I had the chance to visit PB Boulangerie, a bona fide (see what I did there) French bakery/bistro. I wouldn't say it was worth the ~2 hour drive; the food was decent, but not good enough to be worth the hassle unless you're in the area.
The first thing that struck me was the lines. Even at 1 PM, the small bakery was bustling, with a nearly-full parking lot and a line extending past the entrance. The interior was, amazingly, a few degrees warmer than the summer outside, with the cashiers and bakers moving product like an inner city crack sale. Racks of bread lined the walls, glass counters were filled with a variety of pastries, and miscellaneous food menus were scrawled on the chalkboards.
After looking around, I settled on two pieces of quiche and a small sampling of pastries--Two eclairs, two croissants, a tart, a creampuff, and a piece of strawberry cake. The quiche was decent--it was warm and filled with ham, egg, and cheese, but there was nothing mind-blowing there. The pastries left a similar impression, clean technique and perfectly fine, but nothing I hadn't really seen before. Except the croissant. The croissant was dryer than a mummy's--Well, you know.
What really stuck with me even after eating it was the price. $8, for what looked like to be 1/6 of a 8-10 inch quiche? Even being generous, that comes out to about $30-40 of revenue for a smallish quiche. I don't care if you're using organic eggs, imported cheese, and homegrown Vermont ham--Someone's making a hell of a tidy profit here. While the cost for bread was, as far as I could tell, at a pretty reasonable range, the pastries were also definitely on the high end. The bill for the two pieces of quiche plus all the rest came to just shy of $50. I guess with those kinds of margins, I shouldn't discard baking as a career if this whole programming thing falls through, eh?
Price aside, I expected something a bit more from PB Boulangerie. I went in anticipating a mini-epiphany or three about the art behind pastries, thinking "What better place to get an eclair, or a croissant, than from a store run by actual French bakers?" But between the high prices and the merely adequate quality, I ended up leaving disappointed. I'm not bashing their products--far from it, they were quite good--but let's just say I was expecting a bit more wow from a place that was so overtly French, and a bit more return on investment for a trip all the way down to Cape Cod.
Recently I was very upset to learn that LaDurée has just opened its very first American store in New York City at the end of August. Had I known earlier, I would have camped its doors like a soon-to-open Apple store.
864 Madison Ave
(between 71st St & 70th St)
New York, NY 10021
Stay tuned for our post on LaDurée NYC as soon as we visit it!
I visited La Maison a second time recently, and actually managed to fire off a few decent shots which convey its "jewelry store" feeling. However, this visit left me severely disappointed. The outside and inside are decked with big advertisements of chocolate eclairs, but on walking inside Monday morning to try out their breakfast pastry options we discovered that they had no eclairs; apparently, they are only served Tuesday to Saturday, as they have to be prepared the day before.
There are several things wrong with this. The most obvious is that such a widely advertised product is not available at any time at all, and it's not clearly indicated anywhere in their advertisements. It also implies that the workers could not be arsed to come in on a Sunday to make eclairs for the Monday store opening. In addition, the fact that they insist on making eclairs a day ahead of time means that they are serving day-old eclairs. Even taking into account a short "rest period" of a few hours, there's no excuse for serving ones that were made a day before. Or maybe I'm just unreasonable in expecting them to wake up with the rest of the bakers at 3 AM to prepare their goods in time for breakfast.
I ended up having the Pleyel cake, after a drawn-out ordeal with the store's staff. After being informed of the lack of eclairs, we cycled through several options which were apparently also unavailable for various reasons, from there being no more to just the staff not being arsed to go and get slices from whole cakes. We eventually had to settle on the Pleyel when the store's staff was exasperated enough to cut a few slices off a large cake they had sitting in the store. They were very polite throughout, but I still found it annoying--perhaps they were hoping to keep the cakes whole to sell later on, but that's really no excuse in my book. I did get a free sample this time as well, but the Seven Trials of Breakfast definitely soured my mood. The cake itself was pretty good--kind of like a brownie, made with good quality chocolate and slightly lighter. It did give me funny breath for the rest of the day though.
Further contributing to my disappointment was the complete absence of the Grand Marnier-filled Valencia. They did not have any. At all. Whatsoever. My favorite flavor, completely gone. They did have it as part of box sets, but that's a rather cheap tactic to get me to buy.
Luckily, they still had their usual selection of macarons in plentiful supply, and they were up to their usual standards. I ended up buying a dozen macarons and shall be devouring them with the appropriate gusto, but Maison could have had so much more business from me that day. I still like you guys, but I shake my head in disappointment. See this face? :| This is my disapproval face.
I started going to Whole Foods a couple years ago after discovering it on route 9 in Framingham. Prior to my first visit, I had heard of it being over-priced and hipstery. I don't usually let rumors influence me so I decided to just figure it out for myself. Whole Foods established a name among food stores that is a reference of quality and gives the impression it provides premium products, we'll see how this is a bit fallacious.
The concept of living on organic products drives the idea of Whole Foods. Unfortunately their fruit and vegetables are far from the quality touted by the chain. Most of their fruit are actually from Mexico. No offense to anyone from Mexico but it is the default location for growing cheap produce, which is over-watered and over-fertilized. Anyone could find the exact same produce, originating from the same location in any other store such as Shaws or Stop & Shop. I remember their lemons being dry as cardboard, barely producing a couple drops of juice. Their mangoes (also from Mexico) are actually flavorful and juicy (when ripe...), but I can find the exact same mangoes at Shaws and they cost a lot less.
Another problem of Whole Foods is the variance in product quality across the chain's stores. Fish bought at the Whole Foods of Bellingham was consistently stale, always defrosted and soggy, while organic yoghurt bought in Framingham was consistently expired.
The pastries and bakeries from Whole Foods also vary in quality a lot. Sometimes their bread was warm, crisp outside, soft inside, basically fresh out of the oven. Some other times, the bread would be like a brick that had been sitting there for three days in a row. This applies to all their bakeries, from croissants to muffins. Their pastries would also be like wood sometimes, but that's not because they were sitting there for a week, its because sometimes the pastry chef would replace the flour with sugar (figuratively).
Thankfully Whole Foods is not just negativity, otherwise I would never go back. They do have a bunch of rare items that are over-priced but that I can't find anywhere else. Unfortunately, the cashiers are never able to recognize those items and require my help to find them in their manual... I remember of a cashier who had never heard the word "Morel", slightly shocking for Whole Foods. Rare items I usually look for, as you have guessed, are their mushrooms. Throughout the year they usually sell blue-foot, chanterelles and occasionally porcini. I'm also interested in their cheeses such as the P'tit Basque, which is actually reasonably priced. Other items that are not so easy to find and that they actually have would be sunflower oil, sparkling Voss water, pine seeds, grey sole, Valrhona chocolate, Orangina soda and more.
The very last part of Whole Foods that I need to mention is the liquor store. While I have visited only the liquor store of Framingham's Whole Foods, I need to say that I was impressed by the diversity of their products. They usually have very few bottles of each type, like two or three but they have everything from Yquem to quality Japanese sake. Their selection of international beers is also pretty astonishing. I'm a big fan of the Japanese beer Kirin, which is impossible to find anywhere else than Whole Foods. Among beers I like, they also have Sapporo, Asahi, King Fisher, Corona, 1664, etc.
I don't do all my grocery shopping at Whole Foods, simply because of the highly priced products that vary in quality, but it definitely is my favorite destination when I seek rare items, from mushroom to beer.
I visited Minamoto Kitchoan on my last trip to Manhattan. From the outside, it looked like the stereotypical super-asian gift shop: very pretty, but expect to pay $60 for a small windup monkey toy. It turns out my impression was correct--except instead of windup monkeys, there were novelty Japanese wagashi.
The prices in the store were all astronomical. I thought about describing them as "ridiculous", but I'd have to redefine the word. The best way to put it would be to say that I deeply suspect someone tacked on a zero or two when converting the from yen to dollars. I didn't think that anyone charging such prices would be able to stay in business, but I guess the Fifth Ave crowd generally have enough money to blow to keep the place afloat. Perhaps the sweets were really worth shelling out the dough for, but for that kind of scratch I'd expect them to taste great, look nice, AND regulate my bowel movements.
Buying in bulk did not change anything either--in fact, there were cases where you would pay MORE per unit. Case in point, the white peach sweets were $12 apiece, but $75 for a box of six. Perhaps the box costs an extra 5 sticks and they took off $2 for buying in bulk.
One of the people in the group DID get tempted by the pretty appearance and bought one of the more reasonable things in the store--a box (6 or 8 pieces, I forget) of small green tea mochi for $18. They ended up tasting mediocre at best, awful at worst. They were limp, with none of the chewy texture that mochi is supposed to bring. Combined with the bean paste which, admittedly, did have some flavor, the general experience was reminiscent of baby food, or chewing gum that had already been gnawed on for 4 hours beforehand.
Will I give this place another chance? Probably. They do have very pretty items and a decent store. However, this probably won't be until I have so much money I'm bored with it. With my recent experience, the greatest chance they have of getting my business right now is if I'm gift shopping for someone particularly showy and very slightly vapid.