Most good bakeries don’t carry Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. This makes sense, as ambitious venues generally prefer to nourish with their own homemade fare. And yet these confections, along with pouches of Big League Chew, are among the first things one might encounter at Milk Bar’s newest and most corporate New York location, inside the Ace Hotel in Nomad.
A certain logic underlies the presence of these candies. Milk Bar founder Christina Tosi, whose success and TV exposure has turned her into one of the country’s most recognizable culinary figures, has a track record of branding her populist creations, complete with registered trademarks. One thinks of Compost Cookies®, a kitchen-sink snack made with coffee grounds and pretzels, and soft serve Milkquakes™, a topping-laden riff on the Dairy Queen blizzard.
And now, Milk Bar sells something called Cerealsies™, gumdrop-sized candies of flavored white chocolate surrounding little bites of cereal. The excellent green ones taste like an Andes mint chocolate crossed with malted milk balls, while the dusty cinnamon variety packs a stronger crunch, employing a pleasantly bitter version of the spice.
They’re all packaged in handsome matte bags, sitting above those Reese’s and stacks of Sugar Daddies and M&Ms. What was once a cool East Village hangout peddling egg sandwiches alongside cereal-flavored milk has become a national chain with shiny flagships in Melrose, Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and here, in Manhattan.
The Cerealsies and their neighboring pre-packed goods are Milk Bar’s way of saying it belongs in the same space as every major candy manufacturer out there. And maybe it does. But Tosi needs to make sure that the commercialism and the eerily hovering™ superscripts — which pepper the menu like edits from an intellectual property lawyer — don’t eat away at the soul of her bakery.
Tosi has always been a nontraditional chef. Rather than follow in prevailing European pastry traditions, the Northern Virginia native channels 1980s suburban nostalgia and a love for junk food into balanced, salty, multi-textured sweets. If there is a croissant on the menu, chances are it will be a “Thanksgiving” croissant stuffed with turkey and cranberry sauce. If there is soft serve, it will likely be Cereal Milk, a dairy product — almost more savory than sweet — that tastes like it came from a fictional cow raised on Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. And if there are golf ball-sized truffles piled up on the counter, their flavor might be “birthday” (or “b’day,” in Tosi talk); the soft bites evoke the flavor of moist vanilla cake mix.
Milk Bar is like Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want” (1943), except with cameos from the Keebler Elves, Ferris Bueller, Molly Ringwald, and a horribly stoned Tony the Tiger.
Anyone who’s ever encountered a bagel bite at a coffee chain, “Fruit Loop”-flavored ice cream at a grocery store, or unironic funfetti desserts can send Tosi a thank-you note. Milk Bar’s influence is nothing less than immense.
The new flagship Milk Bar, alas, is very different from the older neighborhood outposts. If a West Village Milk Bar is a bare-bones storefront with a leaner menu, this one is designed to vacuum up tourists with snap bracelets, plastic jump ropes, souvenir bandanas, pink-lettered cigarette lighters, and a longer bill of fare, including Milkquakes and Bagel Bombs (both no longer available at the smaller stores), specials, and occasional brand “partnerships.”
Tosi has compared the 4,000-square-foot space to a daytime “slumber party,” while the venue flaunts a high school cafeteria vibe, replete with plastic trays and communal benches. Children sometimes fill the room, pressing their faces against the sneeze guard glass for custom 8-inch cookies ($40) or bespoke cakes ($65), all with Milk Bar’s famously unfinished exteriors.
But as the burgeoning chain standardizes its production line, birthday-flavored items — indulgences laced with sprinkles and scented with a strain of vanilla that’s more candy store than creme brulee — now occupy a frightening portion of the flagship menu. The bulk of these delectables do not exhibit Tosi’s knack for reinventing classic snacks with unexpected doses of salt and crunch; they serve instead as an Avengers-style study in self-reference and duplication.
A triangle slice of birthday crumb-studded cookie cake mimics the sensation of eating crystallized frosting by the mouthful, while the sludge-like birthday shake conveys the feeling of sucking up that same frosting through a straw and chasing it with musty sprinkle dust. A birthday latte tastes like what would happen if a barista accidentally poured half a cup of artificial vanilla syrup into milk-colored hot water and forgot to add coffee. Confetti cookies don’t fare much better, nor do (cold, dry) slices of birthday cake or birthday Cerealsies, whose noxious dairy punch recalls a waxy, petrified version of astronaut ice cream.
The only surefire birthday order is the plain truffles, a version of the original that can be found at smaller Milk Bar outposts. They are cold and vaguely creamy, with a flavor that’s like licking a spoon used to churn Duncan Hines cake batter. With any luck, Tosi will do for these truffles what Ben & Jerry’s did for cookie dough, which is to bring delicious mass-market legitimacy to a sneaky childhood snack.
It is possible to eat a treat at Milk Bar that doesn’t claim to taste like a birthday. Be sure to try the corn truffles, with an assertively salty and vegetal corn exterior that gives way to a soft, concentrated caramel core. The chocolate cookies flaunt a wicked sweet-salty balance, while a strawberry Milkquake uses pickled strawberry syrup to bring a bit of fragrant and tart contrast to the frozen treat.
Still, it’s hard to shake all the birthday ignominies — not to mention the questionable Milk Bar pie latte, slightly stale Compost Cookie, or corn cookie with little corn flavor. The infinite iterations suggest the creative process there is fueled by corporate-style replication rather than a smart gastronomic sensibility. It’s as if Tosi saw all the folks making silly cragels and cretzels after Dominique Ansel invented the Cronut and declared, “the dude should have invented all those spin-offs himself.” This doesn’t feel like the experimental Milk Bar that injected playful soul into New York neighborhoods. This feels like a Tao Group bakery or Black Tap cribbing from the Milk Bar playbook.
Like the Momofuku empire, which retains an ownership stake, Milk Bar is an indie band that has gone big time, so a bit of evolution and polishing is natural. Metallica, after all, would have never blown up in the mainstream if they didn’t evolve past their rougher thrash-metal days. Tighter branding, too, is necessary when plotting to take over the world.
But inasmuch as Milk Bar is growing, it’s hard not to wish it would follow the model of other pastry-and-coffee empires by supplementing its core offerings with a variety of savory fare. Even at Starbucks, those who don’t want a Frappuccino or blonde roast can still walk in and order serviceable sandwiches or egg bites.
At Milk Bar, non-sweets have been purged from the satellite stores and relegated to the flagship locations — a disappointing change from early days. Milk Bar’s first location, in the East Village, once served one of the city’s greatest sandwiches: a poached egg that had been deep-fried and plopped on an English muffin slicked with onions and bacon. The Upper West Side and Williamsburg locations also sold pork-egg buns; those dishes, and others, were the necessary counterparts to all of Tosi’s tooth-aching sweetness. No more.
At the Ace Hotel, the only real savory items are the Bagel Bombs. They are essentially Hot Pockets, the after-school snacks sometimes consumed mid-bus ride en route to a soccer game. They are very Tosi, and admittedly more on-message for Milk Bar than its previous savory offerings. The only problem is they’re not very good.
Those who take a bite of the pepperoni Bomb will experience the flavor and squishy texture of a bagel created by someone who has seemingly never actually tried a good bagel. An indistinct mash of crimson ’roni, cheese, and cloying supermarket-quality tomato sauce oozes out. And while the bread itself is scalding, the interior is oddly cool and undercooked, like a poorly microwaved dish.
The Italian Bomb and the standard Bagel Bomb are equally mediocre; the latter is stuffed with so much smoky bacon scallion cream cheese that you need to compress the bread with two fingers to squirt out the excess. These products feel designed not for a local audience but rather a grocer’s freezer or a gas station rest stop.
For those of us who remember the glory days of Milk Bar in the East Village, the new flagship feels like walking through a joint outpost of a Hudson News and a commercial bakery at JFK. It wouldn’t hurt if the company loosened its necktie and offered egg sandwiches like the old days, or experimented more with original foods rather rather than playing around with, say, one-note Cinnamon Toast Crunch cookies, a limited partnership offering that even had the cereal’s official logo printed on the label.
There’s also something ironic about the fact that we live in a city where certain local supermarkets sell tasty snacks from small purveyors, while Milk Bar, once an underdog, now hawks endless variations on birthday cake — and Reese’s candies. One supposes that reflects a certain evolution of New York too.