Earlier this year when Gothamist visited executive chef Doug Psaltis at Geoffrey Zakarian’s Country, we learned that French Laundry vet Hsing Chen had just been named Executive Pastry Chef for the fine-dining restaurant upstairs, as well as for the downstairs, more casual Cafe. “My focus is more on light, fruit based desserts, with different textures and temperatures,” Chen told Gothamist. She also mentioned her desire to locate, soup up, and outfit a dessert cart from Country’s vast arsenal of fine dining service ware. Laden with sweets and confections, the cart would make after dinner stops at every table upstairs at Country; customers could pick and choose anything from lemon macaroons to miniature pots de crème, in addition to the regular dessert course.
It may not seem to mean much, but the restaurant cart is a dying breed, even in fine dining restaurants where they once roamed freely through the perfumed air, the bespoke suits. (Gothamist was imagining a blocky, USA Today-style bar graph showing the decline of the restaurant cart inserted here). Aside from the frenetic gridlock of Chinatown’s dim sum houses, almost no restaurants wheel fancy food around anymore. One exception is the deep-dish glass and steel behemoth that rolls up tableside whenever someone orders the Piemontese bollito misto at Del Posto. Otherwise, New York’s Adam Platt relegated both Gordon Ramsay’s cheese cart and his “bonbon trolley” to Pleistocene-era restaurant excess symbols in his January review of the chef's restaurant. “Just like they used to have at Alain Ducasse,” is how Platt dismissed Ramsay’s lollipop dispenser-on-wheels.
What redeems Hsing Chen’s upstairs-only dessert cart at Country is her self-professed light touch, and dedication to her craft. In a time when pipette wielding pastry chefs have gone all lighter-than-air, the way of the foam, Chen is something of anomaly. She eschews chemicals for (gasp) more traditional techniques, where her innovation stems from. Consider the current palate cleanser placed in front of each Country diner at the end of the meal: it’s just popcorn. Chen makes a popcorn-flavored caramel syrup that coats the bottom of a small highball glass, and doles a few scoops of sherbet made with popcorn on top of that. The plate is garnished with some fluffy pieces of caramel flavored popcorn; club soda is poured into the glass tableside and everything melts together with the stir of a spoon, instantly producing what is possibly the world’s best (and only) popcorn ice cream float.
For the downstairs, more casual Cafe at country, Hsing Chen’s dessert menu currently features a raw-and-cooked meditation on strawberries, done up in sundae format: One glass contains strawberry swirl ice cream, strawberry sorbet, paper-thin strawberry chips, meringue, vanilla whipped cream, and a jumbo, homemade Oreo cookie stuffed with white chocolate ganache. The downstairs Café at Country also lists the dauntingly named Soufflé Surprise: six mysterious puffy things delivered to the table in a cast iron Staub escargot dish. Under each of the soufflés is a different flavor, like hazelnut or apricot; small ice cream quenelles and milk tuilles are served on the side. “We always want the customers to end on a good note,” says Chen. While this extends to freebies such as fresh baked madelines delivered with the coffee course, the pastry chef is still proudest of the dessert cart. “I like to be in the dining room when it rolls around to the tables,” she tells Gothamist. “It’s a kind of pure indulgence. It makes everyone into a kid again.”
The dessert cart at Country (top picture above): Dark chocolate bark with salted pretzel, broken sheets of white chocolate with pistachios and dried cherries, assorted chocolate confections, fresh fruit jelly candies, butter cookies, tiny meringues, a huge bowl of candied orange zest, macadamia nut “snowballs,” coconut and passion fruit parfaits in small glasses with micro basil, Earl Grey pot de crèmes, assorted French macaroons (flavors like rose, pistachio, and lemon), bite-sized opera cakes decorated with white chocolate g clefs, and a container filled with individually wrapped hand-made caramels. It’s a bit like Candyland on wheels. No word yet on whether Country will be hiring Lord Licorice or Queen Frostine to steer the cart around the dining room anytime soon.
Café at Country
90 Madison Avenue
(at 29th Street)