Tuesday, May 03, 2005

NY - ChikaLicious

San Francisco has Citizen Cake, Boston has Finale, and New York has ChikaLicious. As of this past weekend, I've now tried all three, and it is without a doubt that the highest accolades go to ChikaLicious.

They are all dessert-centric restaurants, but the ambience, quality, and presentation of each differ vastly. Citizen Cake has gotten mixed reviews, and mine is going to be one of many that hoped for much but received less. Finale wins in the 'spectacular arrangement' category; you don't want to demolish the whimsical, vertically-stretching works of art that are presented to you. And ChikaLicious is... dessert sophistication at its best.

ChikaLicious is minimalist modern; a small floor-to-ceiling glass window sliver of pristine white against the frenzy and noise of the lower East side. This is a place for couples to luxuriate in, with low conversations weaving warmth over adorable desserts on small tabletops. Anyone would garner just as much delight, if not more, however, from getting a front-seat to the dessert action. Perch yourself upon a barstool-like seat and lean over the shallow countertop to watch Chika (a gracious, serene, but silently efficient presence) work her magic in creating tidbits of perfection. Unlike Citizen Cake, where the bakery is completely hidden from sight, and Finale, where the open kitchen is set apart from the tables, Chika demystifies the delicate art of plating. In fact, she skillfully creates the illusion of simplicity. I know that if I were to try the same techniques in my kitchen, I would fail at most of them. One example was the simple forming of perfect quenelles: she would form almond-shaped ovaloids on a metal spoon, and rub the underside of the spoon a few times with the palm of her hand so that the quenelle would release cleanly.

The concept of a prix-fixe menu solely for desserts made me smile. When purchasing a $12 order ($19 including wine pairings), you are treated to a refreshing amuse-bouche, an 'entree', and an assortment of petit fours.

Chika and Don, a chef/owner wife and husband team, are friends of my eating companion, which added an additional level of delight and awe to the experience. Being a frequent visitor of theirs, he had tried many (or perhaps all?) of the items on the menu. To give me a full idea of the menu, we ordered three items. It was so difficult to commit, when I wanted to try everything!

We were treated to a surprise right off the bat! While everyone else was licking at a pastel-pink fruity sorbet, we were presented with this jiggly presentation that featured two of my favorite flavors(!) I think at least one other couple noticed our unique beginning, as we got a few curious looks. I tried the agar-agar gellee first; it was a light and pure essence of espresso in silken form. It tip-toed the boundary between elemental liquid and solid states, being more substantial than liquid, but just barely coalescing into the most smoothly-caressing solid possible. The dice-sized cubes of white chocolate were like a dense mousse, ethereal and richly creamy at the same time.

The above following photos are of the Baked Apple and Kataifi Sandwich with Granny Smith Sorbet and Creme Fraiche. The apples were baked such that they held their shape well, but yielded gracefully into lightly-spiced softness against my tongue. They oozed a honeyed syrup onto the base kataifi (thread-like strands of phyllo dough), which complimented with light, toasty crispness.

A flourish of creme fraiche was zen artistry even though the apple sorbet needed no delineation. I liken the smell of roses to that of a crisp jewel of a sweetly-ripe apple. With that analogy, this sorbet was as impressive and full-flavored as a two-dozen rose bouquet! It was impeccably smooth (some sorbets can be grainy, or syrupy, depending on how the flavor is extracted from the fruit), and amazingly intense. My companion remarked that eating this was just like (but, better than) eating a real apple. It is a regular on the menu, and definitely to be tried!

The second arrival was the Warm Chocolate Tart with Pink Peppercorn Ice Cream and Red Wine Sauce. I was charmed with the floral red and white plate that fit the mood of the Christmas season (this review is a bit belated), and upon closer inspection, Chika's attention and care with details was evident. The ice cream was dusted with a bit of pink peppercorn, bringing the plate's pattern into the dessert itself! It is the little surprises like this that elevate presentation and enjoyment of such, to memorable levels. The ice cream was subtle and unobtrusive, a natural companion for the properly-molten chocolate with the thin, flaky crust. The ruby jewel-like wine sauce added a chime of elegance, but really, it was more visual eye-candy for me than anything else.

Perhaps the most humble of the desserts we sampled was the Pumpkin-Caramel Trifle with Spiced Cake and Toasted Pecan. I think I had visions of free-standing layers, so peering into a cup that hid too much of its contents from view was a bit anti-climatic. However, it also went well with the holiday season, and offered the same masterful texture and flavor balance that the other two desserts did. I think I was a little full by this point, so the spiced cake was merely soothing, with its coating of ice cream and subtle nutty crunch. It was more comfort than pizazz.

We rounded out our late-night rendez-vous with an eclectic variety of petit fours. The fruit cake was surprisingly light and buttery, with stained-glass moist jewels of candied fruit. Decidedly more palatable than the sterotypical holiday fruitcake brick; the poor thing has such an undeserved reputation. Or maybe I'm being generous because I'm sampling one of the best-possible incarnations of it. The matcha dark chocolate truffles were examples of a gourmet flavor experiment that sounds absolutely wonderful, but doesn't triumph in application. The fragile whisper of green tea never had a chance against the brazen, although lovely, quality dark chocolate. They were overwhelmingly chocolate, through and through. The last bit of our adventure were homemade marshmallows coated with crumbly, toasted coconut shreds. So soft, so perfect.

As you can tell, I enjoyed this place so much, I can still write about it with fond detail half a year after my experience there. My compnion also viewed it as an entire experience, "something which a place like Serendipity, Cafe Lalo or Veniero's doesn't offer. When one combines the tastes that Chika creates with the experience that you've added, it makes Chikalicious special."

Be sure to put this place on your dining itinerary, should you choose to visit the Big Apple!

203 East 10th Street
New York, NY 10003