Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Eating NYC: In Love with Levain Bakery


One might think that after eagerly devouring the famous Jacques Torres Chocolate Chip Cookie during my visit to Chelsea Market, my desire for sweets of the chocolate-butter-and-sugar variety might be forever, or at least temporarily, sated. One would, of course, be wrong in such thinking. Which is why I found myself traipsing all the way to the Upper West Side, just two short days later, to visit another site sacred to the world of Chocolate Chip Cookies - the Levain Bakery, on W 74th Street.


I'd done my homework on this place as well, but nothing could prepare me for the humble house of delight that is the Levain Bakery. Wedged in between apartments and beneath a waxing salon, the tiny, below-street-level bakery seems almost hidden from the general public. Devotees beat a brownstone-lined path to the recessed door with silent, knowing smiles, like sharers of some well-worn, delightful secret.

It was amazing to me that such a small, unassuming place could create and sustain such a global reputation, but then I stepped inside, and all became clear. The buttery, sugar tinged haze that surrounds the tiny building only intensifies once inside. There's a small area with bar stool seating, but otherwise it's just the bakery and the wooden counter where the day's breads  - and the cookies, of course - are sold.

The 'secret location,' with an appropriately mysterious cookie-lover outside

In keeping with the low-key vibe of the location, Levain's menu isn't complicated. Aside from a selection of fresh breads, pizzas, pastries and scones, there are just four varieties of cookies: Chocolate Chip Walnut, Dark Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal Raisin, and Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip. The Chocolate Chip Walnut is their signature offering, so that's what I ordered, taking it over to a corner stool to enjoy in peace and reverent silence.

The cookies are the size of a fist, and not even a normal, human fist - think Bigfoot or Godzilla and you won't be far off. I was lucky enough to see a few cookies in the making during my visit, so I can attest that the balls of dough (and yes, they're balls, not scoops or spoons) were almost baseball-sized. Each cookie reportedly weighs six ounces, and it's this bulk that gives the Levain cookie its famous texture - slightly crisp and crunchy on the outside with nugget of sweet, gooey, molten dough at the center. Lovers of cookie dough, this is your cookie!


At first bite, the crisp outer edge has that slight caramel flavor that makes the chocolate chip cookie such an attractive concept. The inside is pure vanilla, and gooey like a furtive, guilty spoonful of unbaked cookie dough. My cookie was fresh out of the oven, so the whole thing was a hot, heavy weight in my hand -  a serious undertaking for even the most serious of cookie lovers.

I had made my pilgrimage to the Upper West Side alone - my sister and her husband being otherwise occupied with saying goodbyes - so I was understandably concerned about my ability to singlehandedly conquer a Levain cookie. One bite in and I discovered I had not too much cookie, but not enough! I went back to the counter and ordered a Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip to share with my sister and her husband. An employee filled my request with a knowing smile (seriously, the people who work at Levain are some of the nicest I met during my time in New York - but who wouldn't be, working in a place filled with sugar and happiness?) and even offered me a cookie-covered postcard to take home as a souvenir - I guess she knew my cookies wouldn't last very long!


I thought about those two mammoth-sized cookies, wrapped in their paper bag, all the way home on foot, on the Metro and, finally reunited with my sister, on the bus. It was all we could do to wait for dinner to finish before tucking in!

The Chocolate Chip Walnut was still molten and delicious, even without the warmth from the oven, but the Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip was really something else. What it lacked in warmth, it made up for in doughy, dark chocolaty complexity. The exterior was a little less crunchy (perhaps because it was less fresh), but the inside was wonderfully fudgy, each bite coating the roof of the mouth with a delicious smear of peanut butter. Richer and darker than a Reese's, this version was a clear winner with my sister's husband who counts that confection (as well as Peanut M&Ms) among his favorites. The price for each cookie is a little steep ($4), but they're easily shared amongst two and are some of the tastiest cookies I've ever eaten.


So, how do they stack up against Jacques Torres? Well, it's a tough comparison to make - and not just because my Levain cookie was fresher than fresh (I mean, it was practically still dough in places!) while my Torres cookie was not only old, but over baked. The Torres cookie has a slightly more complex browned butter and caramel flavor, as well as the boost that the wonderful chocolate discs provide, but you just can't compete with Levain for texture and size. Lovers of thin, crispy cookies will likely disagree, but for me, Levain embodies all that my childhood chocolate chip cookies wished they could be - warm, doughy, gigantic and full of vanilla-flavored goodness. If you're in New York City, be sure to make the trip to the Upper West Side and fall in love with Levain!

Levain Bakery on Urbanspoon

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