Omai, Where are We Eating? + Baked Fabulosity at Billy’s Bakery

There are nights where you plan out your evening meticulously—dinner at 6, show at 8, group sex at 11–and nights where you don’t. Last night was a night we didn’t. Lisa came over at 7 and we began to stroll. It was quite lovely out and our goal was a place with outdoor seating. Rafaella came to mind but Lisa felt, despite the outside seating, it wasn’t quite worth the expense. We were on 23rd Street and suddenly a light bulb went on over my head: “Hey!” I said. “Look at this light bulb over my head! I have an idea!”

Lisa gave me a look. “Well?”

“Remember that e-mail you sent me a while back?” Lisa had sent me an e-mail a while back. “It was an article about Billy’s Bakery… I think it’s on 9th Avenue. We can have dinner around there and then go to the bakery for dessert.”

“Or we can have dessert first,” said Lisa, “and then eat dinner.”

“That’s ridiculous!” I stammered. “Who eats dessert before dinner? I don’t know anyone who eats dessert before dinner.”

“Everyone I know eats dessert before dinner,” said Lisa.

“But it’s so filling,” I argued.

“Cake is NOT filling,” she argued back. “I could eat cake all day and not get full.”

So I leave it to you readers: Is it ridiculous to eat dessert before dinner? (Side with me and win an airplane!)

As for our Saturday night plans, I won the debate and we checked the hours at Billy’s Bakery to make sure it wouldn’t close too early. (It actually stays open crazy late! Keep that in mind, those who live in Chelsea who have a hankering for baked goods…)

A few blocks down from Billy’s we beheld this sight:

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“Why that looks like a nice place to eat,” I said.

“What is it?” asked Lisa.

“I’m not quite sure.”

You see, this place was a nameless wonder. No name on the outside. No menu on the outside. No indication at all of what was being served here.

“How interesting” I said, pressing my face up against the glass. “I think they’re eating with chopsticks. It must be Asian.”

Lisa pressed her face against a window too. “Doesn’t seem too expensive,” she said, staring at someone who was staring at a menu. “Entrees around $12.”

“Let’s do it!” I said, and we made our way in.

A host greeted us.

“Two please,” we said, and as he led us to our table I said, “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” said the host.

“Where are we? What’s the name of this place?”

“Haha,” he said, and then detecting that I wasn’t joking he said, “We’re called Omai. We serve Vietnamese food.”

Lisa had never had Vietnamese food. I’d had it in Atlanta at Nam. This would be an exciting evening for both of us.

Eventually, though, Lisa made a good point. “Do you notice that there aren’t any Vietnamese people who work here?”

I looked around and spotted a Vietnamese woman by the kitchen.

“She’s Vietnamese,” I protested.

“She’s the only one,” said Lisa. And that was true. For the most part the restaurant was populated by and run by gay men. We were, after all, in Chelsea.

“Maybe it’s fusion,” I offered. “VietGaynese!”

We ordered some Vietgaynese vegetarian spring rolls. I pointed to it on the menu and said: “Are these vegetarian spring rolls vegetarian?” I was looking out for Lisa but the waiter and Lisa stared at me like I was an idiot.

“I’m an idiot,” I said.

Here are the rolls:

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These were tasty. Lisa really enjoyed the beany dipping sauce. So did I. It was familiar yet different. Like Vietnam by way of EPCOT.

For my entree I had duck:

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The duck was good. I couldn’t complain. The meat was tender, the outside crispy, and the dipping sauce an unusual lime concoction. Lisa had a vegetarian curry which she enjoyed.

We got our bill, paid the check, and made our way enthusiastically to Billy’s Bakery.

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The moment you open the door at Billy’s Bakery the aroma of baked goods overwhelms you. It’s a sweet aroma—the aroma you might want your grandmother’s house to smell like if she weren’t boiling cabbage and complaining about incontinence. Glass cases filled with cupcakes, cakes, and pies illuminate under a pleasant soft lighting. A quirky gent in plastic-framed glasses (could this be Billy?) asks what you’d like.

We asked for suggestions. “What’s the best?” we asked.

He recommended the banana cake and the icebox cake: layers of chocolate wafers and whipped cream pressed together and refrigerated. We took his advice, ordered and paid.

Here’s Lisa with the results:

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We both liked the banana cake better, but the icebox cake was cool and refreshing, but refreshing only the sense that it was cool and the whipped cream was light: otherwise, it was like pouring cement into a an already full sandbox. Or something.

Lisa and I felt that the prices were a tiny drop steep for what you’re getting. ($4.50 per slice of cake.) What you are getting, essentially, is something you can very much do at home. In fact, the banana cake reminded me of a cake I made a few years ago from Saveur–a hummingbird cake with pineapple, coconut and banana. The icebox cake is, I’m sure, very doable too. That’s not the point though: Billy’s does it so you don’t have to. And it’s a very cute place, too. A fun place to go after dinner or, if you’re Lisa, before dinner… but that’s crazy. ISN’T THAT CRAZY?

Did R.U.B. rub us the wrong way?

R.U.B.–an acronym for Righteous Urban BBQ–opened up three blocks below me on 23rd street more than a month ago. Many times I would walk past, gaze into the windows and say “one day, one day.”

That day came yesterday when I called my friends Kirk (of The Daily Kirk) and Himkar (of The Daily Himkar) (just kidding) and invited them to R.U.B. “It might be expensive,” I warned, remembering the menu posted outside and the reactions of several friends who’d been there and said it cost a pretty penny.

Here’s what I knew about R.U.B. going in. It’s owned by Paul Kirk, a championship BBQer–“the Lance Armstrong of the competition-barbecue circuit” according to New York magazine. Also, I knew they served dry-rub BBQ.

“I’ve never had dry rub BBQ,” I told Himkar and Kirk as we walked to R.U.B.

“It’s really good,” said Kirk, “I had it last summer at a fair.”

“I’ll eat anything,” said Himkar.

We arrived a little after six and the place was sort-of crowded, but not really. I wanted this table by the window in the front but they led us to this huge seating area in the back.

“Wow, this place is big,” I said.

We sat down and a chipper waiter came to greet us.

“How ya doing,” he said, “Welcome to R.U.B. Can I start you out with anything to drink?”

I looked at the menu and saw sweet tea.

“Oooh sweet tea,” I said. “I haven’t had that since I was in Atlanta. I’ll have that!”

“Very good,” he said.

“Me too,” said Kirk.

Himkar ordered a beer on tap.

He left and Kirk, Himkar and I studied the menu. I think all three of us were in the mood for ribs. When I’d experienced ribs in the past–at Fat Matt’s in Atlanta, for example–the only question was full slab or half slab. Here the question was: whole slab for $22.75, or short end, long end, or rib tip for half the price.

When the waiter returned with our drinks, I asked him the difference between short end, long end and rib tip.

“Short end is the short end of the rib,” he explained, “so it’s fattier–got lots of flavor. The long end is meater and the rib tip are just the tips and they’re really fatty and good.”

After consulting my comrades, we proceeded to order. We all ordered the long ends because “meatier” appealed to us more than “fattier.”

“Ok,” he said, “Any sides? I think two would be good for the table.”

“How’s onion rings?” I asked Kirk and Himkar.

“Good,” said Kirk, “I think that should be enough.”

“Very good,” said the waiter and exited.

“He tried to upsell us,” said Kirk.

I remembered my days of waitering and upselling. For those not in the industry (haha, like I was in the industry—I waitered for 3 weeks!) upselling is when a waiter encourages the table to spend more money.

The sweet tea was good. Himkar enjoyed his beer. We talked about movies, writing, money, and music. Then the food arrived. Here is what each of us got in front of us:

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“What’s with the white bread?” asked Kirk. “I’ll take it home and make a tuna fish sandwich.”

“They did that in Atlanta too,” said I. “I’m not sure why.” [Chorus of commenters: why DO they do that? So soak up the sauce? But there is no sauce–it’s a dry rub! (well, there is sauce on the side)]

How did it taste?

I thought it tasted ok. Different. Smoky.

“Mmm, it’s good,” said Kirk. “Soft. This is good BBQ.”

I squirted some BBQ sauce on my plate and dipped the pieces in. The sauce was good. It had a kick.

“Good ribs man,” said Himkar. “Pass the sauce.”

In the middle of the table was this basket of fried onions.

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This was plenty for us. We all snacked on them in between our ribs. I took the longest to eat my ribs, maybe because I tend to dominate dinner conversation. (Or all conversation for that matter. Any therapists around?)

“You’re savoring them man,” said Himkar, “it’s cool.”

Actually, I wasn’t really savoring them. My dry-rub experience was disappointing. This was not my kind of rib. (I could make an Adam’s rib joke here, but I won’t.)

Finally, our plates were cleared and the check arrived. $72! $72 for three people to eat ribs! Here’s Kirk and Himkar doling out their money:

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That was more money than any of us wanted to spend for ribs. Kirk enjoyed his ribs more than I did, and I’m not sure even he thought it was worth it. Himkar paid quietly but deep down he grew secretly bitter.

We left and Kirk asked the hostess for a toothpick. She had to go find some behind the bar.

“They should have toothpicks up front at a BBQ joint,” said Kirk.

And that was that. Did R.U.B. rub us the wrong way? A little bit. I’m sure my inexpertise shows here: perhaps a BBQ expert might appreciate what Paul Kirk’s doing. As for me, I’d rather use that money to adopt an orphan. I guess that makes me selfish.

Nice Font and Good Food: Daniele’s Piadina

This place opened four blocks below me, down on 22nd street and 6th avenue: (Don’t you love the graphic design?)

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It opened a few weeks ago and now I’ve been there twice. I really like it. They serve piadana which is a flatbread that’s stuffed with a variety of options. I chose the Daniele and it has prosciutto, Strachino (a tangy Italian cheese) and arugula. It’s fatty, bitter and bright—just like me!

While I was eating, this woman walked in and I wish I had a video camera. She seemed to step right out of an SNL skit: “Oh my God!” she yelled, “What is this place! When did you open up?! I can’t believe you opened up this place in my neighborhood and I didn’t even know about it! I’ve lived here for 22 years! I know every square inch of this place. What do you serve here? OH MY GOD, this is unbelievable!”

Great entertainment, great food, and great graphic design. I highly recommend it.

Neighborhood Secrets: Best Cuban Sandwich at Havana Chelsea

I don’t have a book in front of me to confirm this, but I believe either Jim Leff or Robert Sietsema includes Havana-Chelsea in their picks of New York’s best ethnic food. If I’m wrong, then let’s pretend I have my own book of New York’s best ethnic food. Filed under “Best Cuban Sandwiches” check out Havana Chelsea—it’s my newest discovery:

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What’s funny is I’ve passed here 8,000 times always incredulous at the Neon assertion: “Best Cuban Sandwich.” What made me give it a shot? I was bored. I was hungry. It was late and I needed food.

Well let me tell you: this Cuban sandwich is terrific. Really. And I’ve had my fair share of Cuban sandwiches. When I lived in L.A. I made 30-minute drives to Silverlake to eat Cuban sandwiches at an un-airconditioned dump at the side of the road. (Ok, it wasn’t a dump. But it didn’t have air conditioning.)

Chelsea-Havana’s are better. Why? I think it’s the bread: the bread is buttery and flaky and PERFECTLY pressed. On the inside is the traditional ham and pork and pickles and maybe a little mustard. This Cuban doesn’t pack a lot of heat, but it does pack a lot of flavor and enjoyment for a mere pittance: $5!

The place does lots of business lunch time. I sat at the counter while streams of Cuban men came in and out ordering Cubans to go while two women and two men frantically worked behind the counter. Some of the other items looked intriguing: I think there was something with squid and something else with…umm…something exotic. Maybe next time I will try those. But for now, when I’m craving a Cuban, I know where to go!

The Chowing Chelsea Catch-Up Post: Dinner at Bright Food Shop and Brunch at Diner 24

Life is busy busy busy right now. Busy busy!

It’s the last week before Spring Break, so lots of work due, and my brother’s coming tomorrow, mom and dad to follow Thursday, so there was cleaning to do too. Working, cleaning–there’s no time to blog! But…my…readers…need…me…

So here we are. 2:21 AM. Let’s see how fast we can type up this post. We’re going to cover the meals I ate this weekend, both of them with Lisa. (I ate more meals than two, but these were the exciting ones.)

Bright Food Shop

I swear to God, Bright Food Shop has the easiest-to-forget name I’ve ever dealt with. Seriously. Because I walk past it all the time on 8th Avenue and I know it’s next to Kitchen/Market (owned by the same people) and so I’m always like: “We should eat at Kitchen Market, sometime” when I mean Bright Food Shop, since Kitchen/Market only does take-out burritos and I’m visualizing BFS not K/M. But even after having eaten there, I had to just Google Kitchen/Market to recall the name of where we ate—and now that I’ve recalled it, I’m still like: “What am I writing about?” Even right now if you froze me and told me not to move my eyes upward and to remember the name of the place I’m writing about I’d be like “uhhh???”—although, in all honesty, I do remember, my short term memory’s not THAT bad. So, my meal at Le Bernadain.

Just kidding. Kitchen/Market. UGH!

Bright Food Shop.

The food is Mexican Asian fusion. Yes—this is a fusion place. (It’s 2:25, we’re being long-winded.) So they have fused together foods in varying capacities. The tortillas with three dips weren’t fusion, though. They were Mexican:

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I enjoyed these dips. One’s clearly salsa, one was a bean dip, and the other’s that green dip you’ve seen before, you know what I’m talking about. (2:27).

Lisa and I both ordered exotic sodas. I ordered non-alcoholic sangria soda and Lisa ordered grapefruit soda:

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I enjoyed my San Gria soda until Lisa sipped it and told me it tasted like grape juice. Lisa enjoyed her grapefruit soda until I sipped it and told her tasted like Fresca. “It tastes NOTHING like Fresca,” she steamed.

For our entree we shared a Moo Shoo vegetable burrito. (We had to share because the food at this place is surprisingly expensive. I think this thing cost $16, but don’t quote me on that.)

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Lisa loved it. “I love it,” she said. “I think it’s delicious.”

It had Asian vegetables in it with a great marinade and then the dipping sauce on the outside was great too. I enjoyed it.

That concludes my review of…umm…ummmm….

Brunch at Diner 24

(It’s 2:29, we’re doing well…swiftly, swiftly, swiftly…)

Somebody, I can’t remember who (sorry! time-pressed!) e-mailed me and told me to eat brunch at Diner 24. So I did. I took Lisa. We did this Sunday morning at 11—we got there before the crowds.

I had this great dish of fried eggs on sauteed potatoes, mushrooms, spinach and DUCK. Yes—DUCK. There was duck in my breakfast food. I loved it.

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Lisa, on the other hand, was disappointed with hers. She got an omelette:

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Yes, she’s smiling, but behind that smile is deep pain and disappointment. Actually, if you study the omelette you can see it has a certain airplane like quality. The whole thing is homogeneous—there’s no zest, no life, no star quality. A small tear trickled down Lisa’s face as I savored my duck.

It is now 2:35. That concludes The Chowing Chelsea Catch-Up post.

Chowing in Chelsea: Lunch at Rickshaw, Dinner at elmo

I live in Chelsea.

For those not from New York, Chelsea is the belly button of Manhattan. Ok, that’s not true. It’s a little lower—just so much lower, in fact, that to tell you where it is in an anatomical sense would be crass. Let’s just say that Chelsea is in the lower region of the city.

So while circumventing the scrotum, (haha–sorry—I couldn’t resist the anatomical humor), sometimes I get hungry. Lucky for me, just a few blocks down, a new dumpling bar opened up–Rickshaw. I saw it out of the corner of my eye while journeying for lunch the other day.

Here’s the thing about Rickshaw. It’s not that great. But it’s not that great in the way that Burritoville isn’t that great. Which is to say that it’s fine. It hits the spot. Not everything can be 4 star dining, right?

So I ordered duck dumplings–6 of them—in chicken broth (that’s one of the options) and a glass of Meyer lemonade. The Meyer lemonade cost $2.50 and I think this is a really good deal because Meyer lemons are really expensive and a glass of normal lemonade at The City Bakery costs like $3, so you’re having a more exotic experience for $0.50 less. With that said, the Meyer lemonade was tasty and unusual but had a strange undertaste like the chocolate mouse in Rosemary’s baby. I think Ruth Gordon made it.

Want to know who made my dumplings? You can see them here:

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There’s that big glass plate window while you wait. If you were in a 4-star restaurant it might be fun to watch the people at work. Here, it looks like a bunch of overworked unhappy people forced to smile for the customers. I liked it!

As for the dumplings, again, I liked them:

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Again, these aren’t great dumplings, they’re fine dumplings. Sure, they’re better in Chinatown, but you don’t live in Chinatown. You live in Chelsea. So why not eat these dumplings? I think you should.

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For dinner on Friday night, I joined Lisa and Ben at elmo. elmo is a place that doesn’t believe in capitalizing its name. I hope you respect that.

Ben loves elmo. He loves elmo for its tuna. “I love the tuna here,” he said. “I have dreams about it.”

First we ordered drinks. Ben and I ordered manly drinks called Ruby Reds—pink grapefruit juice and grapefruit vodka. They cost $10 each. I found that a bit much, but they tasted good. Lisa ordered a diet coke, but for this pic she and Ben switched drinks. DON’T BE FOOLED!

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Look how drunk he looks! Would he be so drunk if he was only drinking diet coke?

Now, as for the entrees, I decided to order something different from the tuna. I could try Ben’s tuna, so I ordered the sea bass. “Fool!” shouted Ben. “The tuna is glorious!”

Here is Ben with his tuna. He really loves his tuna:

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Me? I ordered pistachio crusted sea bass. It was really tasty. It came with leeks and clams and a garlic tomato broth: (sorry this pic is so bleachy, I’ve yet to negotiate the flash non-flash aspects of my camera in dark restaurants)

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So elmo is a fun place to go if you live in Chelsea. It’s a little pricey. There’s a little part of me that says, “If you’re going to spend that much money on dinner why not go somewhere really good like Babbo or Mesa Grille?” But that’s not really rational–those places are definitely more expensive and harder to get into. So elmo will have to suffice just like Rickshaw will have to suffice. Chelsea is all about compromise. But that’s what life’s like down here in the nether regions.

S&M vs. A&E? Why not a hot dog at F&B?

Amateur Gourmet Survivor Champ Andrea urged me in a long-ago e-mail to try F&B. “It’s amazing,” she wrote in her e-mail. “Seriously.”

I passed F&B many times on my excursions across 23rd street. It’s across the street from the movie theater. It’s next door to the Krispy Kreme and Ben & Jerry’s. It’s near Starbucks, Murray’s bagels, and Dunkin’ Donuts. There are many reasons to walk past F&B. Just hadn’t found a reason, yet, to go inside.

And then last night I was hungry and Burritoville (which is also across the street from F&B) was packed. Boston Market looked a little too Boston Markety (there was a time that I liked Boston Market, but I think I’m passed that) and so F&B it was.

I walked inside not knowing what to expect. The first thing I noticed was the music. It was New Age meets funk meets trendy store on the Lower East Side. There were huge framed clippings of F&B in the press. And then there were two aisles of stools and silver counters. The room was dark and the service counter had a certain post-modern Pulp Fictiony hipness quotient. Which is strange when you consider that they sell hot dogs.

But the hot dog menu was exciting. All sorts of weird combinations. For example a salmon hot dog (no, I’m not kidding) with creme fraiche and caviar served with a mini-bottle of champagne. That cost more than $10 so I went with the Top Dog—a chili dog with mustard, sauerkraut and bacon–sweet potato fries and a lemonade. It added up to $8, which is still pricy for hot dog type food:

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To my surprise, however, it was well worth it. The hot dog was delicious. The sauerkraut had really interesting unexpected flavors–like cloves, for example, and something cidery. Perhaps cider?

The sweet potato fries were unstoppable. Meaning, I couldn’t stop eating them. And the lemonade hit the spot.

My guilt meter was still on high (chili dogs always make me feel guilty) but it moved down a notch when I realized that this was an exciting, outre hot dog. In fact the entire experience was outre: “Highly unconventional; eccentric or bizarre”—in a very good way. Next time I crave funky hot dogs and unstopple sweet potato fries, you’ll know where to find me.

More Magic Moments: Feeding Frenzy at The Chelsea Market (with Lunch at The Green Table)

A good question was posed tonight in the comments. Why am I not fat?

Well, to answer, I’m not NOT getting fat. There are folds here and there. Some parts are fuller than others. I should probably ride the elevator down to the floor with the gym that I paid extra money in my lease to join. But then, really, riding the elevator in and of itself seems like exercise enough. Plus, I don’t really eat like this when I’m not on a break. I’m still on a break. I don’t go back to school ’til the 18th. Ok? OK?!

With that said, today I binged at The Chelsea Market. It was awesome.

I walked in and I wandered and tried to figure out what it was I wanted. There was this horribly bratty kid screaming. Then the mother said to the child (in a gesture sure to make a therapist very wealthy someday): “If you don’t stop screaming we’re going to LEAVE you here!” The kid screamed louder.

I found a cool tunnel of Christmas lights:

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Then I turned back around and decided to eat lunch at the only actual waiter/waitress type joint: The Green Table. It was basically empty and seemed very inviting. The walls were red, the tables were green (as per the name). An article about it by Eric Asimov was pasted outside. I was sold.

A waitress brought over a bowl of popcorn flavored with ancho chile and orange:

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I’d like to say it was thoroughly delicious, but the popcorn didn’t taste fresh. (Ironic since this place was all about freshness. (It has an actual mission statement, involving the Alice Waters’ quote: “Eating is a political act.” (This extra parentheses within parentheses is just for fun–I like having to put three in a row now.))) But the flavoring was, indeed, delicious. I snacked greedily.

Eventually, I ordered salmon flavored with honey and soy and served with some kind of cooked cabbage slaw and rice.

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Holy Creedence Clearwater Revival, this may have been the best salmon I ever tasted. Seriously. Honey and soy and whatever else was on there made my lips smack together like divas at a karaoke bar. And the rice was amazing–it was almost risotto-like. I don’t know how they cooked it. I scraped my plate clean. The waitress acknowledge my enjoyment by bringing me the check. I paid. To quote Frank Sinatra: “It was a very good meal.”

Then I meandered around the market. I went to the Italian store, Buon Italia and saw some reasonably priced truffles:

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I bought four and canceled the rest of my education.

I then bought the most insanely good cookies ever. (No, I didn’t eat them there–I’m not THAT gluttonous. I simply waited until an hour ago when I tore the bag open and devoured 80 of them.)

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These are the best pre-packaged cookies you will ever taste. They are so so buttery and then they are filled what is almost definitely Nutella. They’re impossible to stop eating. I’m even eating one now. ATOEIHJT:IH:T AIwht;iaHT: TIH: (<--sorry, involuntary response to the cookie's deliciousness.) Finally, while I was still at the Market, I bought something I read about a long time ago in New York Magazine's Food Issue. One of the chefs said the pecan bars at Amy's Bread are terrific so I bought one: IMG_6.JPG

And it WAS terrific. Why was it terrific? Because the pecans were salty and everything else was sweet and dense. I loved that combo. It melted in your mouth and sent tingles to your hoohah. (Ok, just kidding–I don’t have a hoohah. I have a hoho.)

And that was it. Typing this post probably burnt many many calories, didn’t it? I shouldn’t worry–should I?

Bzzzz. Bzzz.

What’s that sound?

Treadmill calling…