Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Come visit Billy's at Tribeca Film Festival Family Day!

Dear readers,

In honor of our soon-to-open second location in Tribeca, Billy's Bakery will have a table at the Tribeca Film Festival Family Day Street Fair this weekend! Come visit us on Saturday from 10AM-6PM on Greenwich Street between Hubert and Duane. You'll be able to sample our cookies, brownies, blondies, Hello Dollies, and (of course) cupcakes-- all stacked, packed, and frosted by yours truly! (Well, not ALL, but I helped.) More info is available here:

See you there!


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Sotto Cinque is.... interesting.

It was a blazing hot Saturday evening in New York City, and AV and I found ourselves hungry with no place to go. Naturally, unlike everyone else in the city (sarcasm) we were looking for a restaurant with outdoor seating. A few web searches later, we ended up at Sotto Cinque, an off-the-radar Italian joint on the Upper East Side.

We sat at a table near right at the open front wall of the restaurant, thereby succeeding in our "al fresco" dining quest. AV sat with a view of the Sox/Yankees game playing at the bar; I sat with a view of the street. Everybody wins.

We started with the bread basket, which came with both butter and garlic-chile olive oil. The bread was standard semolina Italian bread, studded with sesame seeds on the crust. It was very standard, extra points for the sesame seeds but an equivalent deduction for the, well, standardness. Sotto Cinque also committed the cardinal sin of restaurants everywhere: giving a table for two three slices of bread. Why make it so one person is forced to lose?

Three is the loneliest number

For an appetizer, we decided to share a side of warm olives (N.B.: this side appeared on only one of our menus, indicating that the other menu was not up-to-date. We pointed this out to the waiter, so ostensibly it will be fixed, but just keep that in mind if you dine at SC). This was a very interesting dish. The olives were indeed warm-- hot, even-- and were presented in a pool of garlicky olive oil studded with garlic slivers. I really liked the green olives here: creamy and satisfying, they melted in your mouth in a beguiling fashion. The black olives would have been the same if they had been higher quality, but unfortunately, they were the plain somewhat icky black olive (the kind that comes sliced in cans in the grocery store). Nontheless, we finished the appetizer throughout the course of the meal. It was a very....interesting dish.

Quite creative

For an entree, AV had chosen the linguine alla pescatore, which came with shrimp, clams, and calamari in a sauce of olive oil, garlic, white wine, and tomato. AV gave this dish the thumbs-up, which leads to my second SC dining tip: pasta really seems to be their specialty, so if you come here, don't stray from the pasta section.

Beautiful pasta

But alas, I strayed. I chose the chopped salad, dressing on the side. The salad had spinach and romaine, red kidney beans (which were, bizarrely, a little too "al dente," if you catch my drift), celery, and capers. The capers were the best part, because I love capers. There was too much celery, so the celery flavor overwhelmed the salad. The dressing was a rather tasty vinaigrette, but nothing could really salvage this salad. It was sort of sad-looking and sort of sad-tasting.

Not great

We planned to go on an ice-cream-finding mission after dinner, so we skipped dessert and skipped out. SC's saving grace is that it's exceedingly affordable-- all the dishes were reasonably priced. And AV really enjoyed his selection, which makes me lean towards three Offset Spatulas. But my own meal was sort of icky, and as a result SC fails my crucial two-versus-three-OS test: Would I return? Sadly, I don't think I would. Two it is.

Sotto Cinque
322 E. 86th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dining in the dark at Spice

On Monday night, the madre was still in town and called me up for a last-minute dinner. She met me down at the bakery, and since we're both fans of Thai food, we slogged a few blocks in the driving rain to Spice on Eighth Avenue.

The dining room was stark and very loud, with bizarre spun-sugar light fixtures and a high pressed-tin ceiling. We were seated at a corner table, which was nice because it gave us more room to spread out our wet raingear. Our waiter came to take our order very promptly, so while I knew what I wanted (dumplings, obvi), my mom made a decision on the fly. It's worth noting that it seemed the waiter had a sense of humor-- when my mom ordered a bottle of seltzer, he served it as he would a bottle of wine, showing her the label and offering her a taste, before my mom put an end to the shenanigans.

I selected an order of dumplings and a papaya salad, and my mom ordered a papaya salad and an entree. Unfortunately, both my dishes came during the appetizer course, which messed up the pacing of the meal a bit (especially since I already eat about twice as fast as my mom does). But I tackled the dumplings first. The presentation of these was bizarre: they were served all squished together in a shallow bowl, with the dipping sauce at the bottom. When I peeled them apart, however, they were quite good, with the standard tasty mixed-vegetable filling and the thin translucent dumpling skins. However, I can't quite call these the platonic ideal of veggie dumplings due to the presentation and the fact that, as a result, I didn't have control over the dipping action.

Too bad they're all crowded in there.

The papaya salad was also pretty good. I'm beginning to think that making a decent papaya salad isn't all that hard, but nonetheless, this was a yummy version, with plenty of dressing to lubricate the mix and a pleasant spice that left a lingering tingle in my mouth. My only beef was that there could have been more peanuts and they could have been chopped a little finer. (For the record, Mom liked the papaya salad too.)

Shredded veg

Upon the recommendation of the waiter, Mom had chosen the Spice seafood combo as her entree, which came with shrimp, calamari, snapper, onion, carrot, zucchini, and pepper with chili basil sauce. With a cone of hearty brown rice mixed in, Mom really liked this dish. She especially noted the fact that the calamari wasn't rubbery. Kudos.


I had brought Mom a cupcake for her after dinner (red velvet, natch), so we skipped the dessert course and headed back out into the watery jungle that was Eighth Avenue. About midway through our meal, somebody had turned the lights way down, so by the time we were done we were eating in almost complete darkness, which was thoroughly bizarre (perhaps trendy on a nice sunny day, but annoying on the dark and gloomy day that it was). But you don't necessarily go to Spice for the ambiance-- you go for the solid and very reasonably priced Thai food (my entire meal was only $8! Nice!). Now I know why people at the bakery order Spice takeout so often, and I may be inclined to join them in the future. It's yet another solid three Offset Spatula Thai joint.

199 Eighth Avenue, at 20th Street

Dumplings & more at Sala Thai

On Saturday, AV and I were searching for-- what else?-- veggie dumplings. We were in his neck of the woods, so we decided to try Sala Thai, one of the Thai joints in his neighborhood.

We arrived around 8 and were seated immediately, which is a huge bonus on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, the dining room at Sala was very, very loud-- conversation, even at a near-shouting level, was difficult. The room was also intensely nondescript, if that even can be possible, like a slightly shabby hotel dining room or a downtrodden airport restaurant. So while we enjoyed the food (read on), I'd definitely recommend Sala for take-out rather than a dine-in experience.

So, on to the food. To start, of course, we had the veggie dumplings (or Gu Choi, according to the menu). When these tiny parcels arrived, AV expressed apprehension-- once again, they weren't the tiny, tan-skinned dumplings we were looking for. But wait! We tried them, and the thin green skins gave way to savory innards packed full of green veggies. The filling was mostly long strands of some sort of emerald vegetable-- bok choy, maybe?-- but was very tasty. The dipping sauce was soy-based and slightly spicy. Overall, these were a winner, definitely craveable if not necessarily traditional.

Beautiful jewel tone

For his entree, AV got the pad thai with shrimp. It was served in a really cool wok-like serving dish and was an ample portion, with noodles, shrimp, diced smoked tofu, and all the rest of the traditional pad thai accoutrements. AV pronounced it a solid version of the Thai classic.

Not bad pad

My selection was the papaya salad. It may not look it in the picture, but this salad was HUGE. Fortunately, papaya salad isn't especially filling, because I plowed through the entire thing. Go me! This was a better-than-average salad, with crunchy iceberg lettuce as the base, an ample mound of shredded papaya, bits of lime, cherry-tomato halves, crumbled peanut, and a soupy dressing covering it all. Tasty and a good value as well.

So much papaya!!

So overall, we definitely enjoyed the food. As I mentioned before, the ambiance was so-so, and the service wasn't great-- while I was finishing my salad, a waiter came by and cleared all the remaining dishes, thereby making me feel like a fat pig by sending the message that I should have stopped eating already. (Note to self: I probably should have.) So if I end up craving those dumplings again, I suspect we'll order in. That way we'll get three-Offset-Spatula food in more comfortable and friendly surroundings.

Sala Thai
1718 Second Avenue, between 89th and 90th streets

Monday, April 20, 2009

Major tweaks at Convivio

My mom was in town, and as is custom she wanted to take her children etc. out for dinner. The bro was at work, so AV and I headed to Midtown East for some yummy eats. For the occasion, I had chosen Convivio, for its legendary Italian food and its proximity to my mom's hotel.

The Convivio dining room is stark white and plush. The chairs were bizarre: overstuffed silver pleather numbers with a straight right angle that made you sit up church style, shoulders back and chin up. There were plenty of soft textiles in the room, but nonetheless, when our waiter came over to deliver an absurd and overly pretentious dissertation on the menu ("we recommend our menu as a four-course prix fixe" [oh really?]; "Each item is also available a la carte; you'll find each with a price affixed to it on the menu" [unlike at all other restaurants...]; "Don't leave without trying our pastas, because we pride ourselves on our pasta"; etc. etc.), he spoke so softly each of us only heard about a third of his words. No matter. We could read the menu and placed our orders accordingly.

Very shortly, the bread woman (yesssss) came by proferring olive bread, ciabatta, or whole wheat. While my prudent side screamed "whole wheat!" I ended up selecting a fat slice of olive bread, and I'm glad I did. The bread was chewy and substantial, and there were WHOLE green olives buried inside, the perfect addition of squish and saltiness. Yummmm. Mom and AV each had the ciabatta, which also looked good.

A big hunk of yummy bread

Then our first course arrived. AV and I split a dish of the olives, which were whole green olives with the occasional strip of citrus zest. These olives were delectable: plump and juicy and salty and scrumptious. We polished them off easily.

Beautiful fat masterpieces

Mom had chosen the spring vegetable salad, which, coincidentally, was also my entree. When I saw it arrive, I knew I had tweaked-- I had been choosing between the salad and a few other appealing offerings (sauteed mushrooms; straciatella cheese; broccoletti...) but had gone with the salad. My mom enjoyed it, but I found it only okay: the vegetables were shaved thin and interesting, but the whole thing was doused in a very thin soupy dressing that pooled at the bottom of the bowl. The veggies were bitter with very little to temper the bite, and the promised fresh ricotta came slathered on an oiled crouton, so I couldn't even really mix the cheese with the veggies. After seeing my mom's salad, I should have changed my order. Sigh.

Crazy melange

For the entree course, my mom had chosen the rare grilled tuna, which came with artichoke pepperonata, basil puree, mollica di pane (not sure what that is), and lemon. Mom really enjoyed this fish, which was very rare and came with a lot of interesting sauces. Give my mom a good piece of fish and she's a happy gal.

Raw fish and crazy garnishes

AV had selected the cavatelli al forno, with "braised rabbit ragu, fava beans, scamorza, and love." After watching him take two bites, I know AV didn't like this dish. He very, very gamely (so to speak) ate it with a smile to avoid making a scene, until Mom and I called him out on it, at which point he still pretended to like it before ultimately breaking down. His description: Incredibly, hyper-ly oversalted and intensely gamey, like something you'd expect to find at a Montana lodge after shooting and skinning your own dinner. As he put it, it's something you'd like to dip a corner of a piece of bread in and then eat the whole piece of bread, not put away an entire dish of. Good person that he is, AV picked out all the cavatelli and acted happy. Sigh.


So one winner, two losers-- but there was still an opportunity for dessert to rescue the night. And rescue it did. AV chose the chocolate budino, with "warm dark chocolate, hazelnut gelato, and candied hazelnuts." Both my mom and I had a bite, and this was a fantastic dessert, with the crunch of hazelnut, the cool melt of gelato, and the rich, fudgy baked chocolate cake. Mmmm. I coveted that dessert.

I want this.

But my own selection was yummy as well. I got the brasato d'ananas, which was vanilla braised pineapple, coconut custard, and coconut sorbet. There was a squiggle of bruleed marshmallow on top, which was sticky and sweet. The pineapple pieces were incredibly tender, and the coconut sorbet was cool and smooth. The custard was very rich, which was delicious at first but by the end of the dessert became almost cloying (even though the dessert wasn't especially huge). Still, overall it was a very tasty dessert and a good cap to the meal.

Fruity and sweet

So, my final verdict on Convivio is: for the most part, we ordered wrong. I'm sure with a different selection I would have been much happier, and I'm confident with AV it would have been the same way. I would definitely come back to order something else, and I know Convivio is a good restaurant, but based on my experience I have to give it three Offset Spatulas, with the hope that I can return, re-review, and upgrade the place to at least four spats.

45 Tudor City Place

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The long-awaited cupcake taste-off; or, Why Billy's is the best

On Wednesday afternoon at the bakery, I received news that the General Manager of Billy's (hereafter known as AV(f), not to be confused with the male AV who makes frequent appearances on this blog) was in the midst of shuttling all around town to pick up cupcakes from all our competitors. We were doing a cupcake taste-off, she announced, and so I gamely prepared my stomach and waited for the cupcakes to arrive.

When they did, we set up the cupcakes on AV(f)'s desk with an unfolded cake box as a makeshift tablecloth. AV(f) had tried to get a vanilla-vanilla and chocolate-chocolate cupcake from each place she visited, the better to compare directly to our v-v and c-c cupcakes (which was, ostensibly, the point of this exercise). The protocol was to work our way through the cupcakes, taking a tiny bite of each frosting and cake combo (and I mean TINY-- there were SO MANY cupcakes), and comment as we went. The results? Well, read on for the most absurdly biased cupcake roundup ever printed!

This spread is what faced us. Daunting.

1. Buttercup Bake Shop

The mangled, messy cupcakes in their box.


From Buttercup, a bakery started by Magnolia alums, we had a vanilla-vanilla, chocolate-chocolate, and lemon. Our overall impression of Buttercup, aside from the insanely messy appearance since they all got mangled in the box, was "Dry!" The cake of all three was dense and dry, and the frosting was all insanely sweet. I love me a good sweet frosting, and Billy's frosting is definitely sweet, but this stuff was so sugary it crunched in your teeth. The lemon frosting was also sharply, metallically lemony. Not to over-share, but of the billion cupcakes I tasted that afternoon, the only flavor I was burping for hours afterward was that lemon frosting.

2. Kitchenette

Suitably well-packaged


The cupcakes from Kitchenette were alarming. The frosting, for one, was an otherwordly color, and the mishmash of sprinkles on top made it look as though the garnisher had made a mistake. Both the cake and the frosting tasted awful, and the frosting had a weird, rubbery aftertaste. The frosting also smeared EVERYWHERE and dyed everything a garish orange color. No thanks.

3. Magnolia

Securely pacakaged, but a really large box for three cupcakes


Like Buttercup, Magnolia offered us vanilla-vanilla, chocolate-chocolate, and lemon. I actually liked the vanilla buttercream (it's very similar to ours), and the chocolate frosting was also surprisingly good. But both the vanilla and chocolate cakes were very dry. The lemon cupcake looked promising but was the definite loser of the bunch for me; they used a boiled vanilla frosting flavored with lemon zest, which was just texturally all wrong for me (very slimy), and a very eggy, sharp dollop of lemon curd inside. No go.

4. Baked By Melissa

This was their packaging. They don't have bags, apparently.

Cross-sections, sort of.

These absurd little puppies are all the rage, so we gamely tried them. First off, let it be said that, at $1 apiece, these are extraordinarily expensive. If we priced our cupcakes this way, each cupcake would be $15. But people like small things, and maybe they taste good, right? WRONG! The cake of all three (tie-dye, red velvet, and oreo), was exceptionally spongy-- I called it "the cake that chews you back," since you just kept chewing and the cake pretty much remained intact, like couch cushion foam. There was very little frosting on any of the cupcakes, and it's worth noting that the red velvet frosting was one of the weirdest substances I've ever tasted. To my palate, it tasted of salt; another taster cited candy corn as the signature flavor, while a third invoked anchovies. Not sure if this batch was off, but if not, these frostings have some serious work to do.

5. Sweet Revenge

Great packaging, secure in individual containers


And then we got to Sweet Revenge. I've been there once before and really liked their "Pure" cupcake (vanilla-vanilla). I'm a big fan of the packaging, the look of the cupcakes, the shop itself, and the owner. But how do the cupcakes taste? We had a Pure and a Dirty (chocolate-chocolate). The Pure, as I had remembered, was intensely vanilla-y, with sweet, smooth frosting and a fine, dense crumb. The Dirty was equally as as chocolatey, and I liked the fudge-like chocolate frosting, even though I had expected it be a bit more like ganache based on its appearance. Overall, these cupcakes were the far and away (non-Billy's) winners-- they're high quality and quite tasty.

6. Cupcake Cafe

In the package-- a very tall box with two small cupcakes inside

They are quite pretty, it's true


After finding a winner with Sweet Revenge, we moved right along to Cupcake Cafe. I've always avoided this place because the frosting looks like the kind I hate. Well, I was right. One forkful of the vanilla-vanilla made me want to spit it out, and I never, never spit a baked good out. Eating the frosting was like snacking on an oil-infused stick of butter, or perhaps slightly melted shortening. The cake was dense and a little dry, but good lord people, focus on the frosting here-- it's an affront to cupcakes everywhere. Yes, they're pretty, but so are real flowers, and they don't taste good either. Avoid these grease-bombs at all costs.

7. Two Little Red Hens

Chocolate-vanilla in clamshell packaging

Vanilla-chocolate in clamshell


The cupcakes from Two Little Red Hens were huge, almost Crumbs-sized. And while I thought I had survived the Trial by Frosting after eating the offering from Cupcake Cafe, no no-- there was more in store. The vanilla frosting on the chocolate cupcake was foul, tasting like whipped sweet shortening and nothing else. It coated your mouth and made you (me) make a grossed-out face. The chocolate cake was very, very dry, as was the vanilla cake. The chocolate frosting, however, was actually pretty good-- fudgy but light and very smooth.

8. Tribeca Treats

Standard-- packed in a paper bag.


The cupcakes from Tribeca Treats were next. These were, well, standard. As AV(f) put it, they tasted like cake mix done well, almost mass-produced but containing with really good ingredients. The cake on both was pretty grainy and heavy, and the frosting was on the light/buttery side, but neither was offensive. I wouldn't go out of my way to eat these cupcakes, but if someone gave one to me I'd probably eat it. Meh.

9. Chikalicious

Packed in a paper bag, with ticker-tape wrapping between the two of them

Close-up... no cross-section photo, because apparently my sugar-addled brain forgot to take one at this point

The last of the competitors we tasted was Chikalicious. People rave about these cupcakes, so we were eager to try them. The first thing we noted was the lack of structural integrity in the chocolate frosting-- like chocolate pudding, it was dripping everywhere, even though these were the last ones AV(f) picked up on her way back to the bakery. We cut into both of them, and the chocolate cake had good flavor but was a little bit too light to support such goopy frosting. The dulce de leche cupcake was very tasty; there was a scoop of caramel in the middle, which was delicious and rich. I wasn't a huge fan of the frosting, which was too light for me-- almost foamy. But overall these both did have good taste going for them.

10. Billy's!


For the sake of comparison, we brought two of our own cupcakes down from the cupcake case. I must say that I really do like our vanilla buttercream-- it's sweet but not too sugary (it doesn't crunch between your teeth the way Buttercup's does). Our chocolate buttercream is lightly chocolatey and not overpowering (although I admit I like our vanilla better, but I'm always more for vanilla frosting than chocolate). Our vanilla cake was tender and soft and light, and the chocolate cake was light yet still richer than Magnolia's or Buttercup's. Overall, I definitely like our vanilla-vanilla cupcake better, although I still go for a banana or carrot cupcake every time, as I'm a sucker for our cream cheese frosting. But that's a whole other tasting.

The carnage after we had finished

So there you have it. Aside from Billy's, which wins by default, our favorites were from Sweet Revenge and Chikalicious. I liked the chocolate frosting from Two Little Red Hens, but the foulness of their vanilla frosting pretty much cancels that out. Our least favorite were Cupcake Cafe, Baked by Melissa, and Kitchenette. I must say, overall we were surprised at how much we didn't like most of these-- and as you may know from reading this blog, I am a true cupcake lover. It's true we didn't include Sugar Sweet Sunshine or Amy's Bread cupcakes, both of which have stellar reputations, but I will say, from my position as completely, 100% un-impartial reviewer, that if you want cupcakes, you should come and try Billy's. I promise, you'll leave our shop with a smile on your face!