Sunday, January 3, 2010

ChikaLicious Dessert Bar

Behind these unassuming glass doors at 203 E. 10th Street, near 2nd Avenue, is ChikaLicious dessert bar. Opened in 2003 by a husband and wife team, it was New York's first dessert bar. ChikaLicious is still one of the few places that only sells desserts, and their three-course prix-fix menu is the thing to experience here.

If you like the look of John Lennon's Imagine video, you'll love the Chikalicious decor - white, modern, and simple. The best seat is at the dessert bar centered around an open kitchen where you can see owner/pasty chef Chika and her assistant in action. For $14 (used to be $12), you can get an amuse, your choice of dessert off a menu that changes daily, and petit fours. The amuse and petit fours are chosen for you by the chef. Each additional dessert costs $7. Since there's only 20 seats in the 400-square-foot Chikalicious, they take no reservations and parties greater than four will not be seated. We've read the wait can be impossibly long, especially on weekends. We went on a weekday at around 3 PM and had no problem getting seated at the bar, although we took up the last two seats.

The dainty desserts are airy and delicately sweet. Chikalicious is not the kind of place you get traditionally heavy, ultra creamy, extra sweet desserts. Chikalicious is the antithesis to a place like Serendipity. The dessert we chose was one of their signature dishes - the Fromage Blanc Island "Cheesecake." We knew we were in for something special as we watched Chika's assistant skillfully prepare this for us using a cheesecloth. The Fromage Blanc, served on ice, was a more elegant interpretation of the classic cheesecake. It was much more in line with the Japanese style of cheesecakes, but with a twist. It was unbelievably light and delicious.

For an additional $7, you can get a wine paired with your three-course sweet meal. The menu provides suggestions for the best pairing for your dessert. We could see the logic in why this wine was paired with our dessert; however, it was much too sweet for our taste. We would have been better off ordering their espresso.

We always love learning about the history and the story behind the place. We especially love when businesses are owned and operated by families. Pastry chef and co-owner Chika Tillman (pictured below) was born in Japan, trained at the French Culinary Institute, and worked at places like the Gramery Tavern before opening ChikaLicious with her husband Don Tillman. Don, a saxophone player from Philadelphia, was a Japanese-language major that fell in love with a nutrition student named Chika in a Tokyo jazz club decades ago.

As we sat at the bar, we saw what a great yin and yang team Chika and Don formed. Chika was focused, friendly in a more restrained way. We appreciated that she created the desserts with such precision, with such refinement; as though she was gracefully playing a piano. More importantly, we appreciated her almost zen-like calm. It was truly relaxing to watch her moves.
Don served as host, busser, manager. Don was very friendly, welcoming, polite, and could probably make any stressed out New Yorker feel more relaxed with his genuinely inviting smile. We didn't realize he was the owner until much later. Considering how many arrogant business owners are out there, we really appreciated his almost humble air and un-forced warm demeanor.

Our petit fours were adorable, they tasted delicious, and although we were prepared for small portions here, these left us wanting/needing more. But we definiely appreciated this French-style presentation.

This brilliant, refreshing melon gelee amuse was by far our favorite. We'd eat this every week if we had our way. The sweet melon flavors definitely took me back to Japan. It was sweet in a mellow way and the soft texture felt so good in our mouths. What we liked most about this was that the flavors and texture of this dessert aren't something you can easily find in many dessert places in the U.S.

As we sat at the bar, we noticed that Don Tillman kept walking to and from a place directly across the street. We learned that he was also managing their recently opened Dessert Club, Chikalicious. Dessert Club, ChikaLicious also only sells desserts, but it's more take-out style, although there are seats. If you want something quicker, less expensive, more casual, and with a larger dessert menu, Dessert Club is an excellent option.

Dessert Club, ChikaLicous was recently voted as having the best cupcake in New York City by Grub Street. They have a fantastic dessert menu. And like its predecessor, Dessert Club also does desserts differently. For example, their cupcakes doesn't consist of thick, highly sweet icing (like Magnolia's, which we love); like Chika's other desserts, these cupcakes are light and airy. It's definitely the most unique cupcake we've tasted. Their cupcake options include: Smore; Caramel; Banana; Triple Chocolate; Mocha; Red Velvet; Coconut; and Black and White.

The vanilla cupcake from Magnolia's Bakery is still our favorite cupcake, but this Smore cupcake is a close second. How can you not love a cupcake with marshmallow topping and chocolate filling that doesn't leave you feeling full and overly high on sugar? And if you want to walk around the East Village while nibbling on a sweet treat, you won't have to worry about getting messy frosting all over your face.

Dessert Club, ChikaLicious also sells: Shaved Ice; Espresso Ice Shots; House Made Brioche Bread Pudding (baked in Vanilla-Brandy custard); Adult Chocolate Pudding (dark, Valrhona ganache-chocolate served atop crunchy chocolate streusel); Coconut Marshmallows (seasonal); Banana Creme Custard; Ginger Spiced Carrot Cake; Cinnamon Baked Apple Crisp; and Vanilla Apple Pudding Cake. The best part about this "casual" dessert spot is that you can have beer, wine, or champagne with your cupcake and shaved ice. You can't get that at Magnolia. How's that for some grown up fun?

We loved the way the desserts at both ChikaLicious Dessert Bar and Dessert Club, ChikaLicious tasted. We loved how clean everything was (germaphobes appreciate cleanliness). We loved that you can get the fine dining experience at one place and then get desserts to take home from the other place. We love that it's run by a husband and wife team from different parts of this world. We love that they took that risk. But most importantly, we loved how we were made to feel invited as guests. That's mainly thanks to Don Tillman. Who knows, we could have just caught him on a very good day. We just hope all customers that enter ChikaLicious catches him and the rest of his staff on a very good day. One criticism - being unable to navigate their website - when you click on some of their links, it just freezes up your computer.