Of all the “lifts” available to New York City visitors, perhaps the greatest – and most abundant – is the almighty sugar high. From cookie dough cupcake doughnuts to vegan sticky buns to heaven-sent gelato, here we run through the best desserts in New York.
Long known for its contributions to the world’s culinary consciousness, New York City is home to elevated interpretations of every flavour under the sun. A superb egg sandwich? Try Murray’s Cheese Shop. Out-of-this-world Tikka Masala? Tamarind, in Gramercy Park or Tribeca. Divine dumplings? Wait in line at Chinatown’s Joe’s Shanghai, or hit Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in Chelsea and at Grand Central (or flag down its food truck). While intrepid gastronomes of all stripes find heaven throughout the Five Boroughs, no traveller is luckier than he/she with a no-holds-barred sweet tooth.
Let’s start with the bakers’ bounty, where flour-flecked artisans show off their skills, and provide a little comfort at the same time.
Bouchon Bakery, a full-service cafe within the Time Warner Center (that tasteful hub of conspicuous consumption at the southwest corner of Central Park) is a must for any Francophile, as its éclairs, tarts, macaroons, and “TKO” cookie (an Oreo of epic proportions) take the cake. Sugar haven Levain Bakery offers a chocolate chip walnut cookie that will rescind your allegiance to your mom’s homemade, while scones, brioche, and fruit tarts are honest-to-goodness delightful. Balthazar Bakery, sister operation to chic Soho bistro Balthazar, overflows with fragrant baguettes, artsy cakes, chocolate covered strawberries, and tea cakes.
Chelsea’s Empire Cake is lauded citywide for its high-minded interpretations of Twix bars, Snowballs, and cream-filled snack cakes (red velvet and passion fruit are particularly spot-on) – not to mention towering, dreamlike wedding cakes. Butter Lane in the East Village and in Park Slope, Brooklyn churns out perfectly proportioned cupcakes in a multitude of combinations – its most marvellous new addition being the cookie dough variety (with a blob of cookie dough at its centre). We love Pasticceria Rocco in the West Village, a neighbourhood mainstay (meaning pre-Marc Jacobs) that nails classic Italian pastries such as cannoli, tiramisu, and Pignolli cookies in an old-school setting. For vegan treats that outdo the vast majority of full-cream offerings on planet earth, run downtown toward Babycakes, where cinnamon rolls, daily specialty doughnuts, cookie sandwiches, and mind-blowing brownies are served with a smile.
Next, let’s go to the most literal of sweets: Candy. Economy Candy on the Lower East Side has been in operation since 1937, and serves up confections in bulk, from hand-dipped chocolates and Turkish Delight to kosher sweets and throwback favourites like root beer sticks, Pez, Bottlecaps, and rock candy. In the West Village, Scandinavian temptations abound at Sockerbit, where colourful assortments of “smÃ¥godis” – meaning little candies – in sweet, sour, chocolate, liquorice, and much more hold court in a chic, spare environment. Close by is The London Candy Company, home to Cadbury galore and exclusive confectionary imports that won’t be found elsewhere on this side of the pond.
Further uptown, there are a number of Godiva outposts, choc-a-bloc with gourmet-quality truffles and fudge – our favourite outpost of which is in Rockefeller Center, perfect for a sweet jolt before ice-skating or touring St. Patrick’s and 30 Rock. During Madison Avenue splurging (or window-shopping), a drop-in at La Maison Du Chocolat is in order, given its premium ganache, chic gift boxes, and decadent caramel sachets. Then, of course, there’s Dylan’s Candy Bar, uptown society’s answer to Wonka’s Factory, where oversized lollipops, nostalgic items, and eye-popping presentation make everyone a kid again.
Pie is always in its own category, is it not? A taste of the grasshopper pie (mint and chocolate), candy bar pie, or crack pie (cookie crust; brown sugar filling) at any Momofuku Milk Bar will have you nodding “yes”. The crumbly and fragrant slices at Two Little Red Hens are crafted in the countryside spirit and a necessary component of big city sanity. Tribeca mainstay Bubby’s is not only a famous schmoozing spot, it takes its pie crafting super seriously (pucker up with either the key lime or sour cherry). For those of you intrepid enough to get to Brooklyn (as the lion’s share of actual New Yorkers now do, thank you very much), hit Park Slope’s Four and Twenty Blackbirds for pies that have set countless hearts singing (salty honey, plum crumble, bittersweet chocolate pecan, and more).
It’s a daunting task to identify the greatest frozen treats in New York, as people tend to be particularly passionate about their creamery of choice. That said, we doubt you’ll dig into the fantastic flavours of Emack & Bolio’s and emerge frowning (try the deep purple cow, black raspberry ice cream with white and dark chocolate chips, covered in hot fudge). The Big Gay Ice Cream Shop is known for its campy hit “the Salty Pimp” (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, chocolate dip) and the best mint ice cream sandwich on God’s green earth, the Thick Mint (peppermint ice cream between two out-of-this-world salty chocolate cookies). Meanwhile, the line snakes – yet moves fast – at Brooklyn’s Ample Hills Creamery, considered by many sugar aficionados the go-to of chilly delights.
As for frozen yogurt, there are a plethora of 16 Handles and Pinkberry outposts around town, which will always serve in a pinch. For a slightly more heartfelt fro-yo experience, try Culture with its gourmet pie toppings and unadulterated presentation. Gelato, meanwhile, has been a huge trend in the past few years. Our favourite (this week) is Grom – Italian decadence, straight from the source (not to mention a hot chocolate that will smack your senses silly). L’Arte Del Gelato in Chelsea Market puts a high premium on super-fresh ingredients and snappy service. And our top contender for artistic presentation is Amorino, a quick stroll from Washington Square Park that fashions its flavours into eye-popping cone bouquets.
We must spend a moment on doughnuts, which have been all the rage across town for a few years. Doughnut Plant was a pioneer in changing the way New Yorkers see this morning time mainstay, with its oversized, naturally-glazed sweet rounds. (Want a flavour blast? Go for the crme brÃ»lée doughnut.) Carpe Donut makes hot, virtuous apple cider doughnuts from its truck and they are worth seeking out. The mini marvels at Chelsea Market’s Doughnuttery are high-minded and heavenly – from the maple, bacon, and purple potato “Purple Pig” to the peach, raspberry, and rose petal “Cheeky Peach.”
We similarly dig the fresh-made vegan doughnuts – accompanied by electrifying caffeine offerings – at Jack’s Stir Brew as well as the fresh jam-filled marvels of Orwasher’s. Still not satisfied? There’s always Krispy Kreme inside Penn Station, which hits the nail, every time.
Of course, some dessert spots are simply required for intrepid eaters on the search for suburb sweets. Your kids will love you forever if you book a trip to sundae heaven Serendipity3, where a Frozen Hot Chocolate, chocolate “Blackout” cake, or Celestial carrot cake will unrepentantly quell the dessert craving. Sex and the City made the cupcakes of Magnolia Bakery a madhouse in the West Village, though its Upper West Side and Midtown East locations aren’t quite so elbow-y. Soho’s Rice to Riches has perfected rice pudding, in countless divine flavours. And finally: ChikaLicious Dessert Bar is the grand poobah of “have dessert for dinner” thinking, with its world-renowned, arty daily menus that elevate sugar (and its appropriate wine pairings) to four-star heights.
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Header photo: Candy mix at Sockerbit © Christoph Gunnestad
Have you set out on the New York sweet trail? Which were your favourite spots for a sugar high?
Written by Andrew Stone