Contemplating a dessert empire’s continued conquest of NYC
Considering that hardly a day goes by that one does not read, see or hear about Momofuku Milk Bar either on some online news forum or some social media platform, from some friend or colleague, or even on Netflix (!), it’s hard to believe that Momofuku Milk Bar first opened in NYC in 2008, some 12 years ago. Imagine that –12 years and still on every dessert addict’s radar. That longevity is truly something to be applauded.
From what was once a singular store in the East Village, it has now expanded nationwide. A few months ago, Momofuku Milk Bar opened its largest store to date in somewhat of an odd location. Having visited, we think it would have been perhaps better situated next door to the giant M&M’s World store in Times Square. The flagship space is similar to food court layout. Near the entrance, there’s the main sitting area that evokes cafeteria-style dining. There’s also a front counter which not only seems to be staffed by a retinue of frazzled employees, but also seems to have been designed to maximise such employees’ anxiety, by some architect who somehow did not anticipate high levels of dessert tourism. The consequence is a large cookie dough ball of people concentrated at the entrance.
If you advance plan your visit and make a reservation online beforehand, you can “Build-A-Cake” for $65, “Build-A-Cookie” for $40, “Build-A-Pint” for $15 at one of the other counters in the store, or take a range of baking classes downstairs for under $100 per person. Alternatively, you can stare mesmerized at the rotating shelves of multi-layered cakes, browse a selection of kitschy pink souvenirs (pink confetti socks, cake mug, tote bag or baseball cap, anyone?), or even consider sending a dessert care package to your friends and family, and others. We are not sure why it features here, but perhaps with its historical namesake in mind, there are also non-Momofuku-branded confectionery on sale – Reese’s Pieces, M&M’s etc.
If you are not interested in the baked desserts, the front counter also offers soft serve icecream wreathed in cereal flakes (click here for our previous review of this), and extreme milkshakes. If you are however interested in the brand’s signature baked desserts, but you aren’t one for crowds, you could consider following our lead. Head straight to the back of the store (where there is nary a person), and buy up the pre-packaged cakes and cookies, thereby completely bypassing all the queues. 😛 On our visit, there were two of Milk Bar’s signature cakes available ($9 per slice): the “B’day Cake” and the “Chocolate B’day Cake.” The cakes are very simple — simply vanilla or chocolate, layered with rainbow sprinkles and buttercream frosting. The samples that we had were also somewhat dry. If you are looking for more memorable layered cakes, we would recommend Mia’s Bakery instead.
The Momofuku Milk Bar flagship also sells “Cake Truffles” ($6 per pack). These are essentially, three balls of cake dough flecked with rainbow sprinkles, and rolled in white chocolate and remnant “B’day cake” crumbs. There is also a chocolate version available. Although not for us, this dessert will probably appeal to those who have grown up sneaking spoonfuls of cake or cookie dough.
There are several cookies available ($2.75 each). Although the “Compost Cookie” is the more “famous”, we prefer the “Cornflake Chocolate Chip Marshmallow Cookie.” It’s akin to a s’mores cookie, very chewy and with an interesting crunchy edge due to the inclusion of the cornflakes.
We would be certainly remiss to not review the “Crack Pie” ($6 per slice), perhaps the most famous of the “happy mistakes” accidentally created by Momofuku Milk Bar’s original pastry chef. In 2019-2020’s more politically-correct era, it was recently renamed the “Milk Bar Pie.” We tasted it on our first visit to NYC a decade ago, many times since then, and it remains our personal favourite of all the desserts from Momofuku Milk Bar. There’s something inexplicably wonderful about the strange combination of a slightly salty, brown sugary, buttery concoction on an oat cookie crust. Our pro-dessert tip is to resist temptation, and do not eat this straightaway. Put it away in the fridge overnight, and eat the next day. Perhaps we shouldn’t cavil — maybe it is our memory failing us after almost a decade of dessert adventures across the world — yet, the size of this delicious creation seems to be shrinking…measuring less than our 4-inch high heels now. For the same price yet double the thickness and/or length, one could consume an equally magnificent slice of pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds or Butter & Scotch, and still totter off into a dessert dream with equal contentment.
We can’t quite make up our minds about Momofuku Milk Bar. Momofuku Milk Bar makes for a business case study of how to be successful in this day and age: decorate in the millennial-friendly combination of crisp whites, stark blacks and hot pink tones, employ a powerful PR system that will market photogenic food bites (some with just-average taste) as representative of childhood nostalgia, and maybe those visiting will not stop and question that the “Build-A-Cookie” or “Build-A-Cake” activity without much more artistry other than scattering rainbow sprinkles or cereal flakes, or layering cream and chocolate onto a plain vanilla or chocolate foundation really shouldn’t cost the $40 or $65 asking price. As one of the most well-known dessert empires in the U.S. (if not worldwide), Momofuku Milk Bar serves as an introduction to the New York dessert scene. Yet, as much as we will always love the “Crack Pie,” and even though the crowds continue to flock, unabated, to this 12-year-old dessert empire, these Dessert Correspondents are starting to think that there are now — in 2020 — many other dessert shops in NYC that may satisfy your sweet-tooth better.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destination: Momofuku Milk Bar Flagship, 1196 Broadway (at the corner of 29th Street and Broadway), between Koreatown and Nomad, Manhattan. There are many other locations for the smaller Milk Bars, and most no longer have long lines.
- ☑ Budget: $$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistibles: Specialty sweet boutique.
- ☑ Must-eat: “Crack Pie.” Skip the rest.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Contemplating the continued rise of a dessert empire.