Welcome to #NotAnAd, where we post enthusiastically and without reservation about things we’re obsessed with from the world of food.
There are 56 near-identical Pret A Manger stores crammed in New York’s densest borough, but the one I visit weekly is adjacent to Bryant Park, on 42nd and 5th, right by the public library’s main branch. Most of the British chain’s trademark fodder is peddled here: plastic pots filled with Greek yogurt and chopped banana bits, baguettes serried with cucumber rounds and tuna, squat cardboard boxes containing hot tomato-feta soup.
As is often the case at cafés and little patisseries, the most prized products at Pret are stacked beneath the front counter, sectioned off from the salads and loose fruit like jewels. All manner of continental breakfast fare sits under this long expanse of glass: croissants and pain aux raisins and other viennoiseries, blueberry muffins with compote filling at their centers.
But if you’re surveying Pret’s bonnes bouches with a few dollars to spare, I’d recommend skipping the pastries. For Pret has perfected one product beyond all others, refined it to an unbelievable caliber. It is oatmeal-colored and the size of a grenade; you can hold neatly it in your palm. It is called the ‘chocolate chunk cookie,’ and it will cost you $2.17 after tax.
If you are snobby when it comes to baked goods, the idea that this franchise has nailed the most traditional of cookies may be difficult to stomach. But having sampled dozens, at different times of day, I can attest that Pret’s are consistently meritorious, and at just over two bucks, quite the steal. (A quick aside: Pret offers three other cookies on its American menu—oatmeal, carrot cake, and double chocolate. All of these are decent, sure, but do not order them. Buy as many of the chocolate chunk variety as you can carry, and never, ever look back.) Also pleasurable is the banality of the exchange—there is no pomp or ceremony, no block-spanning lines of ardent foodies as found at Maman or Levain. You will have your cookie as soon as you please.
Pret’s website says the chocolate chunk cookie contains dairy, egg, wheat, soy, and is “suitable for vegetarians.” There are 320 calories in each 71-gram serving, 15 grams of fat, 9 grams of saturated fat and 26 grams of sugar. All of this means nothing to me, but it might be important to you. What does matter is this: the cookie is made on site, in small batches through the day, and often served straight from the oven. It’s almost always warm—you can feel it through the paper bag—and milky chunks are melted throughout the honeyed, buttery interior. Texture-wise, it’s neither crumbly nor chewy; it breaks apart with ease at uneven, natural fault lines. The edges are crispy. The middle is soft. As you eat, your fingers are covered with runny chocolate. These cookies would look good inside a picnic basket, or next to someone wearing a bonnet.
In the streets surrounding my Pret of choice, weeping women are as common as Halal carts and pretzel stands; they cry on corners while clutching cell phones, or blubber into the collars of their blazers, while skyscrapers close in overhead. There are few places to stage a breakdown privately in Midtown, which means people sometimes cry inside the Pret itself, silently hulked over plastic bowls of arugula, or curled into the fetal position atop the maroon leather seating.
I have read studies suggesting ambient food odors trigger altruism—maybe it is true. On my second-most-recent visit to Pret, I found myself buying newly baked chocolate chunk cookies for a woman in tears. I am not sure if they helped, but also, how could they not? Each one resembles a stock image of a cookie, golden brown in the middle, radiating outward to a deeper caramel hue; they are warm to hold and to eat.
There is no sprinkling of Himalayan pink salt, no unexpected twist, but New York has enough of those, and a clever someone fashioning this recipe understood you do not need embellishment. The bare elements are enough.