Easiest Chocolate Birthday Cake from Bon Appetit

This Easiest Chocolate Birthday Cake recipe from Bon Appetit initially caught my eye because of the word easy in the title, the promise that this chocolate cake recipe would be a cinch to make. To me, easy means dumping the wet ingredients in one bowl, the dry ingredients in another, combining the two, and then throwing into the oven. But it wasn’t quite that easy. In fact, there were quite a lot of steps involved in what was supposed to be a simple recipe. I had to carefully melt a lot of chocolate, I had to take care to warm but not boil milk, I had to refrigerate some ganache for 25 minutes…not that these are necessarily hard things to do, but it requires some time and patience that you wouldn’t guess from the somewhat misleading title. BUT I do have to admit that this was a damn good chocolate cake. Out of all the cakes I’ve made recently, this probably tasted the most professional. It’s rich and dense (you’ll need to drink a lot of milk with your slice), and the tangy chocolate ganache frosting is so delicious. Easiest is a misnomer, despite all the declarations of simplicity in the recipe on the Bon Appetit website, but best chocolate cake wouldn’t be too far off.

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Charlie Bird: Dinner Goes a Little Flat

Charlie Bird - storefront

Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived. Charlie Bird, a new Italian restaurant in Soho, is named in honor of him and the great city that nurtured his talent. When you associate yourself with one of the greatest cities and musicians on this earth, you are holding yourself to a very high standard. And unfortunately, Charlie Bird can’t rise to the level of its heroes. The rhythm of dinner service was far from perfect. On the whole, it was very uneven–a lot of flat notes and service issues that were offensively off-pitch, which overshadowed a few moments of brilliance.

Charlie Bird - menu
the menu at charlie bird

Service is a glaring weakness at Charlie Bird. One of my biggest pet peeves is when waiters try to clear a plate of food that you are still clearly working on, which happened several times during dinner. I understand how this might happen if a place is really busy and the waiters are trying to quickly turnaround tables to make room for the next guest, but 8:15 on a Sunday night isn’t really peak dining time, as indicated by the empty tables around us. And besides, it’s never ever ok, busy or not, to ask, “can I take your plate?” when there’s visible evidence of food on there. I’m paying a lot of money for this meal–isn’t it only fair that I get to eat all of it? I’ve never experienced such urgency to clear the table even at the brusquest of busy Chinese restaurants.

There was an incident with one of the servers that really bothered me. When he brought out a plate of the house focaccia, he proceeded to set it on the table without any explanation. That’s fine and all, so I asked politely what it was. When he said, “focaccia,” I then followed up with, “what’s in it?” (rosemary? cheese? fresh tomatoes? things like that would be nice to know.) I thought it was pretty standard at high-end restaurants to describe a dish to diners upon arrival, and I think most customers want to be informed of what they’re about to eat. That’s why I didn’t think it was such a big deal to ask this question. The server replied with a rude, “why don’t you find out for yourself?” Needless to say, I was pretty pissed.

In a recent interview with Fork in the Road, the restaurant’s executive chef Ryan Hardy announced that he was bringing service back to NYC restaurants, but clearly he didn’t mean his own. I’m pretty sure the definition of good service doesn’t include being rude to customers and aggressively clearing plates. And back to that server–what if I had some allergy and actually needed to know what was in the focaccia? His response would have been totally irresponsible. I can’t let this one go.

I tried to put the incident behind me and focus on enjoying the food. The focaccia itself was very good–it was soft and chewy, and the tomato sauce provided a nice, salty touch. The grilled peach and prosciutto appetizer followed soon after. Prosciutto and fruit has always been a classic pairing that I’ve never completely understood or warmed to. I would much rather eat the components separately than together. Individually the peach was sweet and ripe and the prosciutto was delicate and rich, but eating them together didn’t result in some transcendent union.

Charlie Bird - focaccia
the focaccia incident…

Charlie Bird - grilled peach and prosciutto
the grilled peach and prosciutto–the sum doesn’t exceed its parts

It’s clear at this point that Charlie Bird was working off of a big handicap–horrible service, decent focaccia, and a grilled peach appetizer that fell a bit flat. The skate wing and roasted chicken entrees impressively covered a lot of the deficit. The roasted chicken was one of the best chicken dishes that I’ve had in awhile. The skin was perfectly cooked to a golden crisp, and the underlying meat was tender and moist. It was served with a unique and distinctive sauce that tasted similar to foie gras, which lent the chicken a sharp, tangy flavor.

smooth skating with the skate on the wing
smooth skating with the skate on the wing

hitting the high notes with the excellent roasted chicken
hitting the high notes with the excellent roasted chicken

The skate wing was also well-executed, but it was overshadowed by the superior and more innovative flavor profile of the chicken. Eating skate wing is a very interesting experience. You’re literally peeling off thin strands of fish meat from a fin as opposed to eating a cohesive single filet. The meat was perfectly pan-fried, and the mayo-based sauces that accompanied it were rich, savory and delicious. The capers provided some nice sharp notes to the otherwise mild flavors.

Charlie Bird somewhat redeemed itself with the dinner entrees, so I decided it was safe to stay for dessert. We ordered the chocolate cake with olive oil gelato and rice krispie bits. The dessert capitalized upon that winning combination of savory-sweet, smooth-crunchy. It was good in a technical way–the cake was rich and moist, the rice krispie bits lent some great texture, and the olive oil gelato was smooth and rich. But the flavors were more commercially appealing as opposed to being distinctive, making it just another good chocolate cake.

Even though Charlie Bird made a strong showing towards the end, I’m not ever coming back. My dinner at the restaurant made me realize how much service matters in shaping your dining experience. I’m hoping that the chef and his staff take their own “bringing back service” mantra to heart as opposed to just preaching it to the press. Right now, they’re not even close to living up  to the legacy of the great musician that bears its name. A lot more practice needs to be put in before they toot their own horn as being one of the best.  

Charlie Bird
5 King St. (at W. Houston)
New York, NY 10012
(212) 235-7133