rosemary sit atop buttery pastry. Crush the garlic with your fork, and sprinkle with salt for a sweet, heady, vegetal high.
Tiramisu ($6.50): Nothing revolutionary, just an expert riff on the Italian classic. Instead of espresso, ladyfingers are soaked in black tea so strong the flavor is closer to baba au rhum. Mascarpone cream, of course, softens everything out in the end.
The Not So Great:
Lemon yuzu tart ($7): Boasts a 1:1 ratio of curd to butter, making this the dessert equivalent of a hollandaise. Ansel emulsifies the mixture in a milkshake blender and pours it into a light shell. Cut into the tart and the filling spills out like egg yolk. It's visually stunning. Unfortunately the excess butter makes the perfume of the delicate yuzu nearly imperceptible. The result is a soupy, way-too-fatty version of a traditional tarte au citron.
Avocado edamame toast ($8.50): Not technically toast, as this is a cold slop of pureed avocado atop a disc of cool brioche. Instead of a toothsome mouthfeel, there are only soft, chilly textures, as if it were prepared long ago for a trans-Atlantic flight. Another problem: the serving size is large enough to qualify it as a guacamole dip for two in a bread bowl; avocado toast, ideally, should be a light snack.
Pain au chocolate 2.0 ($5.50): No chocolate stuffed into bread here. Instead, slices of Vahlrona chocolate stand on their vertical axes atop croissant dough, like tortilla chips threatening to pierce the soft palate. That means you must physically rearrange the chocolate with your hands to eat it. Another mistake: Ansel coats the buttery dough with a layer of orange butter, creating such obscene richness you don't feel quite right post-consumption. No good.
Mille feuille ($7.75): Too big. A large format steak makes sense; it lets the diner enjoy parts of the cow with different flavor profiles and marbling. But with a mille feuille, the diner simply gets more of the same, which is a bland Napoleon and an excess of calories. No thanks.