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Openings Mon May 18 2009
When I last made it to New York City, I had a culinary check-off list of places I wanted to visit. My top priority was Magnolia Bakery, whose mention in Sex and the City (and later, Lazy Sunday) catapaulted the small storefront to fame. When I got to the building, I was melting from the summer heat; the last thing I really wanted to do was step inside, as the tiny bakery was packed with tourists waiting for staff to finish frosting more of Magnolia's picture-perfect cupcakes, but I had a goal. When I finally did taste the cupcake, I thought its huge roof of frosting had a nice butter- and vanilla-laden taste, but the actual cake was a dry, flavorless disappointment. As I threw the remainder into a garbage can, I quietly suspected that the cake had been baked several days (weeks?) before. Meh.
Shoddy cake has been to blame for a lot of my cupcake experiences. It seems like a lot of bakers put more of the heavy lifting into the frosting and little into the base--senseless, as this is a cupcake (not a cupfrosting, tee hee). But the cupcake itself has a lot to live up to--after all, it's a subset of a grander item that's the centerpiece of graduation parties and wedding receptions, and if portion control or the pretty daintiness of a cupcake is to be its calling card, it better be a worthy representative.
Plenty of places in the city sell cupcakes as part of this recent trend, and Phoebe's Cupcakes, a Boystown shop (3327 North Broadway) that opened earlier this month, will certainly be a solid addition to the club. A small storefront with a few tables, beverages and free WiFi (the network password is "buttercream," FYI), Phoebe's is the namesake of Phoebe Walters, a CHIC grad who partnered with classmate Kate McNamara. Chicago is the first stop on Walters' agenda: the store received a publicized $1.5 million investment to open more stores in 15+ cities.
So are the cupcakes worth the venture capital? Well, yes and no. When I visited, only about 10 varieties of cupcakes were for sale, among them the standard chocolate and vanilla, as well as Red Velvet and a mint/chocolate "Grasshopper" number. According to the press release fanfare, Phoebe's offers 200 (savory and sweet) flavors on their menu, which boggles my cake-loving mind: given the promise of the selection, I didn't find the menu during my visit veering into the kind of exoticness that I've seen in Phoebe's competitors. I ordered a vanilla cake with vanilla frosting and a salted caramel.
This is where Phoebe's is blowing my hair back: the cake. Both cupcakes had a very, very moist and flavorful base; Phoebe's peers should take a page from her book, as I think what sets Phoebe's apart is the spot-on attention they pay to this part. I was impressed. But because it seems every cupcake I taste has some sort of drawback, I found that the frosting had a difficult texture--a whispy Italian buttercream that made me think I had bought a melting cupcake. Be definition, Italian buttercream is meringue made with a hot, sugary syrup: Phoebe's was right in line with the standard recipe, and the flavors of their buttercream were good and equal to that of the cake's, but the overall product didn't work out too well for me. But all was not lost as I watched the buttercream fall off its tasty podium and leave a sloppy heap on my plate. It was a good cupcake, but I soldier on.
Phoebe's Cupcakes are priced at $2.50 each, with volume discounts. The store is open late every day (Tue-Thu 8:00am- 9:00pm; Fri-Sat. 8:00am-11:00pm; Sun 8:00am-8:00pm).