8am might not be the easiest start to a workday, but an upside of starting so early at the restaurant is that I finish my tasks by around 4pm, and from about 4:30pm on I have the rest of the day free. What’s a guy to do with an hour or two in the east village?
My post-Dirt Candy afternoons have become a sort of ritual – a couple hours to myself to check out places I’ve been meaning to try, sit down, and relax with a little celebration of a good day’s work and the anticipation of the end of the week. My first week I treated myself to a bagel, cream cheese, lox, and wasabi-infused roe at Russ & Daughters in the lower east side, before heading to the high line and my friend’s opening for her art exhibition. The next week, I hung around the east village, finally trying the espresso at abraço and taking a sweet-toothed rest stop at cha-an tea house for some Japanese home comfort.
It had been a long day with a late night before, and I was severely looking forward to a cupple of what I had been hearing for a while was some of the best espresso to be had anywhere in the city.
It’s very small. But that’s part of it’s charm. In fact, the reason I hadn’t been up to this point was that every time I’d walked by it, it was completely packed with people. So I guess this afternoon was my lucky day.
The owner pulls the coffee himself, and is one of the most jovial and approachable baristas I’ve met. The espresso flew to the saucer with deft hands and grace. He is a practiced man.
I took my pot o’ gold out to the thin table, eagerly cupping it in my palms.
It was the most divine froth layer I’ve encountered – so even and smooth, like butter creamed with cocoa and clouds.
It was one of my most favourite espressos I’ve had here. There was late grape then chamomile on the nose, a medium body with balsamic and must on the finish. It was just so balanced in every way: texture, aroma, body, flavour, mouthfeel, residue. Supremely well-crafted. And I loved the echoes of the muscat-y flavour profile, tempered by the calm herbaceousness of the chamomile. It was like standing under a bower of grape vines at all different stages of growth and ripeness.
After that much-needed pick-me-up, I made my way to go fill myself up on sugar, more caffeine, hushed japonische aesthetic, and general quietude at cha-an tea house. It is one of many establishments owned by T.I.C. Restaurant Group, a collective of very true-to-their-roots Japanese restaurants, many of which are all in the same area of the east village, near Astor Place. This is the first of them I’ve been to; I need to try more.
The space is on the second floor of a non-descript building on East 9th. Paneled in dark wood with sparse decoration, it was lively yet calm, almost like a younger version of Daibo in Tokyo. After perusing the menu, it became absolutely clear that my only option was to venture for the Chef’s Assortment tasting menu: one chooses one’s type of tea, and the chef chooses one ice cream, one main dessert, and some petit fours to pair with the tea. But, as I had my eye fixed clearly on their black sesame crème brûlée, I asked if we might reverse the habit and pair me with a tea instead. The waitress was entirely accommodating, and she selected a robust green tea for me called Makinohara Sencha. It was just the perfect green for the afternoon – full-bodied, bursting with green grass notes, and a healthy dose of tannins. I was ready for anything.
The first course came: a decadent sake ice cream with carmelised sesame tuile. It was delicious, to say the least, though to me it tasted more of vanilla than sake – it was somewhat too sweet for what I was expecting, and had none of the floral bitterness or astringency I was hoping for from the sake flavour. Maybe I was just spoiled from the incredible sake ice I had at Narisawa (more on that later). But hey, it was yummy and just the perfect amount to refresh me and prepare my palate for what was to come.
Which was this baby. It was one of the better brûlées I’ve had – they nailed the crispy, crackable top and the dense, unctuous interior. And surprise, the base was actually cool! The contrast in temperature was just delightful on a hot summer’s day. It was creamy and supple, with the rich umami of the black sesame and not too much sweetness. Did I mention the good strong crack? In short, it was perfect.
There was something else on the plate, though.
Enter passionfruit-dark chocolate dacquoise with mango, whipped cream, and lemon thyme. Oh hello, extra dessert! I wasn’t expecting you to show up to the party!
This one was both humble and exquisite. There was so much going on but it was all so well-balanced. The meringue was almost too moist and flavourful to be a meringue, with an intense nuttiness and deep notes of almond and hazelnut. The buttercream almost too textural and substantial to be buttercream, with the most pronounced flavours of passionfruit and dark chocolate blended into one. Along with the garnishes, it made for a seriously fun treat, with the playfulness of a dessert for a child and the precision of one for an adult. My only complaint is that I had no one to share it with!
By the time the petit fours came I was nearing my limit for many different saturations: sugar, caffeine, appreciation of culinary prowess, beauty, etc. But I could not but soldier on.
Dear matcha sable cookie: stop being perfect, you’re hurting everyone else’s self image.
By the time I turned my attention to the raspberry chocolate macaron on the plate, I could not believe there was still one more dessert to be had. Life is hard.
Luckily for me, it was the pillowiest macaron of recent memory (though that Pierre Hermé one in Tokyo was pretty remarkable, but we’ll get to that), with a clear raspberry flavour and tartness that would have been hard to beat. Perhaps it was a tad too sweet for me, but honestly by that point there was so much sugar in my brain I doubt I could have tasted much of anything else.
Later in the evening, I went to see my friend’s play at Theatre for the New City. I was stuffed, but at least all that delicious sencha kept me particularly alert.
I’m looking forward to my weekly treat on Thursday afternoons; hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll learn to not be quite so excessive. But as far as lessons go, this one was pretty darn delicious.