Some folks like to freshen up the stale air in their apartments with $70 Diptyque candles, cut flowers, or burning sticks of palo santo. All are compelling ideas, though during this third pandemic winter I tend to prefer a more edible option. I like to drop by La Cabra in the East Village, pick up a few cardamom buns, throw them in my oven for a few minutes, then take them out and inhale.
Green cardamom — as opposed to the muskier black variety used to season lamb and other meats — packs a complex citrus scent whose precise aromas can be tough to pin down. At La Cabra or elsewhere, a good kardemummabullar pastry, the Swedish cardamom bun, can recall the eucalyptus punch of a steam sauna, the piercing scent of lemon oil, or the resinous perfume of a Christmas tree. And if you detect a delicate mintiness, that’s not uncommon either. It’s the type of multi-layered olfactory experience you might expect from a composed, fine-dining dessert. Here, it’s just par for the course at $5 per bun.
The confection, whose triple trussing of dough halfway down makes it look like a danish in a straight jacket, actually tastes pretty good too, which is something you realize when you get there and it’s (temporarily) sold out.
La Cabra, an acclaimed Nordic roaster with multiple shops in Denmark — along with outposts in Dubai and Bangkok — rolled into Manhattan’s East Village late last year with serious coffee cred, utilizing a light roasting style for clear, bright, pour-over brews. Patrons drink them out of handleless earthenware cups while, like at any good coffee shop, typing on their laptops at tiny tables.
Smart diners will also do some pastry eating. The growing chain opened with Jared Sexton at the helm, a very capable alum of Bien Cuit, Pain D’Avignon, and Dominique Ansel. He makes a fine quince pastry, a ham-and-cheese croissant so light it almost seems to hover in mid-air, and I’ve heard folks wax poetic about his rye tart, decked out with a dollop of white chocolate panna cotta.
But really, try La Cabra’s cardamom bun. In the minimalist space — I’ve visited insurance agencies with more physical product on display — a line of dapper folks in Canada Goose jackets and other chic outerwear might snake out the door. On a recent Saturday, the shop still boasted an ample supply of buns around noon, though a manager told me that they can run out for roughly a half-hour at a time as the kitchen bakes more. On some occasions, they can sell out entirely, with crowds sometimes ordering 1,000 or so buns before 2 p.m.
I took my treats home, warmed them up, and then feasted. Fans of the cardamom bun from Fabrique — a Swedish bakery that can attract its own lines in Chelsea — would be well served to sample La Cabra’s. The heady scent is equally strong in both, with the spice releasing a touch of its signature warmth; the ingredient, native to South Asia, belongs to the larger ginger family. Sexton weaves cardamom into the dough itself, spreads a sugar-laced paste of the stuff around all the tight nooks and crannies before baking, then sprinkles more onto the pastry’s exterior.
But here’s the thing: I find the La Cabra bun a lot more enjoyable than the cross-town competition, partly because it’s less sweet, and also because it flaunts a more toothsome texture. While Fabrique’s pastry is reasonably light, La Cabra’s exhibits a denser chew. It’s gently crisp on the outside, but as you eat your way toward the interior, you get something that’s closer to a cinnamon bun, or better yet, an Italian-American garlic knot in terms of its heft. It makes your jaw work just a touch. There is no shortage of cultured butter in the dough, but what you detect most of all is a lean muscularity, a hint of sweetness, and an oversized hit of cardamom. It fills you up, but it doesn’t burden your insides with too much dairy fat. And it lets you breathe in the scent of a coniferous forest for a few short minutes.
You can probably guess the verdict: I’m calling the bun a BUY. Consider pairing it with a woodsy and acidic Ethiopian pour over (Nansebo, $6) to cut tame some of the oversized flavors.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).