The Bronx is The Doughnut Project’s flagship pastry, and it is a masterpiece. An arid, salty glaze of olive oil and black pepper painted on a delicate, yeasty doughnut. Nobody walks into a doughnut shop to eat Mediterranean, but that’s what this doughnut, and this doughnut shop, does: It changes your expectations. Perhaps you prefer something a little more brunch-y? The Everything Doughnut comes speckled in sesame seeds, pepitas, and garlic on a cream cheese shmear. Those Beetz Are Dope comes dunked in a scarlet, beet-based jelly and injected with rich ricotta cheese. The Classic sticks a maple-smoked strip of bacon on a classic Long John. The Lemon Love Letter dabs a sprinkle of sea salt on a tart lemon extract. Yes, you can still get a plain glazed doughnut if that’s your preference, but Doughnut Project founders Troy Neal and Leslie Polizzotto treat that orthodoxy with reluctance at best.
“We actually opened without a plain glazed doughnut,” says Neal of his now one-year-old bakery. “I thought our olive oil and black pepper would be simple enough, but we were wrong. [The Bronx] is still a difficult sell, but our locals know and our regulars know. It’s a sleeper on our menu. We have another location up in Bryant Park, and it just doesn’t fly up there.”
This is the eternal struggle for all the bougie, forward-thinking doughnut shops across North America. There’s been a recent effort to rehabilitate the doughnut beyond a post-church no-collar delight, but that ambition will always run into a core existential crisis: does the doughnut need to be anything more than a thoughtless glazed or jelly-filled distraction? Can there truly be something complex and three-dimensional lurking in a pile of fried sweet dough? Are we missing out? Do we know for sure that carefully sourced, exotically flavored doughnuts are any better than the simple piles of cheapo chocolate?
“The flavors we come up with are inspired by food and cocktails. That’s where the flavor profiles come from. It’s not so much a purely sweet mindset, it’s much more balanced,” says Polizzotto.
Polizzotto and Neal spend all day thinking up new doughnut flavors. When I arrive for my interview, they’re in the midst of a two-hour brainstorm formulating new ideas for the forthcoming season. In December they’ll be reintroducing their whiskey-eggnog pastry, in the past they’ve mixed in foie gras and cooked up a gut-busting monte cristo. There’s a lengthy manifesto of hypothetical ideas that they keep top secret to protect themselves from any clandestine doughnut intellectual property theft. Their eccentricity doesn’t always work — Neal cites an experiment with a rhubarb glaze and a pancetta topping that flopped — but they’re sticking to their guns. Their one standard chocolate doughnut features a healthy infusion of bone marrow. Even when you’re trying to keep it simple, you’re still reaching for the top shelf.
To be clear, The Doughnut Project is not the only doughnut shop doing this. Gourdough’s in Austin is a bona fide concept restaurant that serves every one of their artery-destroying dishes with a “piping hot doughnut.” Does a sandwich filled with angus beef, bacon, a fried egg, bleu cheese crumbles, buffalo sauce, red onions, and chipotle mayonnaise make you clench in horror? Well, just imagine all that served between two fatty, dark-tan doughnut halves! It’s the same basic formula — What if doughnuts were expensive and served in places that play LCD Soundsystem? — but taken to its absolute obtuse extremes. Interestingly enough, the ownership of The Doughnut Project recoils a bit from Gourdough’s excesses.
“I love what Gourdough’s does, and I would eat everything they have on their menu,” says Neal, “but for us, we still want to see the old-school round pastry. We want to take these lovely ingredients like beets, or olive oil, or prosciutto, and incorporate it with a nice balance.”
“It still comes back to the doughnut. Like if you do a pork sandwich you’re just putting pork in between a doughnut… We want to bring the pork to the doughnut,” says Polizzotto.
Hipster food culture has a corrupting influence on everything it touches. If you go to Gourdough’s and order their doughnut frito pie or their doughnut chicken-fried steak, there will be no visceral evidence that the namesake gimmick elevates the gusto of the dish. Is Gourdough’s truly committed to the cause? Or are they presenting stunt doughnuts for Guy Fieri types? There has to be a moment where you’re eating a wedge salad served with a side garlic doughnut where you feel like you’ve been played. Nobody asked for this. God did not give us fried dough so that it could be served with Russian dressing. And yet here we are.
The highest of the high-brow doughnut experiences can be found in Vancouver, British Columbia, at a bakery called Cartems Donuterie. Their daily menu is pretty standard — vanilla bean, chocolate glaze, a smoked maple walnut — but once a month they close down for a special, private “doughnut tasting” event with limited seating and wine pairings. Previous dishes have included a doughnut pizza with grapes and ricotta, a doughnut burger with molasses and pickled veggies, and a frisée salad with dandelion leaves and (yep) corn fritter doughnut chunks. It is, without a doubt, the most elegant way doughnuts have ever been served.
“All of it started with the premise that there was no such thing as a bad idea. So I would say that right from the jump we had some more unique flavors above and beyond the usual suspects. Since then we’ve always found ourselves, and staff, frequently saying a sentence that usually goes: ‘You know what we should do?…’ followed by some crazy idea,” says Jordan Cash, owner of Cartems. “Rags [the head chef] prepares for the events at least a month in advance. There are oftentimes a number of iterations before the final menu is set. We’ll literally have multiple ways of doing the same item, served all at the same time. And collectively we decide what makes the most sense, based on other things being served and the wine/beer pairings.”
At past events they’ve offered a savory doughnut with pear, prosciutto, and cheese, served on dainty black-tie appetizer plates. Currently they’re working on a shepherd’s pie doughnut, which I imagine comes with a free defibrillator. I ask Cash if doughnuts deserve to be treated this well, and if there is anything to truly gain from the combination of oil-fried batter and haute cuisine. He offers maybe the most sensible conclusion you could ask for:
“I would say the philosophy behind the doughnut salad, or a thanksgiving doughnut, or our honey parmesan doughnut, is really just that we want to be creative. We want to inspire our employees, excite our customers, and push boundaries,” he says. “At the end of the day, it should be fun. We take pride in our ingredients, product, and customer service, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously — after all, they’re doughnuts!”
After all, they’re doughnuts.