The first night we were in Boston was July 3rd. Our plans were to head over to the Hatch Memorial Shell to watch the Boston Pops full dress rehearsal. In preparation for their big 4th of July performance, the Boston Pops perform for a live crowd in a full dress rehearsal the day before. While the big day is the 4th of July, if you go on the 4th you almost have to choose what you want to do. If you wait to see the Boston Pops, you’re sitting in such a way that seeing the fireworks immediately after the concert is almost impossible. Or, you can save a spot along the river to watch the fireworks and listen to the Boston Pops on speakers set around the river, but you can’t see them. Besides the fact, going on the 4th of July means doors open at 9 am and seating is on a first-come, first-serve basis and the spots fill up before noon for an 8 pm performance. However, if you go to the rehearsal the night before, doors open at 5 pm for an 8 pm concert, the crowds are much less and you can watch the Boston Pops in a much more relaxed setting. While the concert isn’t exactly the same, it’s really, really close. And this is the best of both worlds, watch the Boston Pops perform live and for free the night before, and then on the 4th of July, find the perfect spot and watch the fireworks without having to sacrifice one or the other. Besides, for an 8 pm concert on the evening of 4th of July, gates open at 9 am, so our whole day is pretty much wasted spent waiting for the concert. We chose to go watch the Boston Pops on the evening of July 3rd. It was incredible. An experience I won’t forget any time soon.
To make it easier for us, we booked a hotel that was within walking distance of the Hatch Memorial Shell so we could walk to and from the concert on the evening of the 3rd. When the concert was over, we, along with thousands of others, walked back through the streets of the Beacon Hill neighborhood on our way back to our hotel. About 2 blocks before we reached our hotel we strolled right past one of the few shops in the neighborhood that was bustling with people and activity. When we got closer, I realized it was an ice cream place, my favorite kind of place. People must have been stopping by to enjoy dessert before going home. If it was this popular, it must be good. So I told my husband right away that we needed to find some time to come back to this ice cream place and give it a try! When I got back to the hotel, I looked up the J.P. Licks and discovered it was Boston’s most popular ice cream joint. That was good enough for me.
J.P. Licks, which markets itself as Boston’s “best place for homemade ice cream, frozen yogurt and fresh-roasted coffee” and uses an adorable cow for their logo is “eclectic” and “unique” as owner and founder Vince Petryk describes it. Having been in the ice cream business and industry for over 30 years, Vince and his then-partner started J.P. (which stands for the Jamaica Plains neighborhood of Boston) Licks in 1981 when he was just 26 years old. Originally reviewed as “not your traditional New England ice cream parlor,” J.P. Licks which initially only served handmade ice cream because churning out soft and hard frozen yogurt in 1987 and then began fresh roasting their own coffee in 1999, has now grown to 13 different stores in 4 Boston locations and 9 more in neighboring towns, none of which is more than 15 miles from their home base, which ensures a high level of quality products and services.
Finally, in the afternoon on the 4th of July, we dropped into the J.P. Licks location not too far from the hotel to grab an afternoon snack. Even though J.P. Licks is known for their ice cream and sorbets, they also have baked goods and pastries as well cookies and, of course, coffee. So much to choose from that my husband and I said we might come back here for breakfast one morning. Though sadly, we never made it back. It’s a warm 4th of July afternoon, I’m going to bypass all the other sweet treats and go for the ice cream. I’m an ice cream fiend, and I’m not going to pass up the chance to cool down on this sweet treat.
The minute I saw fresh banana on the menu, I was all over it. In fact, I ended up getting a two-scoop cup with a little topping of homemade whipped cream. One scoop of fresh banana and a second scoop of mint cookie ‘n’ cream. The fresh banana is described as being loaded with five pounds of fresh ripe bananas put into every batch of ice cream that they make. For me, this was the best banana ice cream I’d ever had. One bite of the banana ice cream and you could tell that it was fresh and that it was real fruit flavor without any additives or flavoring added into it. The ice cream had a subtle taste of banana, but it didn’t overpower you. It was sweet, but not overly sweet. It was like eating a creamy version of a fresh banana. Perfectly ripe, perfectly flavored. I loved it. This is what all banana ice cream should taste like. The mint cookies ‘n’ cream was also phenomenal. One of the main reasons I got this flavor, since I generally am not a mint chip type of girl, is because the menu said that the mint cookies ‘n’ cream was made with fresh mint, so it wasn’t the green color ice cream you normally associate with mint. Instead, it really looked like any normal, non-mint cookies ‘n’ cream flavored ice cream. However, one spoonful and you could taste the fresh mint taste of the ice cream. It was refreshing and cool, almost like sucking on a breath mint. The ice cream was packed with cookies ‘n’ cream and the combination of the sweetness of the cookies ‘n’ cream and almost the sharpness of the mint flavor created a nice balance of flavors and tastes and actually in combination with the banana it was delicious. Fruity, refreshing and just a hint of sweetness mixed into the two flavors combined. It hit the spot on this warm July day.
My husband also got a 2 scoop cup, but chose sorbets and sherbets for his selection. First off, he wanted the fresh watermelon sherbet. This beautiful pink sherbet is described as having tons of fresh watermelon blended into sherbet to create the perfect summer taste. My husband agreed that this tasted just like summer as it was cool, sweet and refreshing. You could really taste the freshness of a juicy, ripe watermelon in the cool refreshing form on a sherbet. When I asked him how it was, his words were that it was “summer in a cup.” His second selection was J.P. Licks’ fresh mojito sorbet. Described as using “fresh, hand-picked mint with a kick of white rum” it makes the perfect summer refreshment. One spoonful and my husband said that it definitely tasted like a mojito and it was awesome. My husband loves mint, and he said that you could definitely taste the freshness of the mint in the sorbet. If it was anything like the mint in my mint cookies ‘n’ cream, then I had no doubt he could taste the freshness of the mint. The rum added a kick to the sorbet that my husband said you could definitely taste, but it also added the sweetness necessary to bring the icy sorbet together and pair it well with the fresh mint. For him, this was like what a mojito tastes like, but in an icy dessert format. Smooth and refreshing, the watermelon sherbet and the mint mojito really were the perfect match for one another. And my husband being the quirky guy he is decided to ask the employee behind the counter if he could get one single green gummy bear on his cup of ice cream because he thought it looked pretty.
It was neat to just stumble upon this random ice cream shop and discover that it has this incredible story and history within the city, but also some of the best and most unique ice cream and sorbet flavors we’ve ever seen. And not only were the flavors unique and different, they were really good. My husband loved his mojito sorbet and I loved my banana ice cream. You can taste in the ice cream the fresh quality and flavor and you know it was made with fresh, local ingredients. I wish we had a place like J.P. Licks here in Southern California because I’d be eating gallons of that banana ice cream.
After 2 nights in New York, we boarded a train and headed to Boston. Our short 4th of July trip would have us spending 3 nights in Boston before flying back home to Los Angeles. New York was an added bonus to our trip, the real reason we took this vacation at all was to spend time in Boston over the 4th of July. We wanted to see the Boston Pops perform during their famous fireworks spectacular, and of course, watch the fireworks show itself. With that in mind, we booked ourselves into a room at the Liberty Hotel, one of the closest hotels to the Hatch Memorial Shell where the Boston Pops would be performing and the Esplanade waterfront area of the Charles River where the fireworks are set off from a barge in the middle of the river. The Liberty Hotel is famous because it used to be the Charles Street Jail in Boston’s Beacon Hill. After the jail was closed in the 1990s it fell into decay and disrepair. Instead of tearing down the hotel, plans were made to gut the jail and covert it into a luxury hotel. And the results are magnificent. When you enter the hotel you can still feel the echoes of the jail it used to be, but yet you immediately are greeted by the beauty of the stunning hotel it is today.
In keeping with the jail theme and history of the hotel, many of the different facilities at the hotel are jail themed, with names such as the Catwalk, Alibi and The Yard. That includes one of the hotel’s restaurants, The Clink. Located on the lobby level, the Clink serves modern American cuisine for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
When you step inside the restaurant, it uses some of the hotel’s architecture and jail theme to recreate eating in a jailhouse setting with barred windows and brick walls. The restaurant itself was actually quite large and bright inside, much more than the entrance would indicate. On this 4th of July, we decided to take advantage of the Clink’s weekend brunch to have a nice leisurely brunch meal for the holiday.
One of the Clink’s most famous weekend offerings is their Bloody Mary bar, which is set up just outside of the restaurants front entrance. As the name indicates, it’s a make-it-your-own Bloody Mary bar with up to 30 different kinds of hot sauces, additives and salts so you can customize your morning Bloody Mary any way you want it. You start with a Bloody Mary, for which you can upgrade to premium vodkas like Belvedere, Ketel One or Grey Goose, and then the rest is up to you to customize the way you want. We saw quite a few people take advantage of this Bloody Mary bar. Quite cool. Too bad we don’t do Bloody Mary’s.
My husband and I started our mornings much the way we do every time we dine out for breakfast or brunch. A cup of orange juice for my husband, a cafe latte for me. I like orange juice, but I need the coffee in the mornings. My husband is obsessed with orange juice and can’t resist ordering it whenever it’s offered on the menu. Morning drinks in hand, it was time for some breakfast.
For breakfast, my husband ordered his favorite eggs Benedict. Made with english muffin, poached eggs and smoked ham all smothered in Hollandaise sauce, and served with a side of fresh fruit, this is my husband’s favorite breakfast offering. As my husband isn’t always the biggest fan of sauce of any sort, he liked that the eggs Benedict weren’t completely covered in Hollandaise sauce all over, but rather, there was just enough sauce for each English muffin. The sauce was good and a little citrusy, which my husband liked. Otherwise, there wasn’t anything particularly earth shattering about this eggs Benedict other than just being a good hearty breakfast meal.
To go along with the eggs Benedict, my husband also decided to order a side of buttermilk pancakes. Three buttermilk pancakes dusted with a bit of powdered sugar and served with a side of butter and some Vermont maple syrup was the perfect side dish to my husband’s eggs Benedict. My husband liked the fluffiness of the pancakes and said that these were the best buttermilk pancakes he’d ever had. The pancakes were cooked perfectly and he could really tell that they were made using a buttermilk batter.
I chose brioche French toast for my breakfast. Served with a peach & lavender sauce along with whipped cream and Vermont maple syrup, I added a side of smoked bacon. I was quite curious how the peach and lavender was going to taste as it seemed a different combination. I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed the peach and lavender flavor combination as the peach added the hint of sweetness and the fruit flavor and the lavender was very aromatic in both flavor and taste. There was a floral essence to the overall sauce that was poured over the French toast. The three brioche slices you get on the plate are enormous and a bit overwhelming. And with slices of bread that big, the dish was very filling. I liked that the maple syrup and the whipped cream were served as sides so you could decide how much you wanted or not. As the French toast was already sweet from the peach and lavender sauce, I didn’t really need much of the maple syrup at all. I only added a little bit just to get a little more sweetness and to add to a contrast in flavors of sauce. This French toast was so filling I definitely didn’t need to each again until dinner time.
Enjoying a nice leisurely breakfast on the 4th of July at The Clink was relaxing and filling. So convenient that the restaurant was located in the hotel we were staying at so we didn’t have to go far. The food selection was wide and varied, the Bloody Mary bar a very novel idea, and the meals themselves delicious and filling. This was a good start to a day that would have us visiting the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library during the day and ending it by enjoying Boston’s spectacular 4th of July fireworks spectacular.
About a week before we left for our quick trip to New York, my husband was looking at maps of various neighborhoods in New York for eateries that caught his eye. We were still looking for a place to dine our last night in New York and couldn’t decide if we should just wing it and find a place when we got there, or if we should decide on a place in advance and make reservations. While he was looking around the neighborhood that we were planning on being in during the afternoon he found a place that caught his eye. He couldn’t resist looking further into this restaurant to see what it would offer and he discovered that the place was quite popular so he asked me if I would be ok with it and if we could make reservations. As soon as I saw the name of the restaurant, I knew exactly why my husband would be drawn to it.
Murray’s Cheese Bar. Of course, any place with the word “cheese” in its title is going to pique my husband’s interesting. He just can’t help himself. Located in New York’s very eclectic West Village neighborhood, Murray’s Cheese Bar is part of a long, rich history of cheese shops and is a perfect complement to their cheese shop just down the street. Started by Murray Greenberg in 1940 when he opened Murray’s Cheese Shop on this small stretch of Bleecker Street known for its many cheese shops, Murray’s expanded to a brunch, lunch and dinner restaurant in 2012 with the opening of Murray’s Cheese Bar under the guidance of owner Rob Kaufelt who took over Murray’s in the 1990s. Today, you can walk to the cheese shop, which imports cheeses from all over the world and has even built their own cheese caves to age and ripen cheese over in Long Island City, and then walk down the street to the Cheese Bar where you can enjoy a variety of meats and cheeses and even local brewed beer and spirits.
The night we walked into Murray’s Cheese Bar, it was a little cold and a little rainy outside, but warm, hearty and energetic inside. This small little restaurant has a handful of quaint small tables for 2 and four at the front of the restaurant and lined up against one wall of the restaurant leading to the back of the store. On the other wall of the restaurant is a cheese bar with a cheese display case and a bar which eventually leads back to the kitchen. Much like the crazy, eclectic neighborhood surrounding Murray’s Cheese Bar, the restaurant is a mixture of laid back and upscale at the same time, full of energy and life.
After a full day of sightseeing and walking around the city, my husband and I were both ready for a drink to sit back and relax with. For me, I chose a housemade ginger ale. My husband chose a beer called Merry Monk’s ale. For me, the ginger ale was certainly refreshing because it had a nice bite of ginger flavor to it. More ginger than ale, it was strong and cleared out the senses, the way horseradish would. Luckily, I’m a fan of ginger, so I could handle it, but it was probably stronger than most people would expect or be used to. For my husband, he thought that the Merry Monk’s ale was interesting. He expected it to be more like Flemish-style beer, but it really wasn’t. He thought that the beer didn’t really have any bite to it, which he thought was interesting because it had a higher alcohol content to it than most regular common beers out on the market. Without seemingly any bite to it, my husband said it made the beer really easy to drink. This was the type of beer you could easily get hammered off of because it went down so easy and you wouldn’t even realize that it had more alcohol in it before it was too late.
To start our meal, my husband and I ordered the Cheesemonger’s choice of five cheeses and meats. The menu we were provided with actually lists the restaurant’s full selection of cured meats and variety of cheeses so if you were inclined and you knew what you liked and didn’t like, you could certainly select your own. We figured the Cheesemonger would know what paired well together and what didn’t, so we had her select for us. With the choice of five you can mix and match the number of cheese and meat items. Realistically, the only meat item we wanted was the prosciutto di parma, so that’s what we told the waiter and then the Cheesemonger paired 4 complimentary cheeses for us. When you ask for the Cheesemonger’s selection the wait staff will ask if there is anything in particular you are interested in, you like or don’t like, that way the Cheesemonger gets a feel for what to serve you. The prosciutto was imported prosciutto di parma from Italy. The classic cured meat to pair with cheese, it was tender, and sweet and melt in your mouth. Slightly salty, the flavor and taste of the prosciutto was wonderful and exactly what I was looking for when I requested one meat to go with our 4 cheeses.
Two of the cheeses that were chosen for us by the Cheesemonger were the Colton Bassett Stilton from England. A very strong cow’s milk blue cheese, I found the Stilton to be incredibly strong in flavor, almost too strong. On its own with bread we were given, I couldn’t handle the strength of this blue cheese. However, on the cheeseboard, the Stilton was paired with some caramel sauce, and when you put the incredibly strong blue cheese together with the rich and creamy caramel sauce, it really made the perfect pairing. The sweetness of the caramel balanced out the strength of the Stilton and together created a great dessert cheese that I ultimately went from not enjoying at all to really liking the best of the four cheeses on the plate. The next cheese was the Nettle Meadow Kunick. This was a local cheese from New York made from a combination of cow’s milk and goat’s milk. The cheese was described to us as being soft, creamy and buttery. This is the type of cheese that is just up my husband’s alley, a little soft and melty in the middle with a rind/crust on the outside. However, we were warned that the cheese itself smelled a little “funky.” Alright, that’s completely up my husband’s alley because “funky” cheese is not something I enjoy. My husband admitted that yes, the cheese did smell funky, but the texture was buttery and taste was good, so in the end, that’s all that mattered to him. Paired with this New York cheese was housemade pickles, but as neither my husband nor I are pickle fans, we didn’t have any of them.
The other two cheeses that were picked for us included the Montealva, a goat’s milk cheese from Spain. I was really surprised because I really liked this cheese. I’m not normally a fan of goat cheese, but this one was actually more like a strong, aged cheddar, which I love, than the classic soft goat cheese I think of. This hard cheese, had a very strong flavor, that was described to us as being lemony and bright. This was paired with a reduced raspberry balsamic sauce which was tangy enough to stand up to the lemony flavor of the cheese. Of the four cheeses we received, this was my second favorite behind the Stilton. Our final cheese was the Vermont Creamery Torus from Vermont Creamery and made especially for Murray’s. Again, this was a goat’s milk cheese, but definitely a softer cheese than the Spanish cheese. Vermont Creamery created this Torus especially to be aged in Murray’s underground cheese caves to age. Using recommendations on what Murray’s wanted, a cheese was created and encased in Vermont Creamery’s signature rind. After some further suggestions from another cheesemaster, a “hole” was cut in the middle to create a “donut” so that there would be even more surface area on the round to add this signature rind. Hence, the nickname of this cheese is the Cavemaster Donut. What you end up with is a cheese that my husband and I found to be soft on the inside with a soft rind on the outside. It was delicious, and definitely something my husband enjoyed more than I did as, again, I’m not a fan of soft cheeses. While we enjoyed all four of the cheeses we received, I think we both agreed that this Torus cheese was our least favorite because it just didn’t strike enough notes to be different and bold the way the other three cheeses were.
Another item my husband saw on the menu that he couldn’t pass up was Buffalo cheese curds. You wouldn’t believe how much of a fan of cheese curds my husband is. Again, must be a Midwestern thing? He can’t resist when he sees cheese curds on the menu anywhere, especially since they are so hard to find. Therefore, he had to get an order of the Buffalo cheese curds with Black River blue cheese dressing and a side of celery sticks. While I enjoy cheese curds, Buffalo sauce is not something I enjoy, so I left him to enjoy this appetizer all on his own. My husband liked the spicy flavor of these Buffalo cheese curds, but did say that he wished that there was a little less of the hot sauce and more of the cheese flavor itself. He was really hoping to taste the flavor of the cheese and not just the sauce, but got more sauce than he wanted and not enough cheese.
For my entrée, I went with something light since we had such a heavy lunch. Poached pear salad served with manouri, spring greens and candied walnuts. I know, a cheese restaurant and I probably order the least cheesy thing on the menu. I just wasn’t that hungry and the idea of something cheesy and heavy, just wasn’t in the cards for me. The cheese component of this salad comes in the manouri which I discovered later is a soft whey cheese made from either goat or sheep’s milk and is a by-product of the production of feta, which is why they are so similar in texture. I was originally concerned about the poached pears and what they would be poached in and how it would taste. I know that most of the time pears are poached in wine, but sometimes they aren’t poached long enough and all I taste is a pear that seems like it was just soaked in wine rather than poached. But these were perfect. They were obviously poached in red wine, but poached long enough to get the sweetness and flavor of the wine and the color, of course, but all of the alcohol has been burned off. The pears were soft, but still had a bit of crunch to them, which just added to the texture. The greens themselves were just light dressed in some sort of lemony vinaigrette, which was perfect with the manouri. And the candied walnuts were terrific, the perfect sweet finish and crunch to this light, bright salad.
Dinner for my husband was the cheese bar sliders. A plate of 3 sliders with 3 Cheesemonger’s choice of cheeses was a great, simple way to sample more of Murray’s cheese selection. Served with cornichons and Murray’s own homemade ketchup, the sliders were literally a grilled bun, hamburger patty and cheese. Nothing else, and nothing was needed. The cheesemonger’s choice of 3 cheeses included a blue cheese, a mild cheese like a jack and some sort of a cheddar cheese. My husband, who is already a huge fan of jack cheese, especially its great melty consistency under heat, enjoyed the mild, jack-like cheese the best. The blue cheese was good as well, a little soft, but not overpowering in its blue flavor, so you could still taste the beef and the bun and know you were eating a slider. For my husband, the slider with the cheddar cheese just made the slider just like any other slider, nothing overly special about it. But again, cheddar is also probably my husband’s least favorite type of cheese. After all the other courses we had tried on this night, these 3 sliders was the perfect size for an entree.
My husband, who originally chose Murray’s Cheese Bar, was really happy with this selection. Put cheese in front of him and he’s a happy camper. Make it a restaurant that specializes in cheese, and he’s in cheese heaven. The cheese plate we ordered with the Cheesemonger’s choice of cheese was really eye-opening for me to see how well different cheeses paired with other different flavors such as caramel sauce, fruit-flavored jams and other pastes. It’s amazing how different complimentary sauces can really transform the taste of certain cheeses. To me, that was the most eye-opening part of dining at Murray’s Cheese Bar. I admit that I did not enjoy Murray’s as much as my husband did, but that’s probably because I don’t enjoy cheese the way he does either. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy dinner and that I didn’t walk out of the restaurant full, because I did. I’m just saying it might not be my first choice for dinner, but it was a very interesting and different experience for me.
Many years ago when I was in New York City with my parents I saw a bakery near Rockefeller Center that looked so good and so inviting that I felt like I was drawn to it. I’d never heard of the place before, but during the middle of the winter when the temperature outside was below 20 degrees, this warm, inviting, bakery was like a beacon calling out. Unfortunately, on that trip, I never had a chance to stop in and pick up some cupcakes or cakes. Since that time, this particular bakery has always intrigued me. A couple of years ago, I had a friend who went to New York and posted a picture on Facebook of a cupcake she bought at this bakery. Then, I’ve seen this bakery featured on The Food Network and a couple of times on the morning network talk shows and my curiosity of this place has never waned. So, when my husband and I booked tickets to go to New York in the summer, I knew I wanted to find a way to maneuver our schedule so we’d be able to make a stop at the bakery.
In 1996, Magnolia Bakery opened its doors as a vintage bake shop in New York’s West Village. Known for their vintage designs and classic American baked goods and cakes, Magnolia Bakery has gained a reputation that’s almost as long as its list of locations worldwide. Classic cakes, icebox desserts, cookies and bars, cupcakes, pudding and other tempting treats are a feast for the eyes the minute you walk into Magnolia Bakery’s quaint original West Village location. In 2007, Magnolia Bakery’s original owner sold the bakery to Steve and Tyra Abrams who have spent the past 7 years expanding Magnolia Bakery’s reach to a global scale, opening stores in Mexico City, Moscow, Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, Doha and Kuwait City. Soon, Hong Kong and Singapore stores will follow. Priding itself on making everything by hand, fresh daily in store, Magnolia Bakery continues to draw crowds of tourists and locals alike who can’t get enough of their delicious desserts.
While my husband and I stopped by the original West Village location, we actually ended up purchasing a few goodies to enjoy in our hotel room from Magnolia Bakery’s Rockefeller Center location. This store is so busy that it’s a bit of a zoo inside and it’s always crowded, morning, noon and night.
When you walk into the store, you’re greeted by a long row of refrigerated glass display cases. Each display case houses a different dessert item. There may be a display of cakes, a display of icebox desserts, a display of cupcakes and a display of cheesecakes. It’s a real feast for the eyes. Behind the counter you can see bakers hard at work churning out the next batch of goodies for customers.
The idea is to step up to the display case which serves the dessert, pastry or treat you want to order. Place an order with the lady behind the counter and they’ll grab you want you want and package it all up for you. That’s the easy part, well easy after you decide what you want. Then you take the packaged box or bag or container or whatever you’ve purchased and you stand in the long line behind you waiting to get to the cash registers to pay for your purchase. This is where the wait comes in. Lucky, we were there in the late afternoon, and while the store isn’t huge and felt a bit crowded, it wasn’t yet shoulder to shoulder and there were probably only about 12-15 people in line in front of me. Making it to the front of the line, I paid for my purchases and took it back to the hotel room where my husband and I enjoyed these amazing desserts after in the evening.
One of the items I picked up that became our dessert that night was the Snickers icebox pie. This small pie, just a couple of inches in diameter was the perfect size for two people to share. Made with a chocolate wafer crust, which was fabulous, the pie was layered with peanut butter and cream cheese and a whipped cream filling. The entire pie was then topped with Snickers bar pieces. The icebox pie was amazing. With one bite, it was creamy, tangy, and sweet. The flavor of Snickers came through immediately with the peanuts and the peanut butter and just the slightest hint of chocolate. The chocolate wafer crust was perfect for this particular pie as a regular pie crust would have been to flaky and buttery and just wouldn’t be right. I loved the texture of the pie filling with the creaminess of it which definitely tasted of peanut butter, but also wasn’t overwhelming. Sharing this icebox pie with my husband, I could see right away why Magnolia Bakery has developed the amazing reputation it has, this pie was really that good.
Magnolia Bakery’s most popular item, and probably the item they are most known for, is the banana pudding. I’ve gone on and on writing on this blog about how much I love bananas. There was no way I was leaving Magnolia Bakery without getting a serving or two of the banana pudding. In the display cases, there is banana pudding in a bowl that is refrigerated in the case to show customers, but the pudding itself is already packaged in the back according to what size you want: small, medium or large. Of course, if you have a large gathering, you can also order a bowl that feeds 10 people. Believe me, everyone in line at Magnolia Bakery when I was there was toting a serving of their banana pudding. Made with layers of vanilla wafers, fresh bananas and creamy vanilla pudding, the banana pudding is made fresh, on a daily basis at Magnolia Bakery. The banana pudding is every bit as good as advertised. The pudding is sweet, but not too sweet. There are fresh chunks of banana throughout the entire serving and the bananas actually had some texture and body to them and weren’t just mushy, over-ripe bananas. And of course, the vanilla wafers that have a little sweetness to them, but also absorb all the wonderful flavors of the banana pudding and have just a little bit of texture and crunch still to them. This is banana pudding made from scratch and done the right way. You can taste it in every single bite!
When Magnolia Bakery says they specialize in classic American baked goods and desserts made from scratch daily and with only the finest ingredients, they mean it. You can walk in to the bakery and see the bakers in the back abuzz from making the icebox desserts or the cookies or the cakes or the banana pudding or any number of other items. You can taste the made-from-scratch quality in all of their desserts. From the first bite to the last bite, you know your Magnolia Bakery treat is going to be oh-so-yummy. It’s these qualities that have helped Magnolia Bakery build its reputation, a reputation that is much deserved and well earned through every stick of butter, every pound of flour and every cup of sugar that they put into their treats.
My husband and I, well ok, really just me, is always looking for the best ice cream joint I can find. But my husband does a lot of feed this love affair I have with ice cream. He’s constantly sending me articles he finds on the Internet which lists the best ice cream joints in the country or the world or stories about new ice cream parlors that are opening up, etc. One of these “best” lists had a very well known New York ice cream joint on its list. So for our trip to New York, I made sure to schedule in a detour to one of the ice cream joint’s locations so that my husband and I could sample for ourselves how good, or not, this ice cream really was. We even had to forego dessert at The Spotted Pig so that we’d be able to handle ice cream at this store shortly thereafter. Now you know how serious I am about my ice cream.
Big Gay Ice Cream is the brainchild of Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff. Opened as an ice cream truck in Manhattan in June of 2009, they soon gained a huge following. With its loud and proud name brand and its delicious ice cream creations, Big Gay Ice Cream open its first brick and mortar store in the fall of 2011 in Manhattan’s East Village. It was followed the following year by a location in the West Village. With its signature soft serve creations with outrageous names such as the Salty Pimp, they changed the way that the soft serve ice cream game was played. In 2013, in partnership with Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, Big Gay created its own proprietary soft serve ice cream. Today, with unique toppings and frozen treats, Big Gay Ice Cream changes the landscape on old-school soft serve ice cream.
Stopping in at their West Village location, we were lucky to arrive early enough to beat the crowds. I’ve seen pictures of this particular location with lines out the door with throngs of people waiting to get their hands on a creative ice cream creation. In fact, later that night, when it was drizzling, we walked past this store again and it was already crowded and filled to capacity with people even in the dreary weather. While Big Gay is known for its creative sundae combinations, you can also just get straight up soft serve ice cream in a cone or a waffle cone. With the available soft serve flavors of chocolate, vanilla and twist, you could spice up your cup or cone with premium toppings such as dulce de leche, bourbon butterscotch, red chili pistachios, ginger syrup, grape saba, fig balsamic and key lime curd. You can also choose to have the inside of your cone or waffle cone lined with nutella, biscoff or peanut butter. Now that’s something I don’t see every day.
However, it’s the specialty cones and sundaes that really draw people into Big Gay. With names such as the Salty Pimp, Bea Arthur, and Rocky Roadhouse, how can you resist? Their most well known creation is probably the Salty Pimp made with vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt and dipped in chocolate, the name is almost as giggle-worthy as the cone is delicious if you like a little sweet and salty. American Globs is another salty and sweet combination that’s made with vanilla, extra dark pretzels, sea salt and dipped in chocolate. Or the Rocky Roadhouse with chocolate soft serve, toasted almonds, marshmallows and chocolate chips. As a sundae, you could get the Monday Sundae with twist ice cream, dulce de leche, whipped cream, and a Nutella-lined cone. What about a sundae called the Mermaid? Made with vanilla ice cream, key lime curd, pie crumble and whipped cream, I thought for sure my husband was going to order a Mermaid.
After looking over the choices, my husband decided to order the Bea Arthur in a waffle cone. Usually made with a regular sugar cone, the waffle cone is an upgrade and gives you a bit more ice cream. The Bea Arthur is made with dulce de leche and crushed Nilla wafers lining the inside of the cone. My husband was super excited when he saw the dulce de leche being spread through the inside the waffle cone and then spoonfuls of crushed Nilla wafers being added to stick to the duce de leche. Then vanilla soft serve ice cream fills the entire cone before more dulce de leche and crushed Nilla wafer cookies coat the entire exterior of the vanilla ice cream. You even get a handy dandy waffle cone holder with your waffle cone creation. My husband liked his Bea Arthur. He’s already a fan of Nilla wafers and likes the flavor of them, having the inside and outside of the cone lined with crushed Nilla wafers was terrific. He liked the combination of the Nilla wafers with the ice cream as it gave a great crunch to the creation. Then add in the sweetness of the dulce de leche and it all worked for him. The one thing that my husband was disappointed with was the fact that we weren’t aware that Big Gay Ice Cream is known for their creations made with soft serve ice cream. Generally, all the other ice cream places we’ve been to, they make their own unique ice cream flavors and then make crazy concoctions with those unique ice cream flavors that they’ve created. Here at Big Gay, they take soft serve ice cream, and while it may be their own proprietary brand, it’s still soft serve ice cream, and they create something unique with it by adding toppings and flavorings. We weren’t expecting that, and it was a bit of a disappointment to us that we were starting with vanilla and/or chocolate soft serve ice cream.
For my selection, I chose the shortberry strawcake sundae. In a cup, you start with strawberry sauce and crushed Nilla wafers. To it, you fill the cup with vanilla soft serve ice cream. Add more crushed Nilla wafers and strawberry sauce, and top the whole thing with Ronnybrook whipped cream. Having that little bit of soft serve ice cream stick out of my sundae is kind of a signature look of Big Gay’s. The shortberry strawcake was tasty and fantastic. The strawberry sauce was terrific and filled with lots of chunky strawberry and not too much sweetness. Like my husband, I thought that the crushed Nilla wafers really made the difference in my dessert. They added a little hint of sweetness to the dessert, but added a great deal of crunch and textural feel to the soft serve ice cream. The whipped cream was very lightly sweetened, which was perfect. It added creaminess as you’d expect in a strawberry shortcake, but without adding the sweetness because there’s already enough sweet in the strawberry sauce and the ice cream, and to some extent the Nilla wafers. I’m a big fan of strawberry shortcakes, and this shortberry strawcake is a great representation of the dessert in ice cream form. I’d order this again at Big Gay Ice Cream.
Now, another ice cream shop to cross of my list of ice cream places I have to try. We skipped dessert at a Michelin-starred restaurant to give Big Gay Ice Cream a try. Both my husband and I enjoyed the ice cream creations we ordered. The Bea Arther and the shortberry strawcake were full of flavor and texture and were both delicious. While we both were a little disappointed in the soft serve ice cream aspect of this ice cream shop, the creations they made were unique enough that we couldn’t help but enjoy it. After all, it is ice cream, and ice cream is never a bad thing. While I’m not sure that this classifies as one of the best ice cream shops I’ve ever been to, and I think that accolades it receives may be a bit over-the-top, nonetheless, I would visit Big Gay Ice Cream again.
A couple of months before our (short) trip to New York, my husband told me to look up a particular restaurant that he saw on a list proclaiming which eateries had the best fries in the United States. Since he knew we would be going to New York, and this particular restaurant was in New York and caught his eye, he was trying to convince me to give it a try. This hip, funky place apparently had developed quite a reputation, not just for its fries, but for its eclectic mix of food options in general, in particular the burger and fries dish that my husband had read about. After scoping out the restaurant’s location, I realized that this would be the perfect lunch spot for us after having spent the morning wandering around the High Line. Work up an appetite and grub on good, greasy food? That works for me.
Located in the hip and trendy Chelsea neighborhood, just downtown of the end of the High Line, The Spotted Pig is a cute, 2 story, restaurant and bar, or gastropub, if you like, located in the middle of a residential neighborhood. If you didn’t know better, you’d walk right by the restaurant and never have a clue what was hidden behind the doors. In fact, the restaurant (as far as I could see), didn’t even have any sort of posted signage along the outside indicating that it was an eating establishment or what the name of the establishment was other than a small pig figurine hanging over the front doorway. Otherwise, it looked almost like any other residence located along the same street in the same neighborhood.
Owned by chef April Bloomfield and her partner Ken Friedman, this cute and kitschy restaurant which doesn’t take reservations and only seats about 100 people packed in tightly over 2 floors, with a fully-stocked bar on both floors, proclaims to serve seasonal British and Italian fare using local ingredients when possible. Decorated with pig paraphernalia all around, as well as potted plants, and other “farm-style” decorations, stepping inside, you feel like you’re transported to a whole different world. Opened in 2004, The Spotted Pig became New York’s first gastropub. In 2014, Chef April Bloomfield won the esteemed James Beard Award winner recognizing her as the best chef in New York. In fact, The Spotted Pig has received one star from the Michelin Guide seven years in a row.
My husband wasn’t initially going to order anything to drink with his meal until he saw the restaurant’s beer menu. The Spotted Pig was offering a beer that my husband has always liked out of Kalamazoo, Michigan called a Bell’s Porter. Reminding him of his college days when he was first introduced to this beer, he couldn’t help but reminisce the good old days by ordering a bottle to go with his burger and fries. Of course, it didn’t hurt when I told him to go ahead even though it was only lunch since we were on vacation, and we were walking all over the city, so it’s not like he had to worry about driving. With hints of dark chocolate and fresh roasted coffee, this darker beer which emphasizes the darker, roasted qualities of malt hit the spot for my husband.
Originally, I was going to order the one item on the menu that put this restaurant on the map. However, my husband was interested in ordering it too, and we kind of wanted to sample different items. So, after our waitress told us what the daily specials were, I changed my order to one of the specials. Braised beef on grilled toast with a fried egg. I’m a huge fan of pot roast, braised beef, short ribs, etc. Anything that’s been cooked low and slow for a long period of time to break down the fat and the tendons in the meat is always going to be something I love. This dish was no different. The braised beef was out of this world! It was incredibly rich and savory served with the juices in which it was braised. Cracking open the egg and watching the egg yolk ooze out and mix with the braising juices with the beef was so luxurious and tasted amazing. Of course, the amazing toasted bread underneath that soaked up all of the juices and the flavors. This was such a terrific dish, and I’m so glad I tried it.
When a restaurant is known for having some of the best fries in the country, and it’s that fact that even drew my husband’s interest in this restaurant, you know there’s no way he’s not ordering the burger and fries. This is the dish that The Spotted Pig is known for, and the one dish that is most often ordered. However, be forewarned, with reservations not being taken and the restaurant being on a first-come, first-served basis, the tiny kitchen is often overwhelmed with orders for these burgers. Luckily, we arrived at The Spotted Pig not long after it opened for lunch service, so we were fine, but we heard our waitress tell others who came after us that due to the fact that The Spotted Pig was a Michelin-star restaurant and they had a tiny kitchen, they could only cook up about 5 burgers at any given time. That meant that there could be quite a lengthy wait for food if that’s what you desired to order. Again, we were one of the first people here that day, so we didn’t have long to wait. The burger is a simple chargrilled burger with Roquefort cheese and served with The Spotted Pig’s famous shoestring fries. That’s it, there’s nothing more complicated than those ingredients, and yet, somehow, this burger and fry combo hit it out of the park. Let’s start with the burger. The bun was perfectly grilled, with even perfect grill marks on the bun. My husband loved the bread because he said that it held up well with the juices from the burger patty and didn’t get soggy or start to fall apart. Because the bun was grilled, it had good crunch, and was the perfect thickness to create a great meat to bread ratio. The Roquefort cheese was amazing, and surprisingly, not as strong as he had anticipated it to be. The flavors of the burger itself and the bread helped to dissipate the strong flavor of the blue cheese and added just the perfect amount of tang and creaminess to the burger. And the burger patty itself was perfectly chargrilled with a great char/smoky flavor. It was juicy and the flavors of the meat combined perfectly with the bun and the blue cheese. Now, let’s get to the shoestring fries. First off, how they ever even cut their fries this thin is beyond me. My husband is a fan of shoestring fries and absolutely loved this. Easily, the best fries ever. There’s no wonder The Spotted Pig has a reputation for their fries. The fries are perfectly fried, crispy on the outside and still tender and hot on the inside. They are tossed with rosemary leaves that are also thrown in the fryer with the fries. You can definitely taste a hint of rosemary in the flavor of the fries, and my husband even enjoyed eating the deep fried rosemary leaves. I don’t know how they do it, but you couldn’t ask for more amazing fries. The Spotted Pig deserves every accolade it receives for these fries.
By the time we walked out of The Spotted Pig, we were completely satisfied. The gastropub itself was cute and kitschy and homey. The food was outstanding, especially the shoestring fries. What a perfect lunch this was, burger and fries and a bottle of beer that created nostalgia for my husband and amazing, tender short ribs for me. After having wandered around the High Line in the morning and walking through this beautiful Chelsea neighborhood to this cute little restaurant/gastropub, this was turning out to be a great day. What a terrific New York getaway. Great food, good atmosphere, terrific company. I can definitely see why The Spotted Pig has received a Michelin star for seven consecutive years. If you ever find yourself in Chelsea, take yourself to The Spotted Pig. You won’t regret it, I know we didn’t.
When my husband and I took our first trip together to New York City in January of 2010, we took the subway out to Brooklyn specifically to have lunch at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria. In New York, there are 2 pizza joints that claim to be the first pizzeria, it’s either Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn or Lombardi’s in NoLita. After we dined at Grimaldi’s in 2010, my husband and I fell in love with it, and have since been to a number of Grimaldi’s locations throughout the country. With this trip to New York, my husband decided he wanted to give Lombardi’s a try so that he could compare the two. I’ve actually been to Lombardi’s a couple of times before, so I knew what it was all about.
Lombardi’s Coal Oven Pizza started in 1897 when an Italian immigrant reinvented Napoletana style pizza into one of New York’s most well-known staple foods, New York style pizza. In 1905, the City of New York granted a license to Lombardi’s, and therefore, they claim to be America’s first pizzeria. When Lombardi’s started in this neighborhood on Spring Street, they were located just down the street from their present location. This also makes Lombardi’s one of New York City’s oldest eateries.
Located just on the outskirts of Little Italy, hence the name of the neighborhood being NoLita, Lombardi’s Coal Oven Pizza is located in a beautiful, but small, brick building, indicative of the style of New York City over 100 year’s ago. Having taken the space next door to their restaurant, the restaurant has doubled in size since the first time I dined at Lombardi’s 10 years ago. That certainly helps the crowds that tend to come dine here every day for their legendary pizza. I love how on the interior, Lombardi’s has kept the old brick on the walls rather than covering it up. Inside, you can see the famous coal powered pizza oven and an open kitchen where you can watch your pizzas being made. Classic pizza joint decorations of red checkerboard table covers and as many tables as possible jammed into a tiny space. When Lombardi’s gets busy, the place is packed and there’s no room to move around. Luckily, we arrived in the middle of the afternoon for pizza, so we didn’t have to worry about the crowds.
However, having only had ice cream to eat over the past 24 hours, my husband and I were starving and even though it was only the middle of the afternoon, we were ready to scarf down a delicious coal oven pizza and more. Start with a pitcher of soda to share, an appetizer and a pizza and we’ll go from there.
A small order of bread sticks and sauce was our appetizer of choice. Our waitress told us that she recommended taking the parmesan cheese on the table and sprinkling a bunch of it into the bowl of marinara sauce before we dipped the breadsticks into the sauce. Instead of just sprinkling cheese into the sauce, we also sprinkled it over the bread itself. Cheesy breadsticks and cheesy sauce, a good combination. We dug into the breadsticks right away when they were delivered because 24 hours of only having a cup of ice cream tends to make a person hungry. While the breadsticks were ok, they weren’t my favorite. I’m used to soft, hot-out-of-the oven garlic breadsticks and these were almost like over-baked, hard breadsticks. It was almost like eating straight pizza crust, and I’m going to assume the dough for the breadsticks was exactly the same dough they use for their pizza crust. While the breadsticks were hot inside when you opened them up, the outside harder crust just made it hard to enjoy, especially was I was expecting softer, easier-to-chew bread. Maybe this is just the way breadsticks are in New York and this California girl doesn’t prefer her breadsticks the same way? I must say though, the marinara sauce was amazingly delicious. It was tart and tangy and definitely acidic from the tomatoes. But it had nice flavor too from oregano and basil and other seasonings. Adding a bit of the grated parmesan added some saltiness to cut through the tart acidity of the marinara sauce. Overall, I’d have to say that these breadsticks were underwhelming for me and probably not something I’d order again.
How can you come to an establishment like this and not order the pizza they made famous? We ordered the small original margherita pizza with the addition of pepperonis as a topping. Even their small is huge for just the two of us. Consisting of 6 slices, this 14″ pizza, even to someone who was as hungry as I was, was a bit daunting. Made with fresh mozzarella, fresh crushed tomato sauce and topped with Romano cheese and fresh basil, this pizza was outstanding. The coal oven pizza has a bit of a blackened, burnt bottom which gives off a little bit of a bitter, smoky taste, which is what Lombardi’s says you should expect and what they are trying to achieve. The crispy, a little bit burnt on the edge and bubbly crust is exactly what my husband was looking for. One bite of his first slice of pizza and he had a huge grin on his face. One slice later and he proclaimed that he actually liked Lombardi’s pizza better than Grimaldi’s. The tomato sauce was, again, wonderfully acidic which balanced out the slightly bitter taste of the coal oven crust. My husband thought that this was exactly what pizza should taste like, exactly what he was looking and hoping for. The little slices of pepperoni that were a bit crispy on the edges gave off a beautiful crunch and flavor to the pizza and the fresh, melted mozzarella hit the right notes.
My husband is careful to say, of course, that both Lombardi’s and Grimaldi’s are terrific and you really can’t go wrong with either. Though, he will admit that after having had Lombardi’s there’s something about it that makes it just that infinitesimally better than Grimaldi’s. But that comparison is like splitting hairs. We were famished by the time we arrived at Lombardi’s and their incredible pizza hit the spot. It’s exactly what we were looking for, exactly what we were hoping for. By the time we left Lombardi’s we were so stuffed you could have rolled us back to the hotel. But we were full and satisfied. Original, delicious, traditional New York pizza cooked in a coal oven the way the Napolitanos do it. Just the way it should be.