by Pableaux Johnson
Even in a crowded bakery display case, you can spot Mark Israel’s handiwork in a New York minute.
To call it “just a doughnut” wouldn’t really do it justice. These decadent, handmade beauties run about four times the size of run-of-the-mill dunkers and coated with bittersweet chocolate icing or a layer of coarsely crushed pistachio nuts. The texture of these puffy fried pastries is amazingly light with a substantial breadlike texture. The perfect sweetness and range of flavors (vanilla bean, banana walnut, ginger, coconut, blueberry) are the stuff of local legend, and for knowledgeable members of New York’s “doughnut underground”, they’re reverently referred to as “THE doughnut.”
Mark Israel, owner of the Doughnut Plant, is responsible for bringing “THE doughnut” to this normally bagel-centric metropolis. From a small storefront on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Israel and his tiny crew crank out 100 dozen doughnuts every night. By the time sunrise spreads across the city skyline, the sweet specialties are waiting for early morning coffee crowd at specialty groceries like Dean and Deluca, Balducci’s, Zabar’s and Citrella.
For years, Israel’s doughnut domain was strictly a one-man operation. Starting in 1994, the North Carolina native started a cottage trade using his grandfather’s doughnut recipe and worked solo in a cramped basement kitchen. As most Manhattanites slept, he made huge batches of sweet dough and ran them through the pre-frying process (rise, roll, cut, rise) and fried them to toasty brown perfection. Then he’d dip them into his own inventive gourmet glazes flavored with farmer’s market fruits and gourmet flavorings. After hand-packing the oversized treats, Israel personally bicycled each night’s batch of 144 doughnuts to coffee shops and groceries across the city.
As word spread of these gargantuan specialties, the demand for Israel’s handmade jewels went through the roof. The doughnuts garnered well-deserved raves from the New York Times, Saveur Magazine, and even a visit by Emeril himself (as part of an Emeril Live taping). Before long, the “The Doughnut Man” had moved into new digs not far from New York’s Chinatown and the underground sensation took its distinctly upmarket turn. In a short time, Israel hired a staff, increased his business by fourfold, and the Doughnut Plant was born.
The current headquarters for “The Doughnut Man” is a sprawling industrial kitchen with a small retail shop out front for “walk-in” sales. The additional space allows a few technological improvements, but the bulk of the work — cutting, frying and glazing — is still done by hand.
And the care shows in every bite of the finished product. The Plant’s chocolate doughnut could send a Godiva addict into sweet, sweet shock. Rather than use a standard cocoa mixture, Israel springs for the thick, flavorful Valrhona variety. His vanilla glaze smacks of Tahitian vanilla beans. Running about $2 apiece, they might cost a good deal more than the standard industrial varieties, but they’re worth every penny.
And if you happen to be wandering around the Lower East Side in the pre-dawn hours, you can always stop in at the Doughnut Plant’s storefront and taste the next level — a freshly-glazed doughnut still warm from the fryer. Even dedicated New Yorkers slow down to savor a few bites of deep-fried perfection — it’s THE ONLY way to eat “THE doughnut.”
The Doughnut Plant
379 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002
Store Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, between 7 a.m. until sold out
Available at gourmet shops (Dean and Deluca, Balducci’s, Zabar’s and Citrella) and better bakeries around the NYC metro area