Dessert Club ChikaLicious, From All Pudding to All Yummy

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Photographs by Robyn Lee

Dessert Club ChikaLicious

204 East 10th Street, New York, NY 10003 (b/n First and Second; map); 212-475-0929; dessertclubchikalicious.com
Service: One person takes your order and fills it, bakery style
Setting: Pretty, soothing, tiny place with perhaps 15 seats
Compare It To: Magnolia
Must-Haves: Banana cupcake, Triple Chocolate Cupcake, Adult Chocolate Pudding
Grade: A-

When ChikaLicious' Chika and Don Tillman opened the Dessert Club directly across the street from their Dessert Bar, their plan was to sell only three kinds of delicious pudding made with care from great ingredients. It was to be the only pudding bar in the country, and maybe the whole world for that matter. What an elegant, simple, even-more-minimalist-than-Dessert Bar concept.

It was a beautiful thing. There was only one problem. It bombed. People wanted more than high-priced, high-quality pudding at a sweets emporium.

So with necessity being the mother of invention, especially when it comes to small food businesses, Chika and Don remade Dessert Club into an equally idiosyncratic, still small, not quite full scale bakery—albeit one with a limited menu. Not just any small bakery, either. Dessert Club has become one of the best bakeries or sweet shops in not just the East Village, but all of New York. You might say it's mighty fine.

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The puddings have been joined first and foremost by cupcakes, lots of cupcakes in fact (nine kinds altogether). In fact, for all you cupcake freaks (and there seems to be thousands, maybe millions of you out there), Chika Tillman is making, for my money, some of the best cupcakes around.

I am not one of those people who have bought into the cupcake craze. In fact, let me say this straightaway: There are a lot of bad cupcakes in the world, more than ever before (thanks to the nationwide cupcake mania). To me a great cupcake has to have a number of very specific attributes:

  • The cake has to be moist, light, and tasty in its own right, a difficult combination to pull off
  • The frosting has to be smooth, also light, not too sweet, and deeply flavored
  • A cupcake doesn't have to be huge. Cupcakes have become like bagels in this town, and like bagels, bigger is most assuredly not better. Size matters in cupcakes, but not in the way that you think
  • Listen up. This last quality is really important. A great cupcake has to have the proper ratio of icing to cake. Other people may have different ideas, but I think there should be a 1 to 3 ratio of icing to filling. This hasn't been scientifically proven, but my guess is that Harold McGee and/or Jeffrey Steingarten will weigh in on this topic very soon

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Clockwise from top: triple chocolate, coconut, s'mores, banana, and mocha.

Tillman understands all of the above. She makes nine different kinds, and there isn't a loser in the bunch. I'm partial to the banana cupcake ($1.60), which tastes like Sara Lee Banana Cake if Sara Lee used great ingredients. Right behind the banana are the surprisingly unsweet mocha and the very coconuty coconut. The triple chocolate with chocolate ganache filling is a premium-priced cupcake ($2.25), but chocolate freaks will regard the extra sixty cents as money well-spent. Another premium cupcake is caramel-filled, but there isn't enough caramel in the center to justify the higher price. The third premium number, a chocolate-filled s'mores cupcake, is the showiest of the bunch with its toasted marshmallow top—but without graham cracker crumbs should it really be called a s'more?

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Clockwise from top: chocolate pudding, steamed vanilla custard pudding, and brioche bread pudding.

The three puddings are still on the menu at a reasonable $3.50. The clear standout is the decidedly adult chocolate pudding. It's really a scoop of dark chocolate ganache made with Vahlrona chocolate and studded with chocolate streusel. The brioche bread pudding with vanilla-brandy custard might be the lightest bread pudding you will ever eat, and the steamed vanilla custard pudding didn't really hold my interest, though it was well-executed.

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Affogato with soft-serve ice cream, decaf espresso, and chocolate pearls.

Tillman is making some of the best soft-serve vanilla ice cream in New York here. It's the base for two extraordinary desserts: a superb sundae ($5.25) made with chocolate sauce (called hot fudge on the menu), pistachio, and toasted phyllo dough shavings called kataifi, and brownie chunks; and an affogato ($4.50) made with the same soft-serve ice cream, a shot of decaf espresso, and chocolate pearls.

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Tillman brings her light touch to a cheesecake ($4.25) topped with granola and fresh strawberries.

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Chocolate chip cookies, sold only in batches of three for $1.95 (a decidedly annoying practice) are chewy, chocolaty, buttery, and slightly underbaked. They demand a tall glass of really cold hormone-free, pasture-raised cow's milk.

So all you puddin' heads, you may have lost your only pudding-dedicated emporium,
but don't despair. The rest of us have gained a most excellent bakery, perfectly suited and situated for an apr├Ęs pizza and drinking excursion.

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