A Day In The Big D

28 11 2012

Driving back to Wisconsin after several days out East visiting my mom, I realized hey, I don’t think I’ve ever been to Detroit. It’s probably the only major American city I haven’t seen.

Well. Let’s change that.

Armed with suggestions from my Icepeep (and Detroit native) Brian as well as a few other friends, I tried to cram as much sight-seeing as I could into a single full day.

Unfortunately, my first stop was the zoo.

Let the three-hour delay begin.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no complaints about spending a good chunk of the day at the Detroit Zoo. It was great. It was in the 30s and had snowed a little overnight, and I think I was one of about ten visitors in the whole place.

You’ve heard of gorillas in the mist? I give you flamingos in the snow.

A lot of the warmer climate animals were off-display, but that was okay. In animal appreciation, much as in other areas of my life, I’m an upper latitude kind of girl.

The big draw for me was what’s billed as the largest polar bear zoo habitat in the world. It’s right next to the seal exhibit, and the two share an underwater “Arctic Tube” through which visitors can walk and observe the animals in the water. (To clarify, though both habitats are viewable from the same tunnel, they are separated from each other to avoid what would be rather bloody interspecies interaction.)

I was a little worried about this harp seal, who was just hanging out by an air vent, until the docent explained that he was blind, as were the other seals in the exhibit, all of them rescues (it did seem the Detroit zoo had more rescued animals than most), and he just seemed to really enjoy the sensation of the air vent, spending most of his time there every day. “It must feel like he’s swimming really fast,” noted the docent, which struck me as bittersweet.

I am pleased to report that, unlike my adventure in an underwater Antarctic tube, the Arctic tube did not involve major embarrassment and an unintentionally lengthy stay.

There seemed to be two docents per visitor at the zoo the morning I visited, and every one of them was extremely enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge. It was kind of cool, but also a bit more social than I had foreseen. They would just materialize out of nowhere and start telling me Nuka the polar bear was celebrating his eighth birthday and had received eight loaves of bread but the other male polar bear, Akila, who was 19 and sterile due to a congenital defect, had only been given one loaf of bread because he was gluten-intolerant and…

Oh-kay, let’s switch to decaf, buddy.

Da Bears. The one on the left is sterile and gluten-intolerant. The one on the right just turned eight. In case you were wondering.

The volunteer docents were all so earnest and nice that I couldn’t be surly about it. Little did I know it was a hint of what was to come.

I spent a good chunk of time watching Nuka the birthday boy playing in his private pool, the one that cannot, alas, be viewed from the tube. He had a large floating disk the size of a manhole cover that he liked to throw into the water and then jump in after it and try to submerge it.

Nuka in action.

When not trying to drown his manhole cover, Nuka appeared to be working on his synchronized swimming routine. It was ridiculously adorable.

Nuka with his favorite toy.

Have I mentioned how much I love polar bears? (Or also that the polar bear is my triathlon totem animal because, like me, they excel at and enjoy swimming in cold water, on land they have good endurance and are capable of very short bursts of speed but it ain’t pretty and, well, the word that comes to mind when cycling is “ungainly.”)

On a tip from one of the docents, even though “The Giraffe Experience” was closed due to the cold weather, there was an unmarked but perfectly legit back door into their house, so I got to see two young giraffes courting. The girl giraffe is just over a year, I believe, but the male turned five this week and was simply enormous, the largest giraffe I’ve ever seen.

Young Giraffe Love

After leaving the zoo, I drove down Woodward Ave., one of the main drags of Detroit. Of course, when all you’ve heard about Detroit is what a blighted wasteland it is, you kind of, well, expect to see blighted wasteland. And there were certainly stretches of abandoned buildings or ramshackle nail salon/liquor store/cash advance/thrift shop strip malls, but I didn’t see squalor and never felt in danger.

The birds and the (gluten-intolerant) bear.

By the time I arrived at DIA, the city’s big art museum, I was feeling like reports of Detroit’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s a nice city. Great zoo, fantastic museum…I set off on foot from DIA to check out a couple places Brian had recommended, Avalon Bakery (tasty organic fare) and the Traffic Jam and Snug, a bit of a pub with its own on-site brewery, dairy and bakery. I opted for a slice of mushroom duxelle focaccia at the former and a pint of Oatmeal Stout at the latter. Neither were particularly to my taste but both were well-made and well-priced.

And the people…at DIA, the two folks staffing the desk (I had accidentally entered the “group admissions only” door but they didn’t mind) recommended a few other things to see and do and, like a few of the zoo docents, thanked me for visiting their city. At Avalon, despite a crowd, the woman at the counter had all the time in the world for me to place my order. At Traffic Jam, the bartender got out his laptop and looked up opening hours and directions for me without me even asking.

Everyone seemed genuinely thrilled that someone was visiting their city. It was charming and…a little creepy. Having grown up in and around New York and lived or visited some of the earth’s snobbiest, snottiest cities, I’m used to more confrontation, less patience, more disinterest, less engagement.

Hey, this place is great! I don’t see why everyone always dumps on Detroit. The people are nice, there’s lots to do…and…and…

Then I went in search of the Heidelberg Project.

The project was another of Brian’s recommendations, and it’s an interesting idea, encouraging people in one of the city’s tougher areas to use found materials to create art. Sadly, I didn’t take photos because by the time I found it, the light was fading and my camera’s memory card was full of polar bears, but you can get a sense of the place from their website.

I’m not sure which camp I fall into over the project. Is it art or is it an eyesore? A bit of both, I think, but, given its surroundings, it is, if nothing else, a sign of life.

Because, you see, I got lost on the way.

Look, a Detroit Tiger sleeping on the job…why am I not surprised? Something for my San Francisco readers.

Now, I have been in “bad” neighborhoods and I’ve been in “dangerous” neighborhoods all over the world. I’ve been in places where I felt all my senses go on high alert. I’ve been followed. I’ve been harassed. I’ve been afraid. I’ve had to resort to physically defending myself, once, in eastern Turkey, when a guy came out of a building and grabbed me (application of one’s elbow to the attacker’s diaphragm with extreme prejudice is an excellent way to convey “leave me alone” if you don’t happen to speak his language). So I figured whatever I’d see in Detroit I’d seen before and it wouldn’t rattle me.

I was wrong. Once you get away from the main drags, from the attractions, from the areas where businesses still thrive, there are huge swathes of the city that I wouldn’t call “bad” or “dangerous” as much as spooky. Sad. Tragic.

Which would you rather see, gutted ruins of a once-lovely neighborhood or adorable napping Arctic foxes? Yeah. I thought so.

Beautiful old homes now burnt-out shells, sitting alone in an otherwise empty block of tall grass. Or, somehow even sadder, a single home cared for and decorated, a Christmas tree in its window, sitting between two derelict ruins. I passed a block of houses that were still homes, but surrounded by acre after acre of overgrown bushes and trash.

I passed a few other cars on the roads, but mostly the streets and sidewalks were as deserted as the neighborhood.

It made me sad, and angry, and, well, incredulous. I felt like I was on the set for some zombie apocaylpse movie, only this disaster was real, and clearly didn’t happen overnight. As Theoden put it: “how did it come to this?”

If you want to see images of Detroit’s urban blight, go Google it. Here instead is an image of a rhino in snow.

I know I’m an outsider looking in, and maybe if I didn’t see so much potential in the city, if the people I met hadn’t been so genuine, I would think “well, whatever, it’s their business, not mine.” But because my experience up until then had been so positive it just vexed me more than I expected.

Look elsewhere for images of Sad Detroit. Here instead are some lemurs.

I drove around the Heidelberg Project and then headed out, on the recommendation of one of the DIA people, to the Ford House on the lake. It was closed already, but she’d suggested driving back along the lake and ogling at the houses.

Well.

I guess I was expecting Milwaukee’s stunning Lake Shore Drive, where one early 20th century house after another delights the eye with perfect proportions and not a line amiss, with only the occasional later and often ill-conceived monstrosity in the mix. But the lakefront communities of Grosse Pointe, well…no offense to any native Motor City types reading this, but damn, that’s a whole lot of ugly. Plenty of mid-to-late 20th century “statements” that would have been best left on the drafting table, mixed in with glorified McMansions or sandwiched between older houses apparently revamped with gaudy, misproportioned windows. Ick.

This Japanese snow monkey best expresses my mood after experiencing the juxtaposition of the Heidelberg Project with Grosse Pointe excess.

By the time I got back into downtown, it was dark. I got dinner at a small Greek restaurant–with the most delish vegetarian stuffed grape leaves–and stopped in at Ikea to pick up a catalog for when I have my own place again, one day. It will not be covered in weather-beaten stuffed animals like one of the Heidelberg houses. Nor will it be a Grosse Pointe monstrosity. And I am thankful for that.

I’d like to return to Detroit to see more of the sights. It has a lot to offer and it’s rare to be able to say every single person I met seemed to be decent. I’m rooting for you, Big D. I have no idea how to turn you around, but I hope it happens. You deserve it.

Indeed. Taken on the Interstate in Racine County, WI. I would just hope The Almighty has a better grasp of punctuation.





Eating The Big Apple

21 11 2012

Herein, dear reader, is a tale of obsession, fervor and a French man. But not obsession and fervor for a French man. Sorry, Jacques.

It’s also a post particularly for my many foodie friends.

Most of my audience (both of you) know that, in addition to ending up in places like Antarctica and New Zealand and writing fiction (and occasionally truth), I’m a trained pastry chef. I also am what I’d call a fuss-free foodie. I am interested in the process of making food, in flavors and experiences, in understanding what makes an item popular or a place successful. But I have a very low threshold for pretentious nonsense, gimmicks and, worst of all, crappy food marketed as the Second Coming.

Also, I really like macarons.

No, not macaroooons, the dreadful haystack of shredded coconut and sugar and egg white that is sometimes, adding insult to injury, dipped in chocolate.

Blech.

No, I mean macarons, also called French macarons to distinguish them from the aforementioned coconut-based abomination (which, as it happens, I like to call macaruins). A proper macaron—a little sandwich of two meringue-and-almond-flour cookies with ganache, preserves or buttercream in between—is a delight to look at, and feels like angels French-kissing you when eaten.

Macarons aren’t difficult to make, but do require a bit of attention to detail, several different processes and careful timing at various points, all of which, as your average borderline-OCD pastry chef, I love. They’re also a great canvas for both flavor and color. Though the chefs I worked with in New Zealand insisted on dumping gobs of food coloring into the meringue to make near-neon macarons (that tasted like food coloring—ugh), it’s possible to create a rainbow of hues with a more subtle hand.

And the flavors! Vanilla, pistachio, raspberry and chocolate are probably the most classic, but I’ve had peanut butter and jelly, creamsicle, green tea, lavender, rose, blood orange, black sesame and pandan, a slightly herbaceous flavor popular in East Asia, though I had it last year in Melbourne, a city that has gone mad for macarons (I approve).

As it happens, I’m currently in New Jersey for Thanksgiving with my mom, and today I decided to take the train into Manhattan to check on some pastry trends and sample the macaronmania that has gripped the City.

The day’s haul of Big Apple baked goods. By the way, I didn’t take photos at any of the places because: a) I think it’s kinda dorky; b) my camera, tiny though it is, did not fit in my tiny purse.

I was a little concerned about heading into New York. I get anxious in crowds, especially since living in Antarctica. I don’t freak out or anything, but I don’t enjoy it.

I had nothing to fear.

New York is home for me in a way no other place is. I feel at home in Antarctica, in most of England and New Zealand, and in southeastern Wisconsin. But in New York, a place I grew up around and lived in for four years, a sixth sense kicks in and I know where I am, where I’m going, how things work and, perhaps most importantly, where to find the nearest clean bathroom.

For example, the first place on my list, Sweet Revenge, was on Carmine Street, on the edge of SoHo. I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to Carmine Street (it’s a sliver of a thing tucked between Seventh, Houston and Bleeker), but getting off at the Houston subway station I found myself choosing the least convenient exit because my brain told me “it made sense,” going up the stairs, crossing an intersection again feeling a strange pull and, ta-dah, finding myself at Carmine Street.

Sidenote: my sixth sense also kicks in London, a place I’ve never lived but adore, yearn for and love to visit, but no other city. Huh. I think I may need to conduct further research. In London.

Sweet Revenge

How could I not visit a place with such a delicious name? Sweet Revenge came up on a Google search for best New York desserts and is famous for pairing cupcakes with wine and beer. The friendly server told me “we’re famous for pairing our cupcakes with wine and beer” and I said “I’m famous for hating cupcakes.” ‘Nuff said about trying their signature. I will hold off on my cupcake rant (for the moment) to say it is also a charming mini-bistro with the cutest faucet in its (clean) bathroom sink. I’m just sayin’. If you ever need a clean bathroom on Carmine Street…

Service: Friendly and personable.

Size: about 20 seats crammed into a place not much larger than a living room with a shabby chic (in a good way) bistro feel.

Purchased: Tuscan savory “cake” (very muffin-esque) with house side salad and a latte, total with tip $18.

Crowd: Exclusively women during the weekday noon hour I visited, late 20s-40s, savvy but not hipsters drowning in their own irony.

The Package: I’m always thinking about how a place markets itself, what the website looks like, how they package product. I didn’t buy anything as takeaway here, but other than mixed font abuse on their website*, I think they do a great job of marketing. (*Yes, I fuss over fonts. Deal with it.)

Verdict: I thought it was just a bit pricey and can imagine it’s a nightmare when crowded, but the latte was top notch and I’d return to try a sandwich if I was in the neighborhood again.

Molly’s Cupcakes

Yes, I know, I know, I just admitted my deep hatred for cupcakes. I guess it would be more accurate to say I hate what cupcakes have become, this inexplicable (and apparently inexhaustible) trendy paragon of all that is allegedly awesome. I don’t mind a fresh cupcake made of plump, moist cake with a proper Italian or Swiss buttercream, natural colors and an obvious flavor. But I don’t understand why people go insane for flavorless, dry cake or confectioners-sugar-and-Crisco frosting, for garish colors that taste of grain alcohol and artifice, for just plain stupid flavor gimmicks and anything pronounced as “in” by self-appointed cupcake kings.

In fact, I put cupcakes in the same category as the Kardashians and that honey-boo-boo brat. That would be my “WTF?” category.

I went in to Molly’s Cupcakes out of curiosity because I passed it on the way to the next place on my list and wondered how the verdammte cupcake* business is going these days, especially in a primo spot in the Village.

(Good friend Dread Pirate Iron Bluebird, also mystified by the enduring allure of the cupcake, has suggested I open a bakery to give the people what they want…Verdammte Cupcakes, which basically translates as “Goddamned Cupcakes!” I may well do that one day.)

Service: Disinterested. The two 20-something girls stood there talking to each other about hair while I waited to see how long they’d go before noticing me right in front of them. Answer: about 30 seconds which, given the scant number of people wanting to buy their cupcakes, was an eternity.

Size: Large storefront that was almost empty at 12:30 on a weekday.

Purchased: nothing.

Crowd: A tourist family with little kids were the only other customers. They seemed happy.

The Package: The overall decor was sunny and fun, perhaps ironically so given the soul-crushing pain the cupcake trend has brought to many a pastry chef who wants to make creme brulee and japonaise and chiboust but is repeatedly asked “Hey, can you make them cupcakes I seen on that Food Network cupcake show where they gotta make a bunch of cupcakes? That show sure is funny!”

Verdict: I can’t comment on the taste since I didn’t try anything, but then nothing looked appetizing enough to try. A lot of the product looked old (the fruit garnishes looked limp and dry in particular) and I’ve been burned by too many verdammte cupcakes in the past to part with another four bucks for stale cake and crappy seven-minute frosting. Maybe they were fabulous. Maybe there’s a pair of skinny jeans out there that would flatter my keister.

Dessert Club, Chikalicious

Black sesame shortbread and macarons from the Chikalicious Dessert Club

Service: Hipster-y but fairly helpful.

Size: Shoebox-sized. I think I could have stretched my arms out and touched both side walls.

Purchased: Black sesame shortbread (allegedly chosen as “the best cookie in the US” by USA Today, that paragon of gastronomy) and macarons (strawberry, green tea and salted caramel), total $14.

Crowd: the only other customers, leaving as I entered, were very East Village hip and rather pleased about it.

The Package: Respectable but anonymous and slightly old-fashioned packaging for what I bought. Sadly the actual Chikalicious dessert bar was closed today (and maybe for good? I couldn’t find it and it’s supposed to be across the street from the dessert club) so I had to make due with the more casual shop, which was decidedly unglamorous.

Verdict: I haven’t tried the shortbread yet, but the macarons ranged from average to good. All of them were a bit overly chewy and had too much filling (it oozed out when bitten into). The salted caramel had good flavor but was stale. The strawberry was fresh and had okay flavor but did not move me to write sonnets to it or anything. The green tea was the best of the three, with good flavor and a nice fresh shell. Not disappointing, but unless the shortbread is to die for, I don’t think I’d go back. I think one reason there’s so much filling is because they seem to use the same shell for all the macarons (they were sold out of chocolate when I visited so I don’t know if that’s entirely true) and expect the filling to do all the flavorfying. And yes, I just used the pseudo-word “flavorfying.”

Update: I tried the sesame shortbread. It was okay, but nothing to gush about. I’ve had better black sesame cookies in Vegas.

Kiehl’s

Not a macaron destination, or even an eatery, Kiehl’s sells expensive skin and hair care and I’ve always been a little curious about it. Having used up the free Lush and Aveda moisturizer samples I had, I went in and got a recommendation, then asked for a sample. “We don’t really give samples. We’re not supposed to,” said the shopgirl. I thought of saying “I don’t really buy $60 a half-ounce moisturizer. I’m not supposed to, until I’m independently wealthy.” Instead I gave her my Puss in Boots big sad eyes. She made me a sample with enough that will last for a couple weeks, certainly until I’m back in Wisconsin and can hit up another Aveda store for another sample.

Because that’s how I roll.

(Full disclosure: when I find a skin care product I love, or even like, I pay the big bucks for it…just ask the folks at Sephora. But too many of the goos and gels and creams out there are unremarkable to make that kind of investment without a test drive.)

Update: I like the Rosa Arctica Lightweight Regeneration cream enough to buy it when the sample runs out or Santa buys it for me, whichever comes first. Yes, shameless, I know. Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day–and it wasn’t built because the Romans sat around waiting for their slave laborers to feel motivated.

Panya

Service: Apparently, I had accidentally activated my cloaking device because I stood at the counter, the only customer doing so (everyone else was already sitting and eating), for more than a minute and was roundly ignored by all three unoccupied shopgirls, who leaned against the display, arms akimbo, looking at everything except the six-foot-tall woman directly in front of them.

Size: Only about a dozen seats but good space around them.

Purchased: Nothing. I might have bought a baked red bean bun, even though I prefer them steamed, but the service was so craptastic I decided to spend my money elsewhere.

Crowd: Everyone—staff and customers—was Japanese, in their 20s and a bit glum. It’s apparently a Japanese bakery chain. And, by the way, I’m not saying “everyone was Japanese” in a negative way, just saying that was the case, like the all-chick crowd at Sweet Revenge.

The Package: the place looked attractive and, at first glance, the packed case was full of inviting, perfectly golden brown baked goods, until you leaned a little closer and realized oh my god, that’s supposed to be a croissant!

Verdict: This is one of those Asian-French patisseries that has a bit of both with uncertain results. I can’t comment on the flavor because I didn’t buy anything, but their croissants frightened me. Monstrous, bear claw shaped things that bore no resemblance to a proper croissant. They also had Green Tea-ramisu which I was ready to mock until I realized almost every other place I went to had Green Tea-ramisu, which I can’t imagine being good. To me, a tasty tiramisu requires that play of bitter coffee and rich mascarpone, but most of the Green Tea-ramisus I encountered today seemed to be green tea mousse with vanilla sponge and white chocolate. That does not appeal to me.

Spot Dessert Bar

The score from Spot

Service: Relatively pleasant but harried despite the place being only half full.

Size: Small but not tiny basement location

Purchased: Macarons (passion fruit, Oreo, taro, green tea, rose and caramel), total $15.

Crowd: Everyone, servers included, looked to be college age. Those not absorbed in texting were rather boisterous.

The Package: I liked the little box she put my macarons in: sturdy with a cute slip cover with logo. Simple, useful, unique.

Verdict: I’ve only tried the passion fruit so far, which was correctly made but didn’t zing me silly. I had an amazing passion fruit macaron in Melbourne, against which I measure all others. This fell short, as did the place overall. It had more of a college feel than the swanky website suggests, and the noisy table of students that kept interrupting me to ask the shopgirl for one more of this and another of that were obnoxious. (The fact that she kept walking away from me to help them also irked me, though she seemed too frazzled to pick on too much.) Also, on a personal note, I don’t like basement eating establishments, especially in slightly dodgy neighborhoods. Unless the other macarons are fantastic, I wouldn’t go back to Spot. It’s another Asian fusion place, by the way, and yes, there was Green Tea-ramisu. If anyone ever makes a Green Tea-ramisu cupcake I may have to shoot that person in the head (with a spritz cookie gun, of course).

Update: The passion fruit turned out to be the best of the bunch. A couple were really stale, a couple others were really bland and the rose was way overdone–unlike a lot of people, I love rose as a flavor so if I cringe at the soapy taste, you know they’ve gone too far.

Momofuku Milk Bar

How to demolish a diet single-handedly. Thanksgiving croissant and Compost Cookies.

Service: very chatty and personable.

Size: postage stamp. You might be able to fit a queen size bed in the space, but definitely not a king.

Purchased: two Compost Cookies and a Thanksgiving croissant, total $10.

Crowd: Hipsters.

The Package: basic but cute and consistent.

Verdict: I had my doubts about this fabled foodie hipster place, which got crazy amounts of hype for its cereal milk (milk soaked in cold cereal. Yes, essentially, sweet milk. They came for it in the thousands and the sidewalk is still marked with “line starts here” arrows) and “crack pie.” The Compost Cookies were probably the day’s bargain, the size of my palm for less than two dollars, and I liked the salty-sweet taste a lot (enough to steal the idea and make it myself). They also had good, chewy texture. The Thanksgiving croissant was the day’s biggest surprise. I bought it because it sounded kind of ghastly—an entire holiday meal baked in a croissant—in a way that made me curious. It was delicious. The dough was a little soggy and heavy but full of sage and thyme and other “stuffing” herbs, and inside was a fat piece of turkey breast, cranberry sauce and something gravy-like that would explain the dough’s sogginess. Each bite was like an idealized Thanksgiving memory. Nice job. Though I can’t get past someone selling “cereal milk” for $5 a pint and someone else, many someones else, lining up to buy it.

So wrong it’s right. The Thanksgiving croissant.

Nordstrom Rack

A girl cannot live on macarons alone. She also needs shoes. After milling around Union Square’s holiday market for a while and finding nothing of interest, I stopped by Nordstrom Rack to try on Italian designer raincoats on clearance, reduced to a mere $300. I bought nothing. I just needed a break from thinking about food, and slithering into a sleek designer raincoat will give you that.

Laduree

Laduree booty…just look at that excessive use of filling in the rose petal macaron (fourth from right)! In the 1860s when the Laduree family started making macarons, that would be grounds for a flogging!

Laduree is to macaron fanatics what Mecca is to Muslims. Wait, let me offend a few other world religions. Laduree is an audience with the Pope for Catholics. It’s the Wailing Wall for Jews. It’s Nirvana for Buddhists, and I don’t mean the band.

Laduree claims to be the original French macaronier*, so revered and so protective of its reputation as the Platonic ideal of the macaron that they do not trust American hands or American egg whites or American almond flour to do justice to their recipes. I mean, mon dieux! Sacre bleu! Zut alors!

That exhausts my non-culinary French. Oh wait, here’s one more thing: merde.

Every day, macarons made in France by people Laduree trusts not to muck it up are flown to their New York store in, I imagine, a pale chartreuse Concorde kept in service solely for that purpose, or perhaps in baskets carried by flocks of faeries with fluttering, pale chartreuse wings.

(*By the way, yeah, I just made up that word. Just because it’s fake doesn’t mean it’s wrong.)

While all the other places I went to on this trip were in the Village, I had to go to the Upper East Side for Laduree’s tiny shop, done up in that classic French look of Versailles without quite so much gilt.

There was a line of Asian tourists and Upper East Side socialite-types and a couple women taller than I am, with zero body fat, fabulously shiny hair, perfect skin and smartphones apparently surgically attached to their heads, whom I suspect were models.

As the line shuffled along, I noticed one member of the staff was not a twenty-something wearing a tasteful sweater or black shirt and pencil skirt. He was tall and gray-haired and in a suit jacket, and looked like an older version of the French actor Vincent Cassel. I figured he was the guy in charge because he wasn’t doing anything, just looking around and fussing over the exact angle of a few display boxes.

He kept glancing at me and then turning his back. I worried that my Fuggs and bootcut jeans had branded me as someone not of the appropriate socio-economic class to be at Laduree, but, when I reached the front of the line and a young shopboy began to offer his help, the older guy turned around, smiled and said, in what I can only describe as a Pepe le Pew bedroom voice, “I ‘ave beeeen waiting for you.”

Uh, okay. Slightly creepy.

Sadly, despite my apparent animal magnetism being strong enough to lure him away from straightened boxes that needed re-straightening, I did not score any kind of discount and the final tally, including a couple very small but tastefully wrapped gifts, would have gotten me almost halfway to Paris.

As I was leaving, he came around the counter to hand me my coveted Laduree bag personally instead of passing it over the case like everyone else was doing. As he put it in my hands, he purred “I weeesh you a lovely night.”

I was tempted to tell him it would indeed be a lovely night, in my flannel pajamas (the red ones with a print of an elk drinking out of a beer keg), gorging on macarons and an entire Thanksgiving meal crammed into what passes for a croissant in America, but I remembered I’ve been trying to be more gracious so I just wished him the same.

He went back to straightening boxes.

Service: Surprisingly friendly for a (mostly) French staff, one member of which I suspect would have been willing to feed me the macarons as I reclined on a swooning couch had I asked.

Size: Just enough room for a large display case, tiny “gift” area and double line of macaronaphiles patiently salivating while waiting their turn.

Purchased: Macarons, of course (blood orange and ginger, pistachio, rose petal, cassis and violet, caramel with salted butter, lemon-lime, lime and basil, green apple, and orange blossom) as well as a couple holiday gifts that will remain unspoken until Santa delivers them, for a grand total perilously close to triple digits.

Crowd: Upper East Side elites and upper crust tourists. Let’s just say I was the only one wearing fake Uggs.

The Package: Are you kidding? They are the Tiffany’s of macaron packaging, from the hardshell cylindrical macaron cases with latches–latches!–to the color-coordinated slide shows on their website.

Verdict: Nothing can live up to that much hype, and Laduree did not, despite the charms of its senior staff. (Don’t get me wrong…I’ll still demolish them over the next couple days.) So far I’ve  had the orange blossom (classically sized and executed with a whiff of orange blossom. Probably the best made of all the ones I tried today but a little too subtle for my barbarian taste buds), the rose petal (overzealous application of filling but otherwise textbook classic rose macaron) and the blood orange and ginger (the right size and perfectly made, but tasted of orange, not blood orange, and no ginger). Now, blood orange, ginger and macarons are three of my favorite things in the universe (if they’d found a way to work “dinosaurs” in there, I might have wept) so I was crazy excited about this. But. Eh. Also, I noticed a number of the macarons in the case were cracked or a bit crushed, overfilled or with bubbles baked into the cookie tops. It’s not horrific, but, given Laduree’s mythic stature in the macaron world, I would have expected perfection.

Maybe the green-winged faeries bring the seconds and irregulars to America.

Update: I spoke (or typed) too soon. Those were some of the best macarons I’ve ever had, and I think the green apple was my favorite ever. Wonderful flavor with perfect tartness and no taste of chemical tomfoolery. The pistachio and the cassis and violet were also in my all-time top ten. Every single one was perfectly made, too, and fresh. Okay, as much as I hate hype, I’ve got to say Laduree comes closest to actually deserving it. Splendide!