In the popular, ever-expanding category of preciously overwrought dessert-bar confections, this year’s gold medal goes to the kaffir-lime meringue available at Pichet Ong’s tiny twenty-seat establishment P*Ong, on West 10th Street. This festive creation contains all sorts of unlikely, esoteric ingredients, like basil seeds and shaved rhubarb ice, but the key element is the lightly crunchy meringue itself, which is finished with a decorative twirl, like some culinary version of Imelda Marcos’s summer hat. My haughty Chinese-food-scholar friends were unanimous in their condemnation of the tepid savory items at Ian Schrager’s disappointing Asian dining palace, Wakiya, in the Gramercy Park Hotel. But these grizzled veterans had only complimentary things to say about the ingenious fusion desserts, in particular the lemony génoise cake adorned with milky chunks of almond tofu, and the Pan-Asian affogato, which consists of high-octane espresso dripped, in the Vietnamese style, into a cup of crushed cocoa and condensed-milk ice cream.
My dessert-addled daughters consider the plain frozen yogurt (with raspberries and Fruity Pebbles) at the new Red Mango store on Bleecker Street to be slightly superior to the exact same dish available across the street at Pinkberry, even though their father points out that Pinkberry is a little cheaper, and that the red-and-white Red Mango store looks unsettlingly like a seedy airport outlet for Avis. Paradis to Go is where the girls like to go for their after-school fix of the giant, chip-rich chocolate-chip cookies, and for a more classic pastry treat their choice is Caffe Falai, on Lafayette Street, where we sit under the glittering little chandeliers over the bar and eat little spoonfuls of Iacopo Falai’s sweet tiramisu and the gleaming, deeply satisfying flourless chocolate cake, which is almost chewy in its richness and touched on top with a little dot of gold leaf.
If you’re looking for similar decadent pleasures in midtown, book a table at Alto, put on your best coat and tie, and when the waiter arrives, begin madly scribbling notes on a random piece of paper. With luck, you’ll be mistaken for a disreputable, overweight restaurant critic, and the chef will send out his famous off-the-menu ice-cream confection, composed of toasted almonds and three scoops of vanilla, piled with shavings of black truffle, and drizzled with warm, salty butterscotch sauce. But there’s no more fitting way to end a restaurant binge in this green, no-frills gourmet era than with a furtive late-night visit to The Dessert Truck, on University Place and 8th Street. The dangerously addictive chocolate bread pudding ($5) is prepared by a former pastry chef at Le Cirque, and comes drowned in a luxurious crème anglaise. But my favorite nightcap is the simple $3 cup of Valrhona hot chocolate. Have a few sips of this rich potion out on the sidewalk with the rest of the itinerant foodies, then take it home, put it in the refrigerator, and recycle it for your eco-conscious children the next day as gourmet chocolate pudding.