To eat out in New York is to drown in choices. Which neighborhood? Which cuisine? Updated or traditional? Speedy or stately? Loud or just moderately loud? Menus are getting busier, surrounding the usual appetizers and main courses with snacks and raw bar items and “large-format” platters.
Sometimes you will have a choice of desserts, but not always, and, it seems to me, the choices are fewer than you had a few years ago. More and more new restaurants offer just one or two desserts. And when you go out as often as I do, you start to notice that the one dessert you can count on seeing almost everywhere is an ice cream sundae. In many places, it’s the only dessert.
Some of these sundaes are obvious and unabashed nostalgia trips. These are the ones whose ice cream is piled up in a glass pedestal cup and then capped with whipped cream and the obligatory cherry on top. In this category we have the sundaes at 4 Charles Prime Rib in Greenwich Village and the Office NYC just off Columbus Circle, both elaborate do-it-yourself jobs to which you can add candy in more varieties than the most ambitious trick-or-treater has ever hauled home.
Other restaurant sundaes are more restrained. Evoking childhood without the dirty clothes and runny noses, they dispense with certain stereotypical elements. One of the most stylish examples is the frozen yogurt at the Pool, a formal restaurant in the former Four Seasons space. The pastry chef, Stephanie Prida, stacks three egg-shaped scoops not in a sundae cup but one on top of another, like an abstract sculpture. The sauces and toppings — whey caramel, rhubarb poached with hibiscus, “grainola” — come in little white dishes on the side. Is there whipped cream? A cherry on top? Do the servers’ Tom Ford suits have elastic waistbands and clip-on polyester neckties?
If you can recognize the sundae template in Ms. Prida’s frozen yogurt (ice cream plus sauce plus bits of what a pastry chef would call “texture”), then you will start to see it in desserts served all over town. Generally it is found in restaurants that have a healthy sense of their own self-worth but don’t have too many bells and whistles to show for it: the wine bars, the gastro pubs, the all-day cafes, the 28-seat, no-reservations spot opened by a young chef who has cooked in Paris or Copenhagen.
They will almost certainly not tell you that their only dessert is a sundae. They will say it is mascarpone ice cream with salted caramel sauce and chocolate crumble; or sweet cream ice cream with maple syrup and the remains of some brown-butter wafers; or beer ice cream with pretzels and, I don’t know, an espresso reduction.
Have you had one of these? You generally find it in a shallow bowl or even on a plate, held in place by a patch of stale cake crumbs. I’ve had about a hundred of them over the past few years, and I doubt there’s a single one I could pick out of a police lineup.
Dessert was put on this planet in order to surprise us. When did it become so numbingly predictable? It is as if every chef in town had decided that the only appetizer left standing would be the iceberg wedge.
You may be asking yourself: What kind of sociopath complains about ice cream sundaes? I am wondering about this, too. I just know that when I see one, I am almost never as excited as the servers seem to think I ought to be.
They get very emotive, servers, when they deliver the not-very-remarkable news that you can order a sundae. For dessert! In a restaurant! And when they announce that you, the customer, get to assemble it — pour a sticky sauce over the ice cream and glam it up with candy, peanuts, pretzels, breakfast cereal, week-old bagels — they get that look that Oprah Winfrey has when she starts giving away cars.
And I feel nothing, apart from a burning impatience for everybody to act like adults again. For nostalgia trips to work, you need to have the sensation of opening a memory you haven’t examined in a long time. Do it too often and the returns diminish rapidly. Or, as Dan Hicks sang, “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?”
But enough about the barren, echoing tundra that passes for my soul. Let’s talk about the future of New York restaurants.
According to Shuna Lydon, who has worked in or led some large and famous pastry kitchens as well as some small and obscure ones, you can learn everything you need to know about the sundae invasion by reading the help-wanted ads on Craigslist.
“The restaurants that used to be looking for pastry chefs are looking for pastry sous-chefs,” she said. “It’s all the same duties, all the same hours, all the same physical labor, but they can now pay you $30,000 or $40,000 less a year because you’re not a chef, you’re not in charge.”
As you may have heard, times are tough for local restaurants. Health insurance costs and the minimum wage have gone up, and the rent was already too damn high. Diners get skittish if prices are raised often or suddenly. Operators looking to cut expenses have targeted pastry chefs, and replaced them with pastry sous-chefs who may be just out of culinary school, who may have little or no background in baking and almost certainly have no experience running a department that can turn out half a dozen thoughtful, inspired desserts every night.
“If you are a restaurant with no real pastry department, or can only really afford to do one dessert because of lack of labor or space, 99 percent of the time it’s going to be ice cream,” said Jen Yee, executive pastry chef of Resurgens Hospitality Group in Atlanta. “It holds well, it doesn’t really get old, and you don’t really have to put a lot of effort into it.” And, she added, it’s the easiest dessert to sell. It’s a natural for sharing, too, which many tables like to do.
Ice cream can carry almost any flavor you want to give it — fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, even alcohol and vinegars. It is like a blank canvas on which you can paint anything, if you know what you’re doing.
But for the most part, esoteric botanical expressions are not what restaurants want in an ice cream meant for sundaes, according to Jon Snyder, the founder of Il Laboratorio del Gelato. For years now his Lower East Side company has been the ice cream supplier of choice for New York chefs.
“Our flavor list is up to 275 now,” Mr. Snyder said. In sales to restaurants, though, “close to 40 percent is vanilla. Which is pretty crazy. But the fact is that vanilla pairs with anything, practically, and it works with sundaes.”
With the recent spike in vanilla-bean prices, he said, a few restaurants have defected to even more neutral flavors: mascarpone, crème fraîche, yogurt, fior di latte. But vanilla is still supreme.
Not every restaurant sundae fades into the background. Some are so well thought-out they seem inevitable. Uncle Boons, in NoLIta, builds a sundae out of layers of coconut and other Thai flavors, starting with coconut gelato (from Il Laboratorio), a thin coconut wafer and toasted curls of fresh coconut, and rounds things out with candied peanuts and whipped cream sweetened with palm sugar. I can’t imagine a better dessert for that restaurant.
And there’s something earnestly appealing about the chef John Fraser’s commitment to the sundae as a medium. His first job in the food business, as a teenager, was in a sundae shop. When he opened his high-reaching restaurant Dovetail 10 years ago and wanted to offer an affordable fixed-price menu on Sundays, he hit on the idea of Sundae Suppers.
He has always served a sundae at Narcissa, in the East Village, and he has three at his latest place, the Loyal, on Bleecker Street. I respect him for that, and also respect him for installing a pastry chef at the Loyal (Mary Jennings) and giving her the license to make a few desserts that aren’t sundaes, too.
It’s the other kind of sundae that really has me worried about the future, the kind with a sauce that anybody who has held a whisk could make, and a depressing display of cake scat and cookie droppings. Because these aren’t really desserts. They’re ice cream in a wig.
A friend who writes for television says her writers’ room has an expression for any trite, overly familiar idea — basically, anything that feels too much like TV. She calls ideas like that “tied with a chive,” after those inane bundles of green beans that caterers used to serve. Something that is tied with a chive is manipulated in order to express elegance and care, but in fact only communicates their absence. That’s how I feel about most of the sundaes in New York now.
Late one recent night, I dropped into Prune for a few bites and had two desserts that were the opposite of tied with a chive. Neither one — chunks of dark chocolate softening over just-grilled bread; a whole navel orange poached in sugar syrup and then chilled — was anybody’s idea of elegant, but they were somebody’s idea of good.
Prune does not have a pastry chef. It doesn’t have a pastry sous-chef. It for sure doesn’t have a pastry kitchen. But it has a sense of how important it is for the last course to reflect the same sensibility that made the first two worth eating.
By the way, neither dessert contained any ice cream.
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