I ducked into Jacques Torres’ chocolate oasis and came face to face with a police officer. I love the NYPD, largely because of their help in silencing the ear-splitting music from Madame X nightclub near my first apartment, so I welcome the sight. But I wonder if he’s there to investigate a candy theft. Perhaps a crime against caramels?
Then I saw Torres, otherwise known as Mr. Chocolate, chatting with him excitedly and gesturing at various goodies around the store — edible snowmen, dreidel boxes filled with malt balls. Turns out the two of them worked together as cooks at the fabled New York restaurant Le Cirque in the 90s. I want to grill hot dogs with Officer Mike and chat about how he went from cook to cop. Instead, the friends exchanged a manly hug, and Mike went on his way loaded up with holiday treats.
After witnessing this exchange, I am already fond of Jacques Torres the man. I’ve loved his chocolate for a long time — ever since I popped into his original store in DUMBO, Brooklyn to escape a blizzard some freezing day in February. That store (and the seasonal ice cream shop next door) has been joined by four other locations around the city, plus a holiday pop-up shop in Chelsea.
But Jacques’ boutique was just the first stop on my holiday food tour.
Here are my recommendations for the best savory and sweet holiday treats you can find in New York City:
Peppermint Bark at Jacques Torres
“I don’t do fake,” Jacques told me. Almost everything is made from scratch at his factory on Hudson Street, and nothing contains preservatives or additives. It’s all delicious — from chocolate-covered snacks like cornflakes or cheerios to traditional bonbons and caramels. His holiday peppermint bark is in bar form this year and makes the perfect stocking stuffer. First, the chef sprinkles peppermint pieces into the bar mold, then pours in layers of white chocolate. After setting in the refrigerator, each bar is hand-wrapped and ready to eat.
“You cannot be more New York than us,” Jacques went on to say. To be successful in a town like NYC, where people expect the best, “the price has to be honest and the product has to be unique.” He told me his life feels like a movie when he goes home, because while he has an apartment in Midtown, he spends most of his time on his two-cabin boat near the Statue of Liberty. That kind of view can’t be beat.
Latkes at Mile End Delicatessen
When husband and wife Noah and Rae Bernamoff and their friend Max Levine opened up a shop on a quiet side street in Boerum Hill three years ago, it quickly became a neighborhood favorite. With Noah hailing from Montreal and Rae from New York, you’ll find the best of Jewish comfort food with a French Canadian twist. This year, Mile End Sandwich opened in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, with lunch crowds spilling onto Bond Street. Known for smoked meat and fish, chicken soup, and fresh bread, Mile End also serves fantastic latkes, a staple of the Hanukkah season.
“We’re celebrating the miracle of oil and the fact that the menorah was lit for eight days instead of just one after a three-year war,” Rae explains. “Ultimately, people recognize this holiday as one where you can indulge in fried food. This celebration of oil comes out in the latke.”
After watching chef James Merker mix shredded potatoes, eggs, flour, matzo meal, onions, and chives together, then move on to prep their surf ‘n turf counterparts — one topped with chopped liver, pickled eggs, and crispy chicken skin and the other with creamy white fish salad — I was more than sold. Mazel Tov!
Gingerbread Cookies at Sarabeth’s Bakery
Brunch at Sarabeth’s is a New York City rite of passage, so I was thrilled to meet Sarabeth Levine at her Chelsea Market bakery. “My gingerbread cookies are the best,” she says as she pulls out a mammoth hunk of sandy-colored dough. “They have the perfect snap and flavor.” Each cookie is dipped in white or dark chocolate, which has to be tempered (melted in such a way that it sets with that bakery-perfect gloss). “Food is about having a good time, and I love that we can help make people happier,” Sarabeth says. “This isn’t a job; it’s my second home.”
Sarabeth’s success story started with her making marmalade out of her Upper West Side apartment. Though she’s kept the apartment, her business has grown significantly, most recently with her first international restaurant opening in Tokyo. “I started with breakfast, which is what I’m known for. Thirty years ago, you couldn’t get a good breakfast unless you went to a big fancy hotel like The Plaza.”
When I ask Sarabeth how she stays so slim when she’s surrounded by butter, sugar, and chocolate all day, she tells me it’s by being a lifetime Weight Watchers member. “Every day I have a little something, whether it’s a bit of cookie or half a scone, but I’m counting every point.”
Holiday Doughnuts at Doughnut Plant
The only problem with coming to Doughnut Plant is deciding what to buy. Crème brûlée is their top seller, but then again there’s carrot cake and tres leches, and their famous square peanut-butter-and-jelly doughnuts. Chief Experience Officer Jeff Magness made my decision harder by telling me about their special holiday edition doughnuts like marzipan, cranberry, gingerbread, and panettone. “Mark is always coming up with new flavors and ideas,” he says.
The Mark he’s referring to is the owner, Mark Isreal, who started Doughnut Plant in 1994 armed with his grandfather’s recipe. He started delivering doughnuts on his bike to gourmet shops like Dean & Deluca. Today, you can still find Doughnut Planet delectables around the city, but the best way to enjoy one is to wander down to the Lower East Side store, grab a cup of local Kobrick coffee, and try and pick just one doughnut to enjoy.