What a week for Mindy Segal. After a half-dozen nominations, she picked up a James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in the U.S., no small feat, considering she runs an entire restaurant, rather than just a dessert menu tucked within one. But this year, Segal wasn’t in New York City for the awards ceremony, because she was busy putting the finishing touches on the remodeling of her restaurant, and had to get it open. “It was like opening another restaurant altogether,” she told me. If you want to read the real back story, check out this profile in TimeOut. The cosmetic changes included the addition of skylights, a revamped HVAC and the elimination of both the awkward front lounge and the large booth back near the kitchen. But Segal has also been working on refining her menu.
There is still an emphasis on craft producers with plenty of shout-outs to the Werps, Kilgus’ and Kinnickinicks – her agrarian heroes. But she’s not just paying lip service. The small jars of onion dip and whitefish rillettes that we snacked on at the beginning of the meal could have made fine bar snacks to accompany one of the excellent cocktails or craft brews. The former had a few thick, charred asparagus spears on the side, while the whitefish made for perfect shmearing on some shards of bagel crisps, and had a fine little tangle of tart, pickled carrots and ramps:
There are hefty sandwiches, and I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage you to order at least one burger for your table. The thick, meaty Heartland Beef patty is cooked to a perfect med-rare, with a 4-year aged cheddar and some crispy organic bacon. There’s also a sunny side egg on top, and the garlic-toasted sesame bun absorbs the juices without falling apart; it’s heft is commendable, but not overwhelming. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the housemade Kaiser rolls used for the chicken thigh torta and porchetta sandwich (the online menu says the torta uses a ciabatta, and the Kaiser is on the porchetta, but the printed menu said both had the Kaiser). The interiors were incredibly delicious, but were sadly snuffed out by the thick, dense bread that didn’t want to budge from any of the natural juices – or even the salsa or avocado crema on the torta. I’m a big proponent of proper starch-to-filling ratios, and I think this is something they’re going to have to work on:
As full as you might be after a few savory courses, you can’t very well visit HotChocolate and not try something sweet. Segal has changed things up a little bit, offering just a handful of plated desserts, some ice creams, the namesake drink and one “study” of an ingredient, which will rotate throughout the year. Both women at our table went right for the butterscotch cream pie, which promised a gingersnap graham crust, broken toffee & warm butterscotch custard:
This was among the finest butterscotch treatments I’ve ever tasted. Definitely on par with the mind-blowing budino Nancy Silverton makes, as well as the one at Gjelina in Venice Beach. It took all of about 3 minutes to devour; it’s rich, buttery/nutty flavor sending an endorphin rush to my brain as addictive as a credit default swap to a Goldman Sachs employee.
The “study” happened to be rhubarb, and for $20, you’ll see five treatments, beginning with a gin cocktail:
Oudbeitje lambic sorbet, sour cream sorbet; risotto pudding , ginger beer poached rhubarb, rhubarb caramel; strawberry rhubarb lattice galette and finally, a country buttermilk cupcake with a rhubarb liquid center and rhubarb frosting.
Would I go back? Absolutely. HotChocolate 2.0 is still just as focused on artisanal products and local farmers as it was before, but now there’s more daylight, the menu has tightened its focus and Segal isn’t as worried about making sure every plate is as tidy and organized as before. It’s a rusticity that the neighborhood needs (and wants), and Segal is more than happy to oblige. Just be sure to save room for dessert.