Ever see that magnet that says, "Life is short. Eat spinach first"? Of course not; it doesn't exist. People don't go crazy for vegetables, not even heirloom ones plucked straight from the ground. You can blame that on biology, or too many chocolate chip cookies eaten as kids. Whatever the reason -- be it nature or nurture -- the reality is that most of us can't resist sweets, which is why Sugarmill has the potential to be such a hit. See also: Behind the Scenes at Sugarmill
Launched early this winter in a rapidly evolving section of the Ballpark neighborhood, the restaurant is a collaboration between pastry chef Noah French and prolific restaurateur Troy Guard, who crossed paths more than a decade ago at Roy's in New York. Designed by the same team behind Los Chingones, Guard's Mexican restaurant that opened next to Sugarmill in December, the dessert bar has a vibe all its own (even if the bathrooms are shared).
The color palette is elegant, with soft blues, browns and greens. Walls are covered with patterned wallpaper and a mural of a nineteenth-century factory, with men in top hats and women in gowns ambling near gigantic wheels and gears. Glass-globe bulbs hang from the ceiling and cast a romantic glow. Despite the case of pastel-hued macarons and tarts by the door, this clearly wasn't intended as a grab-and-go environment. It's a place to settle in, preferably at the marble chef's counter, and watch French in action. What better way to impress a date or extend an evening spent elsewhere than with desserts promising to be every bit as refined as the surroundings?
Yet what stands out most about Sugarmill is not the dacquoise or cheesecake or crème brûlée, or the appetizers or entrees from a savory menu initially designed by Guard and executed by chef de cuisine and TAG alum Jeff Hickman. (Hickman now handles the monthly menu changes.) French himself commands the attention here -- and that says as much about the charismatic Jersey native as it does about the fare his kitchen is putting out.
As you walk through the door, French, in chef's whites embroidered with his name, is quick to shout out a hearty welcome. Sit at the counter and he's as apt to strike up a conversation as he is to turn on the propane torch or squirt mango coulis from a plastic bottle. It is French who realizes that an ice cream float just went out without the red-and-white-striped straws, French who reminds a server to update the menu on the sidewalk. If you come just for dessert, he'll prompt Hickman to extend a morsel of mushroom toast to let you know what you're missing, and give you a menu so that you'll consider coming back next time for dinner. Even on nights when French is in the weeds, he'll make time for small talk before apologizing and returning his attention to a sheet pan of cake.
Made-to-order desserts are elaborate creations, with a host of flavors and textures, often mousse next to cake next to multi-colored sunbursts of sauces. A dried, syrup-poached carrot slants toward the ceiling. Crumbles of red-velvet cake cascade like a waterfall from a crisp macaron. Hot caramel spills from a pitcher over a chocolate globe, melting the shell to reveal a cloud of fluffy whipped cream. Rarely does a plate arrive at a table without eliciting some sort of audible gasp. "We want it to be a show, a 'wow,'" says French, a Culinary Institute of America grad who cut his chops at Disney World before traveling the country as the corporate pastry chef for Roy's.
Many Sugarmill desserts have that wow factor. Shades of Red, one in a series of color-themed plates that French is rolling out, combined the chewy pop of strawberry boba with the silkiness of raspberry mousse, the airiness of a raspberry macaron with cubes of red-velvet cake; berries and a dollop of housemade rosé champagne sorbet called the tongue to attention, providing welcome pops of acidity. Bunch of Carrots was more homespun, with praline cream, an ice cream float, and carrot cake finished not with cream cheese frosting but cheesecake, with a springy layer of gelatin-laced caramel on top. Those flavors were echoed by streaks of caramel and a spiced carrot-cake purée on the plate. Even the simple-sounding apple-almond tart was far from simple, with a very rich, sweet base of almond flour, butter and sugar supporting caramelized apples, maple-walnut ice cream and a drizzle of orange-scented honey.
Keep reading for the rest of the review on Sugarmill. Other desserts, however, triggered a "wow" of another kind. Noahsphere seemed straight out of Disney, with a hollow chocolate globe filled with not enough flourless chocolate cake and marshmallows and too much whipped cream. When we tried to order the pineapple upside-down cake, we learned that it would take 25 minutes, something the server should have warned us of in advance. We decided to wait for it anyway, only to find the fruit-studded brown-sugar cake so cloying, my tastebuds waved the white flag in sugary defeat after only one bite. This Roy's staple might have crossed a line in the sand -- er, sugar -- but it wasn't the only one. All of French's desserts, even the ones we enjoyed, blurred together somewhat, given their uniformly high level of sweetness. It would have been nice to occasionally nibble on something less sugar-forward, perhaps something with tart fruits, unexpected spices or fresh herbs.
Sugarmill's food menu is far less intricate -- not that the kitchen is trying to be casual. Meals often (though not always) start with an amuse-bouche, setting the tone for a certain sort of meal, and sometimes that meal materializes, especially if you start at happy hour with a glass of Prosecco and mushroom toast, made from a fantastic tapenade of minced mushrooms, parmesan and brandy spread on a thick slice of ciabatta. While it is no longer available on the dinner menu -- a blander squash-ricotta version has replaced it -- those mushrooms can still be had in the standout beef Wellington, where they join beef tenderloin under a crisp puff-pastry shell.
Even if I didn't need to sate a sweet tooth, I could see myself stopping by for a simple salad of pistachios, dates and greens, followed by the quiche of the day, with the kind of flaky crust only a pastry chef could pull off. I'd return for the fresh handmade pasta, too, which would be just as good with parmesan as with the broccoli, turkey and cream sauce I enjoyed one night. The pasta changes daily, but whatever the variety, it would definitely be a better foil for the meatball entree than the cold, mushy, unseasoned cannellini beans that lurked beneath them another evening -- and the broccoli pesto on top didn't help matters, since it, too, lacked salt. An order of roasted cobia was good, but given the undersized serving of romesco sauce -- a TAG recipe with puréed red peppers and almonds -- it tasted mostly like unadorned fish.
"My challenge is to get 100 percent [of guests] coming here for dinner," says French. Despite Sugarmill's dessert-focused name, "food from day one was an important aspect of it."
But Sugarmill is not yet the home run it should be. The service often strikes out, and seems more in line with a coffee shop than a suave establishment. (This won't impact you if you sit at the chef's counter, where French carries the day.) On various occasions, servers set utensils backward, with forks on the right and knives on the left; turned up music so loudly that guests conspired to turn down the volume themselves; and ignored pleas to close the garage door to the sidewalk that was letting in rapidly cooling night air. (I can only assume it was warmer behind the register.) They often didn't know what was on the plates they were setting down, even as they were attempting to describe them, and rarely did they second French's warm welcome -- making diners feel like a distraction, even on half-empty nights.
Given the competition in the Ballpark neighborhood -- not just Los Chingones and Amerigo Delicatus on either side, but Work & Class, twelve, the Populist and other restaurants up and down Larimer Street -- there's work to be done before Sugarmill can stand on its own as a dining destination, without sweets batting cleanup. Batting may be an individual pursuit, but it takes a team to make a grand slam.
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Select menu items at Sugarmill Noahsphere $12 Apple-almond tart $9 Bunch of Carrots $10 Shades of Red $10 Pineapple upside-down cake $11 Squash toast $7 Mushroom toast $4 Quiche $9.50 Handmade pasta $15 Classic meatballs $14 Roasted cobia $18 Beef Wellington $18