When I daydream about pancakes, they're piping hot, each seeming to float above the one below. I slip a pat of butter on the stack; it melts over the top and down the sides. Then, I drizzle on a little pure maple syrup and cut through with my fork. One tender, clean-tasting bite and I'm swooning.
The catch is to find such pancakes; even some of the best breakfast eateries drop the spatula when it comes to hot cake excellence. You'll find no shortage of hubcap-size lead weights. And lukewarm, wet, doughy disasters. And overly sweet impostors that taste of additive-laden mixes. And - horror of horrors - flapjacks that seem to have baked-on lids you can bang with a fork, making powdered sugar fly.
Great griddle cakes are out there, though. I found them in a wide range of settings, from modest luncheonettes to glitzy diners to chic hotels to quaint little specialty spots.
Here's a selection of Long Island's best.
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THE PANCAKES It's hard to name the bigger attraction at this chic hotel restaurant: the stunning view of beach and boardwalk or the light, tender pancakes made with organic dairy products and flour. Buttermilk cakes have the slightest tang of fresh buttermilk. Buckwheat pancakes have a pleasant nuttiness without the strong flavor you might expect. Either variety may be had with or without fresh blueberries in the batter.
THE TOPPINGS 100 percent pure maple syrup, served warm, is included in the price. With buckwheat pancakes, strawberries are on the plate. With blueberry buttermilk pancakes, fresh blueberries are on top.
THE PRICE Three pancakes for $10.
THE PANCAKES Although this diner looks like countless others, it serves surprisingly fluffy pancakes made with a hint of vanilla from a "scratch" recipe. Whole-wheat griddle cakes are light and wheaty, but not overly so.
THE TOPPINGS Sadly, the diner serves only imitation maple syrup and sugar-free syrup (made with sorbitol) in individual plastic containers.
THE PANCAKES Whether your table is outside on the patio or in the country-casual dining room, you'll be impressed with the clean-tasting, airy-textured, fruit-studded pancakes. A favorite is strawberry, but apple works well, too. Whole-wheat pancakes have a toasty flavor and are surprisingly light, made with a bit of pure honey and vanilla.
THE TOPPINGS Imitation maple syrup. Powdered sugar by request. Some pancakes have specially made toppings (such as warm apples and caramel for granola pancakes).
THE PRICE $5.95 to $6.95 for a stack of three.
THE PANCAKES Discovered by chance, these plain diner pancakes turned out to be a light, fresh-tasting treat. Nothing fancy, just old-fashioned good.
THE TOPPINGS Imitation maple syrup in individual plastic containers or, on request, house-made raspberry syrup (made from canned raspberries). (Owner John Papavasilopoulos plans to offer Canadian maple syrup for an additional charge). Additional charge of $1.25 for fruit or nuts.
THE PRICE $5.50 for three; $4.50 for two.
THE PANCAKES Annie Mandler, co-owner of this sweetly retro spot, invented "oaty oat" pancakes - moist, tender, apple- and nut-studded. They're made with oat flour (she grinds whole oats, mixing whole oats and a little white flour). The results taste wholesomely (but not heavily) oaten with only a hint of sweetness.
THE TOPPINGS Unless you request otherwise, the pancakes will be showered with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Real Vermont maple syrup is available for a surcharge of $2.29.
THE PRICE $8.99 for three ($7.99 for a short stack of two)
THE PANCAKES At this freewheeling new breakfast and lunch cafe, owner Erica Reichlin makes fluffy corn cakes using whipped egg whites and a mix of unbleached and yellow corn flour, organic eggs, butter and honey. Think of a good corn muffin only in pancake form.
THE TOPPINGS Butter; fresh fruit garnish on side. Served with imitation maple syrup. Real maple syrup is available on request, $1.50 extra.
THE PRICE $7 for three, $4 for two.
THE PANCAKES This old-fashioned luncheonette serves pancakes that look like most others but are far more delicate - white and foamy-textured on the inside. "I whip the batter," says owner Noreen Glynn. Glynn makes them with fresh seasonal fruit folded in. This time of year, she's using blueberries, strawberries, bananas and apples, as well as dried cranberries and walnuts.
THE TOPPINGS Imitation maple syrup or sugar-free syrup. Real maple syrup costs $1.50 extra.
THE PRICE Three to an order. $5.75 for fruit, $4.75 plain
THE PANCAKES Food, not ambience, is the draw at this counter-service spot with an all-natural, health-oriented menu. Oatmeal whole-wheat pancakes (made with organic oats and a mixture of white and whole-wheat flours) have a delicate toastiness. Smaller and lighter than most, they disappear in no time.
THE TOPPINGS Served with 100 percent pure maple syrup and soy butter. Fresh fruit is an additional $1.99.
THE PRICE $7 for four
THE PANCAKES A country vibe prevails at this quaint eatery with a separate list of organic breakfast specialties. From that menu, pancakes with mixed berries are a top choice; they have a wholesome, almost wheaty flavor and a light texture.
THE TOPPINGS Powdered sugar unless otherwise requested. 100 percent pure maple syrup available for $3 extra; otherwise, imitation maple syrup.
THE PRICE $11.95 for three
THE PANCAKES The pancake specials at this bustling diner evoke a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont. I'm partial to the cloudlike angel-food pancakes, which have purity of taste despite a pinch of Splenda in the batter. Whole-wheat pancakes, available with fruit and/or nuts folded in, are light with a subtle wheaten cast.
THE TOPPINGS Fresh strawberries, bananas or blueberries available. $2 additional for real maple syrup.
THE PRICE $6 to $8.99
THE PANCAKES Owner Tony Bellucci makes virtually everything from scratch at this unprepossessing little luncheonette. Here, his sweet-potato pancakes (much thinner and lighter than the plain or fruit-filled varieties he makes) taste of autumn. Bellucci purees cold sweet potatoes and seasons the batter with pumpkin-pie spices and a little sugar. Then, he thins it with extra milk before it hits the griddle.
THE TOPPINGS Butter on top is standard unless you request otherwise. The pancakes are accompanied by apple butter, although you can request warm, pure maple syrup instead.
THE PRICE $7.95 for three, $6.95 for two. A "bottomless" cup of coffee is included in the price.