Friday, June 30, 2006

Great Expectations New York City Entry #104 Falai

My night's quest for the perfect Italian restaurant continues. Halfway through a recent dinner at Falai, I thought that the contest might have reached its finale, but, alas, not quite yet. Paradise requires astonishing entrees, not only bravura performances in the preliminaries.

Falai is a small, vest-pocket restaurant, owned and operated by Iacopo (YA-capo) Falai on the Lower East Side's rendition of restaurant row along Clinton Street, near Rivington. The restaurant is compact although not precisely jammed, and is nicely decorated in shades of white, gray, and brown. The space feels more open than it has any right to be architecturally, although the noise level from neighborly yolps is challenging. Falai's service is cordial, the staff comely, and the atmosphere a cross between Downtown and Milan. The space does not feel luxe, so much as energized, and on a Thursday evening the small restaurant was packed and somewhat humid. Falai has become a destination. (It is a destination with a nearby bakery - Panetteria at 79 Clinton. If my roll with flavorful black kale was typical, the bakery is a destination, too).

Our meals began with confidence and brilliance. Chef Falai presented one of the most startling amuses around. We were served a small cup filled with white: a danger of judging a cook by his cover. Here was apple mousse, mascarpone cheese, bits of red onion, and black caviar. It was splendid. The apple and mascarpone transformed what might otherwise have been a tired caviar cliche into magic. Fruit and caviar are no longer an unheard of pair.

My antipasto matched the amuse in style and zing: Polenta Bianca with Chicken Liver, Dried Dates and Chanterelles. What insight into the possibilities of food! Let no man fear chicken livers. The dates and chanterelles added a rich and startling fruitiness to the crisp polenta and pillowy liver. A companion's Polipo (Octopus) with Cannellini Bean Puree, Candied Celery, Olive Oil, and Fried Sage was evocative as well.


As pasta I selected Foiade: short strips of pasta, wild mushrooms with beef jus, and baby spinach (with a few fig slivers). Here was another admirable dish that was less startling in its flavor combination - although the strips of fig added surprise - but no less sturdy for that. The al dente pasta had the rich, buttery flour that one expects in such a creation, and the mushrooms - a theme of Chef Falai's cuisine - were a dusky plus.


But then we reached the Carne course, that moment in the evening when chefs from Batali on down seem to lose their map. My Manzo - Short Ribs with Chanterelles, Parsnips, and Scallion Brulee - was unfortunately dry. I admired the bravery of a scallion brulee, which, if it was not a true brulee, made a nice pudding. Yet, the ribs lacked a distinct flavor. This was not entirely a failed dish, yet not an ethereal one, and a fair distance from what had appeared previously. There seemed no flair in technique to balance the heavy solidity of the beef. The consensus of my dinner partners was that their courses - pesce and carne - added no "extra" to the ordinary.


Dolci are classed as "Classici" and "Non Classici." Celery Cake with Strawberry and Rhubarb with Milk Gelato was among the latter. The dish was strongly reminiscent of Strawberry Shortcake; any celery taste had been muted. This was not a dessert that showed the same spark of the antipasti, although it was conventionally sweet and fruity.


Does Falai's early courses reveal the true vision of a grandly small restaurant or whether the final courses better depicted an establishment that belongs in the solid middle of the tangle of Italian joints on this tempestuous Isle.

Falai Cucina Italiana
68 Clinton Street (near Rivington)
Manhattan (Lower East Side)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Regular Guys New York City Entry #103 Chanterelle

All year I have been waiting for an occasion to return to Chanterelle, Karen and David Waltuck's smooth outpost in TriBeCa. A decade ago I had a most pleasant evening (after the restaurant had moved to Harrison Street). Perhaps most impressive about my evening were the remarkable floral displays (once designed by Karen Waltuck, but now outsourced). The gold-maize walls and the space between tables created a lightness of spirit that was conducive to bright dining. And the service then - and now - was silken and congenial. The art works in the small entrance conveyed that here were restauranteurs of class.

Of course, when one begins a review discussing the ambiance and the service, one might fret about the food. And it must be admitted that at Chanterelle, the package may be more impressive than any dish within it. Some have scorned the cuisine at Chanterelle as "boring." This is not a sentiment that I accept - my meals now and then were satisfying. Yet, the plates do not snap and crackle. If this is not your father's cuisine, it is your older brother's. As much as I enjoy dining at Chantrelle, if I had to select a last meal, it would be from Jean-Georges or per se or, should I wish to puzzle my guards, from Moto.

My return visit was courtesy of two friends who are long-time regulars. Such good friends of the restaurant are they that Sommelier Roger Dagorn arrived on a Sunday evening, hobbling on crutches. Roger's wine selections were first rate, even though I hold no brief as an oenophile. We began with a Nicolas Joly Savennieres La Roches aux Moines "Clos de la Bergerie" 2003, a Loire wine that tasted to me like a Sauterne with the sugar removed but with a honeyed aftertaste. Our red was an Ata Rangi Pinot Noir 2002 from Martinborough, New Zealand. Its smoothness matched my white tuna. Perhaps our table was more fussed over than is typical. Even my blogger's camera doesn't get me such attention. Being a regular has its advantages.

We began with a pair of amuses: a duck spring roll with hoisin sauce and a chilled watercress soup with Parmesan palmiers. I found these starters surprising. Such choices gave ammunition to critics who argue that Chanterelle eschews kitchen creativity. The crisp spring roll was perfectly fine, but no more compelling than that to be found at most upscale Chinese restaurants. One wondered what was the point of producing such an ordinary dish. Could it have been take out? The watercress soup was better - vivid green - a tangy herbal broth with a rich, meaty stock. Yet, it too pointed to satisfaction, rather than thrills.

Tonight was the final evening of Chanterelle's late spring menu (May 22nd - June 25th) and after so much practice no technical flubs marred the evening. As appetizer I selected Fresh Pea Ravioli with Sweet Onions (!) Sauce and Smoked Pork Reduction. From other reviews, I gather that Chef Waltuck is partial to spring peas. The ravioli itself was intense - a splendid vegetable dish. I was less taken by the accompaniments, which detracted from both the aesthetic center and the taste contour of the dish. The pea puree was too pure to have the distraction of pork and fried onions.


My wife selected "Sauteed Zucchini Blossom Filled with Lobster and Shrimp." The lobster-shrimp was a quenelle filling. It was exceptionally flavorful and beautifully presented, but stuffed in a zucchini blossom, it edged towards a culinary cliche. For those who missed the culinary trends of the 1980s, Chanterelle will startle. But perhaps it is not fair to deny oneself gastronomy's greatest hits.


It was a difficult choice between Grilled White Tuna with Red Wine Risotto and a Noisettes of Lamb with Thyme and Goat Cheese. Both seemed fairly traditional, but I was curious as to how a red wine risotto might match the tuna. If it was not a stunner, the match was a happy one, and the tuna was cooked to the proper moment. White tuna is not as flavorful as a big eye tuna, but that only made the red wine risotto more potent. It was a well-conceived dish, but one that seemed satisfied with the dominance of its sturdy rice.


As my wife treasures shellfish, she selected the Chesapeake Bay Softshell Crabs with Young Ginger and Chinese Chive Coulis. This was perhaps the most striking dish of the evening. In keeping with the ability of the kitchen to present food simply, the crabs were not mushy as they often can be, but suitably crispy. Neither the chive or ginger overpowered the dish. The crabs had center stage, simply presented but with the subtle addition of herb and spice.


Although I didn't copy the names of the cheeses served in our pre-dessert course, I had a powerful blue, nutty Gruyere, and creamy Brie. The pear and kumquat compotes both were worthy additions.

I particularly enjoyed my wife's Warm Vanilla Brown Butter Almond Cake with Cherry Compote. The mixture of cherry and almond was a pleasure. We are not in Will Goldfarb/Sam Mason territory, but the dessert shared the bright elegance of the room. The cake was dense, the compote sweet, what was not to like?


My Apricot, Almond and Crème Fraiche Tart with Basil Ice Cream was particularly notable for the intensity of the basil. The tart itself was a high-end composition that one might pick up at the most ambitious neighborhood bakeries. No complaints, even if I felt that this reflected the desserts that were common - and praiseworthy - when Chanterelle opened.


Every restaurant has shaped by its birth. When one enters Chez Panisse, one steps into 1971; for the Four Seasons it is always 1959, and at French Laundry forever 1994. Chanterelle opened its doors in 1979 at a moment in which the American simplicity of produce was merging with French nouvelle cuisine: two approaches that incorporated a purity of taste. Perhaps Chanterelle could use a jolt of energy to enliven its cuisine, to recognize Century W. But after twenty-seven years its continuing civility is welcome. It is easy to understand how Chanterelle, more that most luxe restaurants, could be that special spot that gathers a coterie of regulars. Not overrun with trend-setters, Chanterelle keeps purring along, not strutting on a highwire, but strolling down the boulevard.

2 Harrison Street
Manhattan (TriBeCa)

Friday, June 16, 2006

Breathing Room New York City Entry #102 Veritas

Whenever I fly, I think about New York restaurants. The same economic malaise that has turned jets into cattle cars has transformed many restaurants, even those with soaring aspirations, into sardine cans. Perhaps one can understand this desire with downtown boîtes like Prune, Momofuku, or Fatty Crab where sweat is part of the equity, yet the intimacy of strangers can be quite disconcerting at a restaurant like Veritas with its $76 three-course prix fixe and its tempting and extensive reserve list. Veritas is a restaurant where one can easily spend $200+/person, yet hear more of one's neighbors' conversations than that of one's partner. With tables tightly arranged along a banquette, the acoustics are not designed for private intimacies.

The frugality of interior real estate does much to hide the real human virtues of Veritas. Perhaps the economics of rent seeking demands such a packing, but one can't help but think that here is a case in which less is more. Were a goodly quarter of the tables to vanish, Veritas would become a strikingly serene restaurant. One wall of the quiet, elegant room displays a set of contemporary paintings hung on exposed brick; opposite are niches filled with exquisite glass bowls and vases.

The staff manages the tight space with aplomb. We appreciated the sommelier who directed us to a Clos Rougeard Saumer Champigny "Les Poyeaux" 2001, a Cabernet Franc that we would have been unlikely to select but that matched the meal with grace, substance, and a light but firm touch.

As for the food, for a restaurant that is known for its wine list, Chef Scott Bryan does quite well. His menu is not designed to distract from the grape, but his dishes have a modest flair, and with a three course prix fixe, presenting eight appetizers and eight entrees (and two specials), the kitchen staff will not be overly challenged. None of the dishes were transcendent, but both the appetizers and entrees were well-conceived and stalwart.

An amuse of Marinated Calamari, Eggplant Caviar, and Herbs was both modest and charming. The micro squids were tender and the eggplant (reprised in the entree) added an intriguing smoky flavor. I wouldn't consume eggplant and squid all night, but this was a bright and flavorful start.

Chilled Lobster Salad with Smashed Avocado, Peppercress, Ruby Red Grapefruit and Ginger ($8 supplement) seemed ideal on paper. The tastes promised a challenging combination. In execution, the appetizer was worthy but not sublime. The shellfish was hidden by a haystack of cress, and the avocado was, as promised, smashed into paste. Although the grapefruit and ginger added impish complexity to the lobster, the dish might have been brilliant with a more inspired presentation.


I enjoyed my Roasted Saddle of Lamb with Provençal Vegetables (a modified ratatouille of eggplant and summer squash), Flageolet Bean Purée, Garlic Confit, and Rosemary. These were ingredients that blended well, and if they weren't daring, they matched a robust red wine. The lamb, cooked medium rare, was intense and perfectly tender. It was a most satisfying late spring entree.


Pastry Chef Dalia Jurgensen's dessert demonstrated excess caution. Fresh Raspberry Tart with Toasted Almond Milk Ice was strikingly mundane. A tart of similar quality could have been had at dozens of quality bakeries throughout this town. Nothing was wrong, but there was no zest, no value added. The Almond Milk Ice was a puzzle. With a rich tart, why skimp with a skim gelato. The ice was thin and there was no deep flavor to compensate for the absence of dairy fat. It was a scoop that one might expect at a self-denying vegetarian bistro.


The strength of Veritas is its cellar, and we regretted that we only shared a single bottle. The courses, sturdy enough not to distract, demonstrate that food goes with wine, and not only the reverse. But after learning of the lives of our neighbors, we had to wonder whether at Veritas the wine has more room to breathe than the customers.

43 East 20th Street (at Broadway)
Manhattan (Flatiron)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Breather New York City Entry #101 Country

The servers at Country, Chef Geoffrey Zakarian's new hotel restaurant, think of themselves as representatives of a glorious, dramatic, luxe restaurant. And they are right. Someone should inform the kitchen. All too often, such as A Voce, the creativity of the cooks leaves the servers in the dust, but at Country it is the food that requires panache. The service at this newly opened restaurant at the Carlton Hotel near Madison Park is as slick, convivial, and confident as that at any four star restaurant. The kitchen's handiwork, while never failing, lacks the flair of genius.

The space, like the service, claims attention. Country has high ceilings, commodious seating, and some astonishing glass art. True, the name conveys little, other than it is not Zakarian's Town, but whatever one might expect from a rustic appellation, Country is urbane, serving genteel food. However, no single dish persuaded my companions and me that a return is essential.

The problem was not Executive Chef Doug Psaltis's gaffes, but a deficit of delight, an absence of astonishment. Psaltis is a B+ chef. Psaltis is a pro at synthesizing high-middle cuisine, creating a restaurant free of complaint. Indeed, the high point of the evening was Country's "Carlton House Rolls," a soft, comforting, and polished bread modeled on the Parker House brand.

We began with a trio of canapés. The best was a lovely caviar-mint-cream mille feuille. How could a bite could carry so much flavor. The other two were pleasant enough: chewy Japanese mushrooms swathed in bacon and a tiny, creamy spinach gougere.

As amuse, Chef Psaltis sent a beignet of frog's leg over garlic puree. The leg was moist and flavorful, but not a preparation that startled. The dish was structured so that the evocative garlic did not appear until the frog was consumed. Most striking was the silver on which the amuse appeared - a stunning lilypad with a cute and shining toad. When the plate overshadows what is on top, chefs should reconsider.

As first course of the spring prix fixe, I selected the Cepe Tart with Parmesan, Arugula, and Tomato Confit. Great tarts merge ingredients into a singular experience. In eating these preparation, the deconstruction was obvious, if unintended. While satisfying, there was not a woodsy oneness. The topping fell apart on the folk, emphasizing that the whole was less than the sum of some noble parts.


Ouefs au Plat was the chef's tribute to Ham ‘n' Eggs, and it was a sturdy tribute with Berkshire Pork Confit, a Soft Boiled Egg, and Morels. Once again, the ingredients were superior, but they didn't combine into a transcendent experience. The plate was one thing after another. This was not a dish to return to the kitchen, but neither did it require an encore.


As a main course, I selected a somewhat pedestrian Grilled Spring Chicken with Pinenuts, Bitter Greens, and Panisses (squares of starch of garbanzo bean flour). I wish that the chef had been more generous with both the bitter greens and the pinenuts, forcing us to consider the drama of taste. I particularly missed a play of bitter with the mild meaty sweetness of a good young bird. But this complexity was lacking in a dish that was comforting, but not challenging. It was a dish that few could dislike, but few would fall for. It was an entree for those who like their chicken without theory.


As palate cleanser the kitchen sent a champagne gelee with strawberry sorbet and raspberry sections. The sorbet was tart, but neither the gelee or the berry was an inspired texture. I would have preferred a naked scoop of strawberry.

Almond Pithivier ended the evening. I love repeating "pithivier" (or did until I learned the weight of cholesterol involved). A pithivier is a puff pastry tart, often served with frangipane, and is a remarkably dense and rich construction. At Country, one selects accompaniments. I chose a somewhat ordinary vanilla ice cream and quite potent whiskey and cream sauce. Here was an dessert without reproach, but without inspiration.


Country is a restaurant where the front and back of the house do not quite match. In a more modest space, Country would satisfy. The dishes have appeal, the ingredients please, and the flavors are pure, if mild. Doug Psaltis's food would pass muster at all but the most ambitious houses. Too bad no one told the savvy servers that they could take a breather.

90 Madison Avenue (at 29th Street in the Carlton Hotel)
Manhattan (Gramercy Park)

Sorry about the quality of the pictures. I'm learning my new camera.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Diner's Friend New York City Entry #100 Jovia

Jovia is so close to where I live and work that in the months I have been in town I have never stopped in. A chef is without honor on his own block. Perhaps Jovia has seemed too much a neighborhood joint (I have not treated Daniel similarly, although its distance is no greater). However, recently a friend suggested that we break for lunch and we hied off to Josh DeChellis's Italian-accented establishment for their $24.07 lunch prix fixe. If Jovia does not provide the finest meal or even the finest lunch, it surely is the champion prix fixe. A happy occasion for tongue and wallet. Cheap at twice the price.

Jovia's upstairs dining room is light and serious, and as with many restaurants in these days of global warming particularly striking for its floral arrangements, nicely accentuating the browns and creams. One can tell uptown dining from downtown by the space between the tables: Jovia is designed for the private tete-a-tete.

Lunch opened with a perfectly lovely Tortellini en Brodo, served with Duck, Ramazzotti, and Aged Provolone. This soup was majestic because of a spectacular broth, a stock days in the making; it was dense and powerful. The tortellini with duck were perfectly honorable, but it was the consomme that was majestic. I puzzle over the presence of ramazzotti, a popular bitter Italian aperitif. The soup certainly didn't taste of bitter herbs, but perhaps it was an undertone, providing the soup a complexity and power. Or perhaps ramazzotti refers to some esoteric ingredient below the Google radar.

The main course was a well-cooked Sauteed Skate with Paprika Marinated Vegetables. The skate had a lovely breading that seemed to be corn-meal. Together the moist fish and somewhat grainy coating evoked sand and sea. The vegetables were hearty though ordinary, perhaps to be expected in a prix fixe, cooked al dente but without surprise.

The meal concluded with Crispy Fritti Bellissima: Lavender Scented Brioche with Orange Blossom Creme, Chocolate Sauce (not listed on the menu), and a Tangerine Creamsicle Crema Gelato. I found these cream puffs the least compelling of the trio of courses. Part of the problem was technical. Biting into a puff, the cream squirted in a joyous mess. Attempting to dip the pastry in shallow pools of liquid, created more glop. The lavender scent of the brioche was mild, and the chocolate sauce was not dense and dark, but the orange blossom creme was bright and tart. The tangerine creamsicle was, as one might imagine, a somewhat odd - although not entirely unpleasant - conceit.

So often restaurants persuade diners through their prix fixe that their cooking is sallow and pallid. Jovia deserves credit for selecting compelling dishes as loss leaders. Josh DeChellis has acquired a sterling reputation as a rising young chef, first at Sumille and now at Jovia. By demonstrating that meals at Jovia can be frugal and flavorful, he proves himself the diner's friend.

135 East 62nd Street (at Lexington Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Per Se Redux New York City Entry #99

Perhaps the most sincere compliment I can pay Per Se is that I didn't much care for the "Ravigote" Dressing on the White Asparagus.

Earlier I decided not to re-review restaurants (WD-50 has been the sole exception), and did not bring a camera.

Lunch at Per Se is very much like - indeed, precisely like - dinner with the same menus at the same price (a three hour lollapalooza): it is the perfect dinner for those who recent arrivals afraid of the effects of a jetlagged evening.

My compliment is not a back-handed one - Jonathan Benno's other preparations were within hailing distance of perfection. But this sauce, supposedly Velouté with shallots, chives, and tarragon, tasted like an uptown version of a mayonnaise blanketing macaroni salad. The accompaniment, a sunny-side up quail egg in a toasted brioche ring ("Toad in the Hole"), was unpolluted by its partner, and was enchanting.

Given this was lunch, my companion and I selected the "Tasting of Vegetables" (although fruits and vegetables would have been more precise), believing that a lightness of spirit suited the noon hour. As I was forcibly reminded at my last meal at Trotter's, an inspired chef sees vegetables as an opportunity, not a constraint.

I shall contain my euphoric waxing, only noting that if my finest New York meal was at Per Se, my second finest New York meal was at Per Se as well. And I won't tolerate debate over which was which. The service left no cause for complaint.

A brief recap:

Amuse: Black pepper tuile with tomato confit over eggplant caviar. Each element blended superbly and each had a sparkling, noticeable herbal ingredient. Perhaps the first bite of the tuile suggested that the cookie might soon become moist, but beyond that bite the tuile was suitably crisp.

First: Chilled Yellow Pepper Soup with Roasted Sweet Peppers, Niçoise Olives and Rosemary-Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil. A luminous golden soup with a scoop of peppers and olives as a mix-in. A transcendent soup that combined a sweetness with an herbal twang.

Second: "Dégustation" of Early Summer Melons with Tahitian Vanilla Bean-Scented Fennel Bulb, Sauternes "Gelée" and "Fines Herbes." (Note the quotation marks). The most beautiful dish in the galaxy! What produce and what subtle transformations! Watermelon, honeydew, and some melons whose names were unfamilar. What might Benno do to durian? Perhaps someday we shall learn the answer from a chef who treats aroma as a key to dining.

Third: "Toad in Hole" with Sunny-Side Up Quail Egg, Toasted "Brioche", Garden Mâche, Braised Holland White Asparaus and "Ravigote" Dressing. (Note, again, the quotation marks). As described.

Fourth: "Confit" of New Crop Potatoes with Pickled Pearl Onion Shoots, Garlic Scrapes, Ramps, and Red Onion "Gastrique." Chef, let's kill the "quotation marks." What might Lynne Truss say as we eat shoots and leaves? Yet, not a wasted punctuation mark was to be found on the plate, a display of root vegetables that harkened back to the melon artistry. Perhaps garlic "scrapes" are a bit "precious;" sure am good, though.

Fifth: "Risi e Bisi" with "Carnaroli Risotto Biologico", Sugar Snap Peas, Pea Tendrils and "Parmigiano Reggiano." I'm beaten into submission. (Note to TK: commas in the U.S. are placed inside quotation marks.) Sprinkle your menu with marks, just keep the rice and peas perfect. This sinuous, silky risotto was unworldly. Never stop.

Sixth: Forest Mushroom "Crêpe" with Herb Roasted Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom and Field Mizuna with Madeira Cream Sauce. Actually a pair of crepes but who is counting? And why so casual with Hen-of-the-Woods, what about "Grifola frondosa" or at least Maitake? Another splendid dish. Which comes first the dense pasta or the crisp fungus? I give credit to the Madeira. This is a dish that is so robust that one believes that Maitake is the other white meat.

Seventh: "Crozier Blue" with Celery Branch, Kumquat "Confiture", (sigh), Tellicherry Pepper Shortbread, Cutting Celery and Balsamic Glaze. The cheese on its shortbread was as pungent and as fungal as the Hen-of-the-Woods, but what amazed was the array of celery and kumquat. A remarkable offering.

Eighth: "Vitre Glacée" with Napa Valley White Verjus "Ice", Red Verjus "Foam", Muscat Grapes and Raisin "Purée." This lovely dessert consisted of a slanting sheet of white verjus ice, just thin enough that it broke with the touch of spoon and melted on the tongue. Below was as spicy and luscious a pool of grape liquid as might be found this side of Napa.

Ninth: I chose to replace the "Black Forest" dessert (six quotation marks for those counting) with a Banana Pepper Tuile with Raspberries, Blackberries, and Berry Sorbet. This dish echoed the elegance of the melon and root vegetables. A tuile for all jobs.

Tenth (a lagniappe): Peach Panna Cotta and Vanilla Bean Creme Brulée, the former a stunning rendition of peaches and cream; the latter shaming the many pretenders whose sugar does not snap, crackle or pop.

What can one say to a restaurant whose greatest need is a proofreader? How about: try me.

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle (Time Warner Building)
Manhattan (Columbus Circle)
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.


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.

203 East 10th Street (at Second Avenue)
Manhattan (East Village)

Room 4 Dessert
17 Cleveland Place (at Kenmare Street)
Manhattan (SoHo)