The Restaurant Review, Summer 2023


The Review’s Review

Flora season at Gem, photograph courtesy of the restaurant.

The dessert landscape in New York is generally defined by extremes—by how far flavors can be taken from their origins. ChikaLicious, the East Village dessert bar that opened in 2003 and is run by the chef Chika Tillman, is good for the opposite reason: its success comes from its dishes’ almost extreme subtlety of taste. I ordered a three-course menu centered around the bar’s star dish, the Fromage Blanc Island Cheesecake, a kind of cheesecake mousse that’s served (ascetically) in the form of a mound, on a bed of ice, atop a pile of white dishes. It was preceded by an ice cream appetizer with kiwi syrup, and followed by a plate of small cubes that felt like what eating (delicious) chocolate-flavored air might be like. Unfortunately for the subtlety, every flavor was also mixed with the taste of my own blood, which continually seeped into my mouth due to a post-tooth-extraction wound I’d suffered the day before.

Surprisingly, the best dish wasn’t even a dessert but the Very Soft French Omelet, which had the texture of omu rice without the rice. It came topped with truffle butter, was served with an herb biscuit, and was so good that it made me question why Chika was making desserts at all. Our final dish of the night—which, as with the omelet, we ordered in addition to the three-course cheesecake menu—was a plate of pink peppercorn ice cream that I found disturbing only because of how much it literally tasted like peppercorn.

But the food, bloody or otherwise, didn’t even really matter: the cuteness of the bar ultimately took precedence. The entire space could fit about twenty people comfortably, with most of the seats lining the bar, which doubled as an open kitchen. Chika Tillman, a kind of silent spectacle, prepared every dish herself there, while wearing a signature bonnet that she’d had specially made from the pattern of a baby’s hat, while her bow-tied husband (a former jazz musician) served the food on an assortment of heavily patterned china (he let me come to the storage space in the back to handpick my teacup). During the hours I sat at the bar, multiple regulars came to check in with Chika, among them a former sous-chef from Bar Masa who insisted, graciously, that I take a picture of his dessert (something served in a tiny Crockpot). If it wasn’t for my deep-seated fear of intimacy, I imagined, half-delirious from the wound in my mouth, that I would like to become one of them someday—a regular.

—Patrick McGraw

Cafe Spaghetti is my favorite restaurant in New York. There is not really any competition. I started going last summer, shortly after it opened, because I liked the name. There is something delightfully kindergartenish to me about it, a sort of childlike simplicity. I liked telling people, “Meet me at Cafe Spaghetti!” Who could get tired of saying that? (Maybe you. Not me; I’m always saying that.) The ambiance sort of matches the name: there are posters on the wall that range from extremely fun (Louis Armstrong eating spaghetti) to outright tacky (a fake license plate that says Italy). There is a large backyard—previously tented, now walled in glass, open in the summertime—with a blue Vespa in the center. There is a funny little faux shrine to the Virgin Mary or to the pasta gods. As it turns out, the food at Cafe Spaghetti is actually quite good. It helps that my favorite food is pasta, but this is really, really good pasta: cavatelli drizzled with balsamic, spicy crab linguine, a delicious Bolognese topped with a huge glob of ricotta that I ate all winter long. Because, indeed, I kept going back, again and again, until I became that wonderful thing, a regular, greeted by name and occasionally given free glasses of amaro or ricotta toast with pistachios on top.

I tried to write a whole long thing about all the different times and circumstances under which I have been to Cafe Spaghetti—with friends to celebrate, with friends to commiserate, on a date, as an apology dinner, for a birthday, for another birthday, on Sunday nights alone to fight off the blues. This description turned out not to be very interesting, because my Cafe Spaghetti evenings are at their core mundane. Most of the times I have been to Cafe Spaghetti, it has been more or less the same; I go, in fact, because it is generally the same, even as I am myself different, or in different states of being me. I am alarmed by minor changes to the menu. I feel a sense of quasi ownership so keen that I was annoyed when Pete Wells put the rice balls in his list of New York’s top seven new dishes last year, revealing my little secret, but I couldn’t be that annoyed, because I was also very proud of my friends at Cafe Spaghetti. I once got so irritated that my not-boyfriend went to Cafe Spaghetti without me that he became no longer my not-boyfriend. (There were a lot of other, better reasons, too, but you have to understand that this was a provocation.) The joy of being a regular is of course in the constant comfort of the familiar, but also in integrating an institution into the texture of my life. We’ll always have Cafe Spaghetti, I think, in the Humphrey Bogart voice of my mind, though of course we will not, because I have mourned enough restaurants and bars in my life to understand this is a fiction. But then again, that’s the point of the line—whether it’s there or not, we’ll always have Cafe Spaghetti!

—Sophie Haigney, web editor

Gem is a lovely restaurant run by someone who has been referred to as the “Justin Bieber of food”: the chef Flynn McGarry, who was nineteen years old at the time of its opening. This comparison to Justin Bieber is inappropriate; Gem isn’t really for the masses—though it does face a popular park where I often hang out at night, surrounded by rats. Gem offers a different kind of nature: bare branches and bouquets of snapdragons have been arranged tastefully around a handful of honey-colored wood tables; plates rest on a wreath of young goldenrod inside a wicker basket; there are rough, gleaming boulders in the bathroom sink and Aēsop products above it. At Gem this summer, the menu has been dubbed “Flora Season”: light and wet, mostly green, changing weekly to match the available local vegetables and the microseasons that produce them. The particular week in June I dined there, wildfire smoke was hanging everywhere in New York. Gem’s woven window shades were drawn against the light, which happened to have the color and denseness of Aēsop hand cream though the opposite effect. So when we were presented with a white, fluffy, ice-cold hand towel suffused with what turned out to be bergamot oil (Aēsop, I imagine), I tried breathing through it, to moisturize my airways. My mouth felt like flowers and snow at once: a strange sensation involving only taste and temperature, like eating without the food. Aēsop products, I realized, feel luxurious because they evoke the embalming fluids used on the corpses of pharaohs.

What followed were eight light courses presented over two and a half hours, long enough to make it feel like you are eating almost nothing and in slow motion. The vocabulary that attends a menu like Gem’s is always satisfyingly industrial: there are “compressions” and “reductions,” exotically laboratorial procedures applied to familiar foods and flavors. There was an almost-liquid cheese, like salty cream Jell-O, topped with tiny purple flowers and bright green peas that burst in your mouth like third-wave boba. There was a cold, pond-like soup in which floated ricotta dumplings wrapped in marigold leaves. There was a sorbet with the sharp flavor of a fresh-cut lawn (sorrel). Like the prefatory hand towel, everything seemed to be finished with droplets or spirals of some kind of oil (marigold infusion, pine extraction, anise hyssop essence) that was usually the key to the dish but was perceptible only as a slight shimmer on the surface of both plate and palate. This place was very expensive.

There is always something morbid about the delicately contrived “nature” of art nouveau, and Gem’s aesthetic is a kind of 2020s rendition of it. The contrast between the environmental drama out of doors and the organic whimsy within didn’t strike me as ironic; actually, the apocalyptic atmosphere paired well with food, which gave the impression of having been foraged and prepared by tattooed fairies for some future society in which food is scarce, and strange, but also perfect. I’ve always liked playing pretend, especially “end of the world”—when I was little, I used to practice throwing knives in my backyard, like in The Hunger Games. In the amber light from Canada, what could otherwise have been cottagecore felt cutting-edge, Blade Runner. One imagined supply chains breaking down and elites being forced, finally, to refrain from rib eye in favor of “flower tacos” (one of that week’s desserts: six macerated wild berries wrapped in a pink petal). I think I could get used to eating bugs, if I could breathe in an anise hyssop essence before and after. The restaurant will close its Forsyth Street location on August 26, after five years there—but McGarry promises future projects in the works.

—Olivia Kan-Sperling, assistant editor