How will the dawn of the 21st century be remembered by history? Surely as the time of a great doughnut renaissance. Yes, rings of fried dough have finally earned a place at the table of epicurean America.
As is the case with most culinary trends in this country, New York City is once again at the forefront. So I placed my belly in a wheelbarrow and headed out for what can only be described as the Great New York City Doughnut Quest…a multi-borough culinary adventure to experience the city’s best doughnuts. Here’s how it played out:
This historical gem in Greenpoint, Brooklyn was my first stop on the tour – as dictated by geography and the indisputable divinity of the Metropolitan Transit Authority. There was nothing too exotic on the shelves, so I opted for a classic chocolate frosted doughnut of the traditional yeast variety. I was interested in a glazed as well, but they didn’t look particularly impressive.
Unfortunately the doughnuts at Peter Pan were nothing more than pedestrian. The high end of pedestrian, mind you, but they’re simply not in the same league as the other doughnuts I would devour throughout this hard-fed day.
My guess is that, like DiFara Pizza, Peter Pan has become the pride of the neighborhood, with locals elevating it to legendary status. Of course, before the great doughnut renaissance, pedestrian doughnuts ruled, and Peter Pan was undoubtedly one of the best of the best. But times have changed, and Peter Pan really hasn’t.
If I lived in Greenpoint, I surely would be feeding that myth and shoveling praise upon this place. But it’s hardly worth the trip when there are so many other superior doughnuts available. If Dunkin Donuts were their only competition, Peter Pan would indeed be a transformative doughnutting experience. But once your tongue has caressed the curves of truly great doughnuts, like the others listed here, Peter Pan becomes just another guy in tights.
Dough my god! I first experienced Dough doughnuts at Smorgasburg. And even at a culinary orgy like that, they are a standout. But venturing to the mothership, their corner shop in Bed-Stuy (Brooklyn’s famous Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood) where all the magic happens, proved to be well worth the effort.
Dough specializes in yeast doughnuts, often with exotic coatings like hibiscus. But being a purist, and hoping to compare similar doughnuts from different bakeries, I stuck to the tried and true. I started with a glazed doughnut, which was still warm from the kitchen. It reminded me of when you still could get Krispy Kreme doughnuts fresh from their assembly line, though these weren’t so overpoweringly sweet. No, the fresh glazed doughnut at Dough was damn near the perfect doughnut.
After a few cinnamon sugar doughnut holes to cleanse the palate, I dove into a sea salt caramel chocolate glazed, which literally just came out of the kitchen. In fact, I was looking around for a knife and fork because the frosting was still warm. But my raging blood sugar swept away what was left of my modesty and I proceeded to make a proper mess of it.
As much as I love caramel and chocolate, this doughnut was a bit too rich for me. I should have opted for the chocolate frosted doughnut sprinkled with chocolate “nibs.” That’s what I usually get – along with a glazed, because I’m a shameless pig – when I visit the Dough booth at Smorgasburg, and it’s also damn near perfection…a ring of pleasure.
While certainly not a novelty act, what distinguishes the Doughnuttery is, in fact, the novelties. The doughnuts are bite-sized, made-to-order, and you get to watch the little machine make the magic. Plus, they offer some of the most exotic toppings, a few of which are even customizable.
In a way, the Doughnuttery is like one of those breweries that offers an apricot ale. No one really wants an apricot ale, but the brewmaster feels really special because he can make one. Personally, I reserve my greatest respect for those who do the simplest things exceptionally well. I’m far more impressed with someone who tackles the basics and elevates them to a new level as opposed to creating something that’s simply unconventional. Everyone can be different, but different isn’t necessarily great. And novelty is only a novelty.
That’s not to say the Doughnuttery doesn’t offer some great doughnuts. They most certainly do. The glazed and cinnamon sugar are delectable. And the whole experience – from watching your doughnuts being made to tossing bite-sized treats down your gullet – is all quite playful.
The Doughnut Plant
Back in the early 90s, I used to travel up to Harlem with a friend of mine for some amazing glazed doughnuts. But that place is long gone. And it wasn’t until the Doughnut Plant opened their original shop on Grand Street in 2000 that the great doughnut revival began.
That cramped storefront on the Lower East Side remains (now a little nicer and less cramped), but their doughnut cafe in Chelsea is my preferred feeding ground. They offer the widest variety of any of the shops I visited, including many exotic offerings. But I usually opt for a valrhona chocolate (chocolate frosted) and a vanilla bean (traditional glazed), both of which are quite memorable.
Visiting on a Friday afternoon, after inhaling all these other doughnuts, was probably neither the ideal time nor condition for this. And it didn’t help that the music in the Chelsea outpost was like a bad 80’s nightclub, which is in no way conducive to doughnutting (jazz, and maybe the blues, are far more suitable choices).
But I eagerly dove into the vanilla bean, which had been such a joy to discover following the demise of Krispy Kreme (in New York City, Krispy Kreme is now only available in Penn Station, a building I avoid in a neighborhood I avoid). But in the wake of Dough’s glazed, the Doughnut Plant’s vanilla bean had lost a little of its glamour in my mouth. Even the valrhona chocolate, normally the standout in the Doughnut Plant’s rich selection, wasn’t quite as amazing after Dough. Was this taste or timing? Clearly more research is required!
The Best Doughnut
So, you want to know who the winner is? It’s me, the doughnut lover. Thanks to shops like these, we now have an excellent collection of quality doughnuts to choose from. Unfortunately such shops aren’t nearly as prolific as Dunkin Donuts (there are a staggering 13 Dunkin Donuts within a one-mile radius of my apartment…and another unbelievably scheduled to open soon), but we can only hope that – through generous patronage – these new doughnut dens will continue to grow and expand towards a day when every neighborhood has its own doughnut heaven.
But who has the best doughnuts in New York City? I’d have to give the nod to Dough, though – with the exception of Peter Pan – it was a very close competition.
You, however, might prefer a different style of doughnut. So the only way to really answer this question is for you to go on the Great New York Doughnut Quest yourself. You can follow my path (see below) or create your own:
From Manhattan, take the E, M, or 7 trains to the northern end of the G train, at Court Square in Long Island City, Queens. Take the G train south to Nassau, for Peter Pan in Greenpoint. Or, to save precious stomach space, you can skip that and continue south on the G to Classon and start at Dough in Bed-Stuy. Once you’ve had your fill there, get back on the G train, continuing south, to Hoyt-Schermerhorn, where you can switch to the Manhattan-bound A train. Take that to 14th Street and visit the Doughnuttery in Chelsea Market. And then do yourself a solid and skip the subway (the C north to 23rd Street). Instead, burn some calories by walking north along the High Line to 23rd Street, which you can then follow east to the Doughnut Plant.
The Alternative Doughnut
Concerned that I hadn’t featured any “alternative” choices in the aforementioned tour, I decided to pay a visit to Dun-Well Doughnuts, which describes itself as an “organic, artisanal, vegan” doughnut place in Williamsburg. Now I’m all for organic. I figure I get enough pesticides in my drinking water, so I don’t need any extra in my food. And I dig the artisanal approach as well. I like to cook, bake, and brew myself. But ordering a pizza without any meat toppings is about as vegan as I get. Or maybe turkey bacon. Yes, opting for turkey bacon is as vegan as I get, and I don’t even do that very often.
That said, I had been visiting a number of shops and eateries in Williamsburg that day and was overwhelmed by the quality of service I had been receiving. Staff were friendly, genuine, and helpful, treating me like I was part of their community.
But Dun-Well was the exception. I was treated like you’d expect hipsters to treat someone over 40. It wasn’t outright contempt, but I certainly didn’t feel welcome. I felt like I was intruding, yet – besides the lone guy gazing into his laptop’s eyes – the only other person in the shop was the sales girl’s friend. And it wasn’t just me. As I sat there, listening to some great old-timey music, I watched the disparity with which other customers were treated. If you had facial piercings and brightly colored hair, it was warm and congenial. If you looked in anyway mainstream, it was distant and abrupt.
Look, I’m far from the one percent. In fact, I still cling proudly to my counterculture roots. But this is no way to run a business. And I only say this because I’m certain this girl will protest “the system” when she eventually loses her job, never realizing – let alone acknowledging – that she is just as much part of the problem. In the service industry, which is what the doughnut shop ultimately is, it’s all about the customer. If you want a job that’s all about you, then become a writer…like me. The pay is just as miserable.
And the doughnuts? Dun-Well’s “healthy” alternatives looked nice. I started with a chocolate frosted one, though I really didn’t taste much chocolate. It was more sweet than anything else. The glazed was a little better, but it was also overly sweet and lacking a true flavor. Something was off. The doughnuts looked like doughnuts but seemed to be lacking something essential to a doughnut’s essence. It wasn’t that they tasted bad, but they didn’t have that rich flavor you’d expect from a doughnut – especially an artisanal one. It left me wondering if this was somehow the sacrifice of going vegan.
Adjectives like organic, artisanal, and vegan are nice. Heck, they are downright admirable. Well, except for vegan. But if they come at the expense of the end product, you really need to weigh your options. If I want to have a healthy treat that’s minimally harmful to the world, I’ll eat a locally-grown organic apple. But if I’m treating myself to the fundamentally unhealthy world of delicious doughnuts, taste is going to triumph everything else. That, my friends, is what doughnuts are for…an epicurean indulgence. They shouldn’t be clean and healthy. Doughnuts are the culinary equivalent of rough sex.