The odds are good for hungry students in Ithaca — the last few months have seen a diverse new crop of eateries open near Cornell, from the familiar coffeehouse Starbucks to the new That Burrito Place. Just above Collegetown, another new eatery is joining the competition, offering coffee, pastries and soup to hungry Ithacans.
The Queen of Tarts, located on Maple Avenue, was opened in December 2006 by Leslie Muhlhahn, founder of Just Desserts. Just Desserts, an Ithaca staple since 1995, is famous for its wedding cakes and custom-order pastries. Muhlhahn studied at the New England Culinary Institute, and her work has been featured in the book The Perfect Wedding Cake by Kate Manchester.
“[At] Just Desserts we make cake and pastry, but we don’t really sell that much from our building. There’s no place to sell from. That’s why we opened Queen of Tarts,” Muhlhahn said.
In addition to making her already-famous pastries more accessible, Muhlhahn expanded the menu so that Queen of Tarts customers could enjoy more than just coffee and croissants.
A review of the Queen of Tarts by local dining website 14850 Dining — which offers online reviews of Ithaca restaurants at IthacaFood.com — touted the “mouthwatering variety of handmade pastries, fresh bread, Gimme! coffee drinks, and hot soup” available at the café.
While only a few months old, the Queen of Tarts has seen favorable responses from its customers. “It’s been really good. The neighborhood has been very supportive … it’s been really, really wonderful,” says Muhlhahn.
All of the Queen of Tarts’ pastries are made by hand, and the soups are made fresh every day — facts that Muhlhahn is quick to promote: “You won’t ever come into the Queen of Tarts and find something someone else has made.”
Steve O’Brien, a Queen of Tarts employee, added that “the croissants are hand-rolled — everything is done in the old French style. [The café] also makes its own chai, [and] the baguettes are made fresh everyday and delivered by noon. People call to reserve them.”
While the past few months have seen a number of new cafés opening in Ithaca — among them, Starbucks in Collegetown and the Smart Monkey café on Elmira Road — the Queen of Tarts is confident in its ability to stand up to the competition. O’Brien says that the café has a lot of business because of its location.
“We’re located a little bit up from traffic on Maple Avenue, right next to Cornell CIT. Our customer base is trade guys, IT, and lots of MBAs and grad students from Maple Hill and Maplewood Apartments. We’re heavily supported by the neighborhood on the weekends … families and kids will also come up after school,” he says.
Muhlhahn also hopes that customers will be attracted by the offering of local products. “We support Gimme! coffee. We shop in the community, we like to keep our money here. We hope that will be an incentive for people to stop by,” says Muhlhahn.
The café is currently small —there are seats for six and a gas-burning fireplace takes up some of the space inside. O’Brien describes the ambience as “a very warm, friendly spot” that is “great to hang out in.” Queen of Tarts is located in the former Coal Office building, which was built between 1875 and 1880 and “lends itself towards being a neat little pastry shop,” O’Brien said.
Plans to expand include the addition of an outdoor deck to provide more seating for customers. Additions to the menu are also planned. Those who frequent the Farmer’s Market are undoubtedly familiar with the flatbread pizzas offered for sale at the weekly market. Muhlhahn plans to add a wood-burning oven in order to offer the same flatbread pizzas at the Queen of Tarts. Customers who enjoy the made-to-order cakes from Just Desserts will also be able to place orders for custom cakes at the Queen of Tarts.
While the 14850 Dining website noted the fresh soups available, from mushroom barley to vegetable beef, O’Brien says it is difficult to say which menu item is the most popular — in part due to the wide variety of menu offerings dreamt up by Muhlhahn, who was named 2003’s Chef of the Year in the “small markets” category by Share Our Strength.
“One particular thing that’s the favorite? I couldn’t tell you!” he said.