We’re not really ones for cupcakes, let alone taking the subway to find them, but when we heard from Midtown Lunch that Lily O’Brien’s had started serving Robicelli’s cupcakes in a neighborhood that’s home to three Crumbs locations (four if you count the nearby Garment District), we dug out our MetroCard.
Crumbs, of course, has metastasized into a corporate behemoth over the last few years, rushing to erect stores in just about any space that Subway hasn’t claimed first. Robicelli’s, meanwhile, is the anti-Crumbs, a relatively new family-run, Brooklyn-based operation whose cupcakes come in unconventional flavors (e.g., the infamous Chicken ‘n’ Waffles) that have earned them an enthusiastic following. Where Crumbs’ cupcakes are as steroidal as the company’s expansion strategy, Robicelli’s are considerably more restrained — as the picture above illustrates, you could hide an entire Robicelli cupcake in a Crumbs cupcake, like some hyperglycemic version of terducken.
But although Robicelli’s has plenty of fervent believers, so does Crumbs, as its constantly increasing number of locations attests. And both outfits are currently doing seasonal apple-themed cupcakes. So a battle of the Midtown apple cupcakes was in order.
First up was Robicelli’s apple-maple crisp cupcake. A single cupcake bought at Lily O’Brien’s costs $3.50 before tax. Steep, yes, but if you go to the Robicelli’s Tumblr, you’ll see that the apples for the cake were picked by the Robicelli family at New Jersey’s Terhune Orchards last Tuesday. Really! So it’s kind of hard to grumble when you imagine young children gathering 80 pounds of apples alongside their parents.
The cupcake is comprised of apple cake with vanilla buttercream, topped off with a sprinkling of oat crisp and a little squidge of roasted apple butter. As the photo above illustrates, the buttercream-cake ratio is almost 1-to-1, which on a cupcake of this size translates as just right. The vanilla buttercream was quite sweet and extremely buttery — honestly, we were hoping for something tangier, perhaps with a sour-cream or cream-cheese base. But the texture was admirably silky, and contrasted nicely with the scattering of oats that garnish it. The apple butter was also very good, but we wanted more of it, and although the cupcake is advertised as being drizzled with a bit of Vermont maple syrup, we didn’t see or taste any of it.
The cake portion, however, was terrific: Moist and springy, it was endowed with plenty of warming spices that gave it depth and dimension and helped to cut through the sweetness. But as much as we loved the texture and flavor, we didn’t really get all that much apple. Make no mistake: As spice cakes go, this cupcake is superlative. But as apple cake? It could use more of its star ingredient.
On to Crumbs, whose Grand Central location is currently selling an apple cobbler cupcake. It costs $4.50, and we’re guessing its apples aren’t personally procured from New Jersey by adorable children. It is also, incidentally, 470 calories, which demolishes the insistence of cupcake lovers that a cupcake is a less catastrophic indulgence than a sliver of cake. Please.
Anyway, the apple cobbler cupcake is far more similar to an apple streusel, thanks to its thick streusel topping. Semantics aside, that topping was quite tasty — it was crumbly, crunchy, and full of butter and brown sugar, reminiscent of something you’d buy at a church bake sale. The cream-cheese frosting beneath it was, like Robicelli’s, very vanilla and very sweet. The cake-to-buttercream ratio is about 2-to-1 — any more buttercream, and dentists would surround Crumbs’ corporate headquarters with pitchforks.
Cutting the cake in half revealed that its core was shot through with chunks of apple, which was a nice touch. And while we weren’t expecting anything of the cake, it was surprisingly moist and light, and contained a decent amount of cinnamon. Although it was sweeter than we would have liked, the apple chunks won our grudging appreciation — they were indeed cobbler-like.
So while we absolutely loathe everything that Crumbs stands for, and love the inventiveness, charm, and quality ingredients of Robicelli’s cupcakes, we must admit that as far as apple-themed cupcakes go, Crumbs wins this battle, because to our palates its apple cupcake more fully telegraphs its titular ingredient. Sigh.
Robicelli’s at Lily O’Brien’s Chocolate Café
36 West 40th Street