When I first heard of plans by former Spice Market pastry chef Pichet Ong to open an all-dessert restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, my sweet tooth and interest in haute cuisine waited eagerly for the opportunity to focus on the part of a meal that is too often just an afterthought. Plagued by a series of delays, P*Ong opened its doors to customers this past weekend in a 35 seat cozy space tucked into W. 10th St. just off Waverly Place. The posted menu boasted a enticing sounding array of sweet and savory Asian-inpsired selections in addition to a chef's tasting menu for $58. Thus, with high expectations, I invited a friend to join me in sampling the long-awaited collection.
Arriving for a 9pm reservation, we were informed that we would have to wait for our table at the bar. Taking our seats at the bar, we were left to peruse the menu for over 10 minutes before we had to chase down the bar-tender to take our drink order. Ranging from $12-$14, the cocktail list advertised serveral attractive options which we watched the bartender prepare in front of us. The rhubarb caipirinha, at $14, arrived as tumbler over-stuffed with ice and barely rescued from mediocrity by the rhubarb spear swizzle stick and lemon zest garnish. The Violet Negroni with blood orange juice, Campari and gin, though likely loaded with enough alcohol to justify the price, elicited a request from my companion that we switch drinks.
Halfway through our cocktails and more than 20 minutes into our visit, the lack of attentive waitstaff became glaringly obvious. At no point had the hostess approached us to tell us the status of our table and neither had waitstaff expressed interest in taking our order. We flagged down the hostess, told her we wouldn't mind staying at the bar, and asked from whom we could order. She caught the attention of the bartender to take our order. Having ordered two selections from the Sweet portion of the menu, we waited several minutes only to see another waiter delivering what our gut instincts told us were actually our desserts to the couple seated next to us. When the waiter brought us two desserts that we hadn't ordered, our fears were confirmed. The other couple, apparently having no ability to distinguish that what they had before them was clearly not what they had ordered, had already begun to share what was intended as my companion's dessert. Without fanfare they took my supposedly untouched dessert and placed it in front of me and apologized to my companion, offering a free cocktail (which was notably never delivered) and assuring us that his dessert would be ready shortly.
With our selections finally in front of us, we were at once struck by the stingy portions. Admittedly, a restaurant that survives on selling desserts must invoke a pricing scheme that is distinct from the dessert menu at any restaurant, but for dishes that range from $10-$14, the return on investment is decidedly lacking. The evoo cake with strawberries, wasabi candy and white miso parfait was surprisingly dry, the white miso parfait indistinguishable from vanilla ice cream, and missing anything resembling wasabi candy (although I can't rule out the possibility that the couple next to us had snatched it before it was switched). The keffir lime pavlova with blood orange segments and gelatin candy was indeed tasty, but unremarkable for the price.
Having finished our desserts, our place settings were cleared.... only to have them set out afresh by a clearly unobservant member of the barely competent waitstaff. Halfway through, another waiter rushed over and made an off joke about wanting to show us how clean the spoons were. At this point no humor would rescue the experience. For a bill that totaled $50, I could easily have found a gourmet ice cream in the freezer case at Whole Foods, picked up a small cake/meringue and purchased a bottle top shelf liquor -- forgoing the maddening mediocrity and waste of time and money that defined my visit.
Although my experience may be indicative of some rough edges from opening weekend, it it clearly inexcusable to deliver such subpar service on top of less-than-divine desserts when the bill approaches what a three-course prix fixe lunch would cost at, say, JoJo (where the deserts are arguably on par with P*Ong, if only slightly smaller). Perhaps a excerpt from New York Magazine sums it up best.....
“I’m doing all this by myself,” says the chef, who studied design at Berkeley and is laying out the restaurant. “But I kind of wanted to so that next time I’ll really know how to open a restaurant."
Let's hope he's learning how to do it right next time.