Saturday, June 03, 2006

Niche-aclious New York City Entry #98 Chikalicious / Room 4 Dessert

For the past three months I have mused on the emergence of the dessert bar. With the announcement that Sam Mason, the celebrity pastry chef at WD-50, is set to open his own aerie later this year, these sweet spots are reaching critical mass. These bars present a "tasting menu" of small desserts, supplemented with sweet or fortified wine, tea or coffee. The dessert bars are intimate (read: cramped) rooms that bow to the pressures of New York real estate. They are dominated by counters where diners watch the staff prepare the sweets, making the experience a spun-sugar equivalent to a sushi bar. Their iron pastry chefs take center stage. Both Chikalicious in the East Village and Room 4 Dessert in SoHo follow this formula.

I have now eaten at Chikalicious twice and Room 4 Dessert once, and both are satisfying, even if the presentations, while creative, lack the visual and gustatory fireworks of the elaborated creations of our most regal chefs.

Chikalicious, managed by Chef Chika Tillman and her husband Don, conveys a double meaning. A repository of chicklets. The gender ratio evidences girl power. The restaurant with twenty seats, is decorated in shades of white - a granite counter top, leatherette stools, painted brick.

At Chikalicious one receives an amuse, a dessert, and three petit fours. I was particularly impressed by the amuses I received: first, Granny Smith Apple Sorbet over Camomile Gelee and, on my second visit, Frozen Honey Custard over Blackberry Gelee. Chef Chika is partial to gelee and sometimes overuses this preparation, but these two were well-chosen and matched with the frozen dessert, proved less of an amuse than a first course. Chika has a way with fruit, making the meal an airy delight, not a heavy afterthought.

The first dessert was one of the better sweets of the year: Coconut Sorbet on Grapefruit Terrine with Coconut Tuile and Black Pepper Syrup. This was a fearless plate with grapefruit and black pepper syrup droplets. In other hands, it could have faltered, but this night I found it a compelling synthesis of tastes. My second dessert was effective, but less imposing: Strawberry Sorbet with Brown Sugar Panna Cotta and Lemongrass Agar Agar Gelee. One agar would have sufficed. Agar agar (aka agar) is a gelatin from red algae, advertised as the "queen of the jelling agents." Here the rectangles of gelee lacked a strong presence, a jello without punch. The sorbet was luscious, but the strawberry ice and sweet brown sugar panna cotta belonged in different presentations.

The main dessert is followed by a trio of "petit fours" (petit threes?). Chika's marshmallow in coconut is a buoyant sweet, easily swallowed. A pecan sandie and a chocolate chocolate chip cake wedge were both passable. Best among the petit fours were two lapidary tarts: one Key Lime Creme Fraiche, the second Almond Amaretto Cream. Although tiny, these dime-sized dollops contained dollars of joy.

Room 4 Dessert, presided over by the former Cru pastry chef Will Goldfarb is more attuned to the niceties of culinary theory. Whereas Chikalicious might float away on the morning air, Room 4 Dessert is a creation of the long SoHo night. A narrow room in browns and blacks, its dark counter is dramatically accented by orange Murano hanging lamps.

Perhaps R4D is not truly an outpost of molecularism, but Chef Goldfarb plays with ideas as much as food. The wit in the restaurant's moniker is that diners receive a flight of 4 thematic desserts (along with optional wines, liquors, teas, and coffees).

The night of my visit Chef Goldfarb presented a string of four red desserts, an homage to Pierre Gagnaire. When chefs pay homage to role models, one knows that a community of theory is firmly in place.

I selected the "PACK," a tasting menu of pistachio, apricot, cherry, and kirsch, and was pleased by the chef's work. Because Chef Goldfarb is creating on a small scale, none of the items proved miraculous. The cherise confiture consisted of a small jar of very well-made jam. Best was a forceful kirsch sabayon, served over pieces of dried apricot, and nicely combined with the confiture. Strikingly successful was a moist pistachio moelleux, a soft, olive-green cake with pistachio cream. I was less impressed with the apricot sorbet, lacking a potent fruit flavor, but sited elegantly on a bed of crushed almond candy.

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Neither Chikalicious nor Room 4 Dessert is yet a destination restaurant, but both provide a lovely evening's close. They are pioneers in a trend that allow nighthawks to get their breakfast sugar fix and spaces for others who do not wish our public evenings to end quite yet.

Chikalicious
203 East 10th Street (at Second Avenue)
Manhattan (East Village)
212-995-9511

Room 4 Dessert
17 Cleveland Place (at Kenmare Street)
Manhattan (SoHo)
212-941-5405

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