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Actually, Desserts Are Better Than Ever in NYC

Critic Ryan Sutton makes the case for eating more sweets in 2018

Ice cream mian tuan sandwich with peanuts
Win Son’s ice cream mian tuan sandwich
Gary He

Desserts in New York really shouldn’t be that exciting right now; as the costs of running a restaurant continue to go up, sweets are facing the axe. Pastry chefs are being replaced by lower-paid pastry sous chefs. Pastry programs are being forgone in favor of soft serve machines. Printed dessert menus are being subbed out for shorter oral specials. And the strange id of virality has created a reality where the only sweets that people truly line up for are cronuts or milkshakes with Jenga-like toppings.

And yet it’s hard to think of a recent time when New York desserts were as thrilling as they are now. High-profile operators like Major Food Group, the Estela folks, Stephen Starr, Enrique Olvera, and Gabriel Stulman are committing serious resources to their pastry teams — and sometimes building cafes around them. Smaller players, in turn, are finding a way to wow within a tighter framework, sometimes by finding yet another clever riff on the sundae or ice cream sandwich.

If anything, I’ve found myself skipping a restaurant’s sleepy mains and going straight for the more ambitious, whimsical sweets as of late. It’s as if pastry chefs are using their craft as an act of protest against the strains of sameness plaguing the larger New York dining world.

Here’s why it’s such a great time to eat dessert in New York right now.

Macerated strawberries with coconut cream
Macerated strawberries with coconut cream at The Grill
Gary He

New York’s booming cafe culture shines a light on sweets

“Is it okay if I just drop by for dessert or a pastry?” That’s not something one must sheepishly ask at Studio in the Freehand Hotel. Diners regularly sit at the bar — or on the plush, pelt-covered booths — for Zoe Kanan’s gently tangy sourdough croissants or chocolate morning buns. It’s also not uncommon to see patrons swing by Daniela Soto-Innes’s Atla for sweet corn tamales with coconut-milk lattes in the afternoon. One of the best ways to experience Marie-Aude Rose’s La Mercerie is not with a reservation but rather as a walk-in, relaxing on a stool with a slice of orange flower water-scented brioche.

New York has long enjoyed thriving brasseries, places for all-day steak frites or duck confit. But the city’s burgeoning cafe culture — where a creative class can stylishly type away on its MacBooks — is more conducive to intermittent sugar snacking than full-on meals. As a result, some of the city’s most accomplished pastry chefs are getting high-profile platforms to peddle their wares, without having to worry about diners stuffing themselves with pork belly for an hour before even looking at the sweets menu.

These three dessert masters are at the top of their game

It’s hard to think of a more polymathic pastry chef than Stephanie Prida. The Manresa alum oversees three compellingly discrete dessert programs at the Seagram Building: contemporary wonders at The Pool (frozen yogurt plated like a modernist sculpture), throwback indulgences at The Grill (fluffy grasshopper charlottes), and the unhinged delights at the Lobster Club (blood-orange ice shaved into the shape of a volcano).

Just the same, it’s difficult to name a pastry chef other than Empellon’s Alex Stupak who can switch between avant-gardism (Key lime pie spray-painted to resemble an avocado) and junk food (ice cream tacos) on a single menu.

And it’s nearly impossible to come up with any New York chef, period, besides Brooks Headley (Superiority Burger) who’s done more to prove that vegan rice pudding or corn tortilla gelato served in a storefront can be just as experimental and delicious as anything served at a two- or three-Michelin-starred restaurant. As long as these three masters continue to ply their trade, New York will be a dessert town like few others.

Yuzu meringue tart
Yuzu meringue tart at The Pool
Gary He
Strawberries at Empellon
Strawberries at Empellon
Nick Solares/Eater

We are living in a golden age of babka

The diverse culinary traditions of Ashkenazi Jews — from pastrami to bagels to pierogies — form a vital part of the New York culinary experience. That’s why it’s refreshing to see so many chefs riffing on the classic Eastern European babka — a doubled and twisted length of yeast dough, baked in a loaf pan. Freehand’s Kanan laces her chocolate version with espresso, adding a hint of astringent bitterness. Breads adds Nutella for a creamier, messier texture, while Corner Slice, one of the city’s best pizza joints, gets creative with the flour, using a semolina dough for a drier, heartier chew. Rest assured, there will be more of these.

Experimental neighborhood spots continue to stun

At Otway, Claire Welle folds a mix of commercial yeast and marmite into a mousse and freezes it. The resulting semifreddo is, at one level, a stunningly delicious ice cream dessert. But at a deeper level, the funky saltiness of the yeast imparts the dessert with a mouthfeel and flavor that are almost identical to foie gras. It’s the type of creation one might expect to find at a restaurant with a full-time experimental test kitchen, somewhere in Midtown or Copenhagen. Otway is in Clinton Hill, where the team is so small that Welle occasionally doubles as the dishwasher.

Experimental neighborhood restaurants, venues that provide affordable-ish and sometimes-challenging creativity in areas outside of the city center, ensure that everyday diners, not just the wealthy, can play a role in shaping the future of food. These venues don’t so much constitute a full-on trend as a collection of outliers to be grateful for, especially at the dessert level. Two other prominent members are Olmsted in Prospect Heights, with its peanut butter and Jell-O pies, as well as Contra, the Michelin-starred tasting-menu spot where a spread of cutting-edge desserts — including a mix of mandarin granita and mousse that tastes like movie theater popcorn — runs just $22.

Yeast semi-freddo at Otway
Yeast semifreddo at Otway
Amber-Lynn Taber

The savory dessert, still a minority player, is rallying

One of the most brutal dessert takedowns occurred in 2011, when Eric Asimov, filling in as a critic for the New York Times, had the following to say about the celery root- and olive-laced sweets at the now-closed Isa: “desserts, which emphasize vegetative notes and do not reward with sufficient sweetness or deliciousness. The effect can be punishing.” It was a disappointing assessment not just for subjective reasons — I thought Pam Yung’s creations were stunning — but because such remarks could have a chilling effect on pastry chefs trying to expand their pantries and break free of the burden of being classically sweet.

Momofuku Ko’s Japanese cheesecake
Momofuku Ko’s Japanese cheesecake
Photo by Louise Palmberg

More than half a decade later, chefs continue to experiment with more savory flavors in desserts, pushing the boundaries of pastry forward conservatively, without threatening the collapse of civilization by doing away with chocolate sauce. At Cosme, the kitchen uses whipped cream and meringue to tame a vegetal corn pudding. At Momofuku Ko, the a la carte bar is now experimenting with a cheesecake that steers clear of the typical cream-cheese trap; the chefs instead use a Naked Pruner, which makes the ethereal, Japanese-style loaf taste as if it could double as a gougere. And at Flora Bar, Natasha Pickowicz cuts her chocolate parfait with — wait for it — Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes.

Desserts remain accessible alternatives to expensive tastings and tough resies

At the two-Michelin-starred Jungsik in Tribeca, chef Eunji Lee serves what appears to be an actual mini banana. Then you take a bite of the skin, which turns out to be a cocoa butter shell encasing dulcey ganache and banana cremeux. The dish is normally part of a $225 set menu, but the restaurant also offers it as part of a shorter, $65 six-course dessert tasting. While that’s a lot of money in its own right, it shows that some of the city’s best and most expensive restaurants want to spotlight on their dessert programs by making them more accessible. Even at the semi-affordable Olmsted, where dinner by itself can involve a two-hour wait, guests can simply drop into the backyard garden for any of the restaurant’s stunning desserts.

Chikalicious is still packed

While dedicated sweets spots like Room 4 Dessert and Tailor are long gone, Chika and Don Tillman’s nearly 15-year-old dessert hangout still boasts lines snaking out the door. Who can blame the crowds? The prix fixe is just $18 for three courses: seasonal amuse, a choice of dessert, and petits fours. The highlight is still the cheesecake, an ethereal dome of sweetened fromage blanc that’s been doused in creme anglaise, in the style of an ile flottante.

Chefs are killing it with ice cream and sorbet

It would be a shame if chefs treated ice cream like a so-called fig on a plate, something to buy elsewhere, assemble, and sell at a markup. But at so many of my meals over the past few years, I’ve seen cooks approach ice cream as more of a challenge than a crutch, as if to say: “We’ll give you this global staple, but let us play around with it.

Plantain with vanilla gelato at Her Name Is Han
Plantain with vanilla gelato at Her Name Is Han
Gary He/Eater

When I think of ice cream in 2018, I think of Oiji, which mixes honey-butter potato chips with vanilla ice cream, a salty-savory riff on the classic Korean snack fad. I think of Win Son, which elevates the ice cream sandwich by placing it in a Chinese donut and dousing it with cilantro, taming the rampant sugars with a grassy sting. I think of Simon and the Whale, where Charmaine McFarlane employs a resinous, aromatic scoop of beeswax ice cream to counteract the bitterness of knotweed compote. I think of Flora Bar’s Pickowicz, who takes a perfect mandarin-sorbet and coconut-gelato parfait and further aromatizes the tropical flavors with tart yuzu sauce.

I think of how pastry chefs, having seen the failure of the complicated desserts in the late aughts, are eager to speak in a more familiar idiom. We should let them, because they’re doing a better job than the executive chefs at keeping things interesting.

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