It used to be that if you wanted to savor spoonbread, you had to head uptown to Harlem (Miss Mamie's Spoonbread Too and its spinoff, Miss Maude's, are sure bets) or down to Kentucky or Virginia, where they hold festivals complete with banjo-picking and spoonbread-eating contests the way we have street fairs. Well, maybe it's anti-Atkins backlash, but whatever the reason, chefs are gussying up the humble cornmeal side dish and serving it all over town: At Guastavino's, Daniel Orr seasons it with sage and goat cheese and serves it alongside his Thursday-night special, Texas beef brisket; downtown at Kloe, chef Erica Miller gives the dish a southwestern spin by using Taos blue cornmeal and pairing it with Norwegian salmon and chanterelles. You can even learn how to make it as part of a Kwanzaa cooking class given at the New School's Culinary Arts Division this December 20. The city's foremost spoonbread spooner, though, might be Scott Barton, the chef at the new West Village restaurant Voyage, whose version is more traditional (less stuffing-like, more soufflé-like) and whose spoonbread mantra is cornmeal: "That's the single most important factor, because it adds the right texture," he says. "I get mine fresh from the gristmill, from Arkansas or Tennessee, every two weeks." Served as an appetizer with a crayfish-and-rock-shrimp ragout, or just as a side with a touch of grana padano, his light and fluffy version tastes like a popover that's undergone a flavor transfusion and bought a pickup truck.
Icing on the Cake
François Payard has created just the thing for pint-size pastry chefs this holiday season: With his cake-decorating kit for kids ($25), Easy-Bake Oven specialists can dress up dessert with tiny colored and frosted meringues shaped like Christmas trees andsomewhat inexplicably, unless you're French"Santa Claus booties" and toadstools, plus chocolate-ganache-and-vanilla-filled chocolate balls. (Sorry, kids: "No liqueur," says the chef.) Leave a few of the meringues, which are also sold for $3.50 apiece at Payard Patisserie & Bistro, out by the hearth on Christmas Eve and you're sure to score bonus points with Santa.
Payard Patisserie & Bistro
1032 Lexington Avenue, near 73rd Street
best of the week
D'Artagnan's Armagnac Tasting
A French master pours the ancient brandy which is, strangely, also a plot
point in this season's Sopranos every Friday in December.
152 East 46th Street
Success Is Sweet
When Jacques Torres opened his chocolate factory in Dumbo, he didn't expect many retail customersand last month, he had to double the size of his adjacent shop to accommodate the crowds. The new, improved Jacques Torres Chocolate has twice as much display space for his expanding product line, and a marble-topped hot-cocoa bar where he'll soon add a few new flavors to his beloved repertory (hazelnut and coffee are strong contenders). Still, it's doubtful the extra square footage will sufficeespecially on Saturdays, when hordes descend for a taste of whatever Torres is inspired to bake that day. A clique of crafty customers has even figured out exactly what time the pithiviers emerge from the oven and how long they take to cool, and arrives accordingly, proving just how cutthroat the confectionery world can be.
Jacques Torres Chocolate
66 Water Street, Brooklyn