I’ve recently celebrated a decade of living and dining in New York City, and with age comes an extra sense of jadedness with the city’s dessert scene. For every extraordinary pastry I have, there’s a bevy of ordinary orders of cheesecake; oversize ice cream cones scooped solely for the purpose of posting on social media; and so-average-they’re-disappointing croissants, rugelach, and cookies. There are very few sweet forkfuls that surprise me nowadays, but, thankfully, several of them can be found at the same place: Chanson Dessert Bar.
The subterranean space hidden in plain sight underneath the European-influenced Chanson Patisserie has a seedy history; in former lives, the location acted as a speakeasy and gambling school. Nowadays, the dining room is a lot sleeker, with leather-bound barstools, Moroccan floor tiles, a worn-in brick backsplash, and an electro-cool soundtrack you’ll be Shazam-ing all night long. (Subtle nods to its 52-card-pickup past can be found mounted on the earthy walls.) While the shop upstairs caters to the morning coffee and afternoon tea crowds, the downstairs bar is fashioned as an intimate evening spot for tailored dessert “experiences,” like chef and owner Rory Macdonald’s new seven-course Art of Dessert tasting journey.
On the night of my journey, Macdonald greeted me and 13 other lucky diners with a firm handshake before heading to the kitchen to work the line the entire evening, adding his signature touch to each course. We watched in awe as he picked out the best-looking honeycombs with a tweezer, sprinkled the perfect amount of zested lemon over a scoop of olive oil gelato, and piped pearl white meringue atop a miso cashew cookie on a spinning platter. Even something as simple as a cheese course was turned into a presentation; two generous cow’s milk slabs infused with black truffle came atop a rustic wooden box with thick wheat crackers and whole wheat buns hiding inside.
Before we got to the mains (the mains being desserts, of course), the night started with elaborate versions of contemporary bar snacks. Coming out together was a bowl of highly addictive caramel corn laced with truffles and a gigantic crackling made out of pancetta. I would have been content spoiling my appetite on these two gems, but then Macdonald brought out the truffle-stuffed arancini balls with Parmesan and lemon zest, which were decadent and delicious.
My favorite courses, though, were the elegant desserts that transcended simple concepts with a few subtle changes. The classic poached Bosc pear is a fall favorite, but here, it’s soaked with a sweet apple brandy, set aflame with a torch lighter, and accompanied by tonka bean ice cream, a flavor not often found in New York–based desserts. (The vanilla bean–adjacent legume from South America has technically been banned by the FDA since 1954.)
A plump dessert dumpling floating inside a delicate teacup filled with yuzu tea is unique enough, but your tongue hits strong notes of chocolate and black sesame stuffed inside. I inhaled the entire thing in one bite and don’t regret it. And I never thought I’d be impressed with a gin and tonic…but then I had Macdonald’s amuse-bouche version, a gelatinous sphere bursting with booze and sweet cucumber foam plopped on a silver spoon.
The all-grown-up childhood favorite, the PB&J, was a crowd favorite. Served inside a glass peanut butter jar (Skippy for me, Peter Pan for my date) is a rich peanut butter mousse topped with banana foam and a thin sliver of chocolate. The cherry on top? The drink pairing: a fortified P.X. (Pedro Ximénez) sherry that ties every bite together with deep grape notes resembling a liquefied Smucker’s jam. All of the libations, in fact, stepped brilliantly into the limelight with the guidance of head mixologist Manuel Zuluaga. The Diluvio cocktail, made in a tall coffee percolator with a gas burner underneath, features a trio of spirits (sake, gin, and raspberry liqueur) brewed with aromatic flavors including green tea leaves, jasmine buds, raspberries, and cinnamon to create a hot cocktail unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.
Coming in at an affordable $68 per person, with an additional and well-worth-it $52 for the drink pairings, the Art of Dessert prix fixe makes for an indulgent date night without splurging. It was a sweet experience, indeed.