The latest viral internet sensation is a $100 doughnut from an unexpected source. The pastry — a purple-yam doughnut covered in 24-karat gold leaf, its icing laced with Cristal Champagne, which is also employed in a gelée piped into the doughnut itself — comes from Manila Social Club, a Filipino restaurant in Williamsburg. The doughnuts themselves are, predictably, selling well. But are they actually any good? To find out, Grub had New York restaurant critic Adam Platt sit down, dig in, and offer his take on the most gilded stunt food to date. The surprising part: He kind of likes it.
So, have you ever had anything made with gold leaf that actually tasted good?
Umm, hell no.
That was even more emphatic than I thought it would be.
Gold leaf traditionally, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is a signifier of privilege and wealth and general pretentious foolishness. It’s not a signifier of deliciousness. In fact, I would argue that it’s the exact opposite. I mean, who orders gold leaf anymore in this age of bearded picklers and locally foraged mushrooms and artisanal — though possibly bogus — chocolate, especially on a damn doughnut?
So, what are these people thinking?
I think they’re thinking that this might be a fun Instagrammable internet stunt that will get people’s attention, and because we’re doing this silly stunt tasting, and because I’ve already Instagrammed this thing, they’re right. They've already got their investment back in spades. This is supposed to be a good restaurant, but nobody had heard of it until this silly gold-leaf doughnut came along.
Well, at least this doughnut comes in a sturdy, beautiful box.
It’s a lovely box, I have to admit. It’s the kind of box that used to house my grandmother's fancy hats. I also like the purple ribbon. When was the last time you ate a doughnut out of a box like this? I'm almost afraid to undo it, it looks so beautiful.
Okay, so, let’s open it and take a look.
Wow, first of all, this thing is huge. It’s more like a bagel or a blown-up blimp-size cruller than a doughnut. Second of all, they didn’t skimp on the gold leaf here. This doughnut is quite beautiful. It glitters and shines, and when you blow on it the flecks of gold flutter in a pleasing way. I like the way it’s nestled in crêpe paper. This looks like the kind of doughnut King Tut would enjoy with his morning coffee.
All right, shall we? I'm going to cut it with a knife. Oh! It's purple inside. What's that?
Lord, have mercy. You tell me.
It’s called ube, which is a kind of Filipino sweet potato, and they’ve mixed it with little chunks of Cristal Champagne gelée.
[Nibbling hesitantly] Cristal? That’s worth a few bucks right there. Purple is also a very Asian dessert color, by the way. Asian desserts often tend to be all about texture and wacky presentation, and lots of times the grandest ones look like something you might put in your bubble bath. It’s really sweet, but I like the texture. I like the crisped doughnut finish, I have to say, and I enjoy that little Cristal kick at the end.
You are not making the expression I expected. You look begrudgingly pleased.
The whole thing has a kind of Jeff Koonsspectacle quality to it. Also, I’m pleased enough to have a second bite, which is something we didn’t expect. The combination of smooth pudding sweetness, booziness, and just-fried doughnut crunch is sort of ingenious. And let’s not forget the gold leaf. It’s mercifully tasteless, but it gets your attention.
[At this point, a few more bites are taken.]
I sort of like it, too, and I kind of hate myself for that.
Let's state, for the record, that neither of us think that this bizarre dish is worth $100. However, it is, undeniably, a bit of a delicacy. Aside from the Koonsian-spectacle angle, this is intricately thought out for a stunt dish, and pretty well executed. It’s got great texture not just the ube, but also the doughnut skin, the gelée, and even the gold leaf. It's not really a doughnut in the classic sense. It’s more like a gold-leaf éclair, shaped like a bagel, and stuffed will all sorts of strange, exotic things.
Aren’t we getting a little carried away here?
Have another bite. Tell me you don't enjoy that Cristal jelly mouthfeel?!
You’re getting drunk.
Well, I’m pleasantly surprised, although, like I said, for the record, I'm also glad it's not my money. If they sold this without the gold leaf, say for ten bucks a pop, I’d buy it with my own money. You add the ribbon, and the nice box, and the gold leaf, and if you’re a Filipino high roller out on a bender late at night, drinking his Cristal, you wouldn’t be displeased with this pastry, even for 100 bucks. I'm sort of taken aback. Give me another bite.
So, moment of truth: How many stars?
One star for ingenuity, one star for appearance, one star for taste, and one star for packaging. Minus one star for the ridiculous cost, and minus another for the ridiculous gold leaf. That's two stars, which is a bit of a shock, since we both expected to end up in minus-star range. I wouldn't suggest you rush out to Williamsburg to get one, but this is an interesting piece of food sculpture, in that wacky, Koonsian way.