"Banana Karenina...the tragic injustice of it all! Unlike our poor heroine, you may have the object of your desire with society's blessing. Chocolate pavlova with caramel banana pudding, roasted bananas, banana chips and hot fudge. Steer clear of the tracks."
That's just one of Jerry Suqi's menu descriptions from his new, ultramod River North dessert bar, Sugar. "I finally got to use my literature degree," says the 34-year-old former owner of Narcisse Champagne and Caviar Bar. Other tongue-in-cheek titles he penned include Through the Looking Glace, the S'mmoralist, the Unbearable Lightness of Brulee, and the Telltale Tart.
Pastry chef Christine McCabe Tentori, who hails from kitchens at Gabriel's in Highwood and Charlie Trotter's and did a short stint at Joel Robuchon in Paris, is responsible for the artfully plated sweets. Suqi had already hired another classic French pastry chef (whose name he won't mention) and developed a menu, lengthy descriptions and all, when a mutual friend introduced him to Tentori. He was blown away after tasting four of her desserts. "She's a great fit for the place," says Suqi. "She's got a great way with combinations and textures, and we wanted this to be fun and whimsical--not as serious as the other chef wanted. And with two male partners"--Suqi's co-owners are his brother Eddie and veteran nightclub owner Stephan Anthony Oakes--"we also needed a feminine touch."
Tentori's domain is a bright, spacious basement kitchen, a far cry from the tight quarters typically devoted to restaurant pastry chefs. In one corner sits a large cotton candy machine, where she spins the pink fluff to top Remains of the Parfait ("A life of servitude need not be meaningless. Devote yourself to our poached blueberry and coconut tapioca parfait. One taste of this dessert and your loyalty shall be unwavering"). In another corner is a large ice cream maker, used to make flavors like green tea, pistachio, and white chocolate. Clear bins hold macadamia nuts, fresh Tahitian vanilla beans, plump dried apricots, and slabs of bittersweet Valrhona chocolate. Then there are sheets of hazelnut bark, bowls of espresso anglaise, mounds of banana chips, and pans of oven-roasted figs, plums, and pineapple. "It's a dream kitchen, but it'll be hard to gauge the volume," says Tentori, who's unsure how many people will be coming to eat as opposed to just drink.
Her uncertainty is understandable: at this late-night sweet shop cum nightclub, seven of the ten menu pages are devoted to libations. Aside from by-the-glass offerings of dessert wines, port, Madeira, sherry, and champagne, there are hard-to-find vintages of sauternes and a lengthy list of late-harvest wines, botrytized wines (made from grapes that have been infected with a mold that shrivels the fruit, thus concentrating the sugar), and ice wines (made from grapes that froze on the vine and were pressed before they thawed). "I think dessert wines are some of the finest in the world," Suqi says. There's also a martini list with over two dozen concoctions, along with cognac, Armagnac, Calvados, grappa, and nonalcoholic herbal cordials.
The same attention to detail that shows in the dessert and drink menus went into the decor, designed by Suhail, who's put his stamp on places like Mod and Tizi Melloul. "Every aspect of sugar manifests itself here," says Suqi. "The evil, the wonders, and the vibrant colors of candy like M&M's and Starburst. It's a sugar buzz come to life." He conceived of the idea two years ago, after a customer at Narcisse mentioned a 4,000-square-foot space available in a building he owned on Kinzie. "The neighborhood is full of fabulous chef-driven restaurants, but desserts are generally secondary to the food," says Suqi. "I love the chemistry of desserts, and rather than try to compete with the restaurants, I thought I'd do something different."
Suhail's modernist design uses mostly primary colors, geometric shapes, and shiny enamel finishes ("like the glistening of hard candy," says Suqi) to make its point. Banquettes are upholstered with rectangular cushions meant to evoke chocolate bars--dark on one side, white on the other. An entryway is embellished with broom bristles painted black and yellow, like the hairs on a bee's leg. Backlit graphic panels project magnified views of bee wings and sugar crystals, and woven birch bark light fixtures over the bar evoke hives. Room dividers are strips of bright red, green, blue, and yellow plastic folded to resemble ribbon candy, and the curtains around the booths are silk-screened with enlarged images of glucose and fructose molecules.
The sinful desserts and gracious service are best enjoyed early in the evening, when seats are still available and before the line of midriff-baring twentysomethings coming in for cocktails starts stretching down the block. "People still order dessert later on, although after 11 it starts to get pretty crowded," says Suqi, who doesn't feel there's as much of a Jekyll-and-Hyde effect. "I want people to have fun--that's the way food should be."
Sugar is at 108 W. Kinzie, 312-822-9999.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.