Here's a Taste of the Hand-Painted Chocolates at Nolita's Stick With Me Sweets
Photos by Adam Robb for the Village Voice
Since chocolatier Susanna Yoon opened Stick With Me Sweets (202 Mott Street, 646-918-6336) earlier this year, she's re-created and continually expanded the list of imaginative, immaculately hand-crafted bonbons and fruity caramels. She devotes minutes of meditation to every hand-painted Valrhona dome, which come in flavors like butterscotch pudding, black sesame, and speculoos s'more. Her sculpted creations, once only available on a full stomach at the end of a $295 tasting menu at Per Se, are now democratized downtown; they sit in glass cases in a former Nolita deli that Yoon's transformed into a jewel-box-like candy shop. You'll still pay a steep price for her craftsmanship, but there's good reason for that.
Unlike the French and Swiss chocolate shops that dominate tourist destinations around the city, Yoon's isn't chopping up days-old slab ganache shipped frozen into cookie-cutter squares. "It's a completely different chocolate," she says. "While ours is handmade, we hand-shell the white chocolate; it's the technical part of getting that perfect shell. You also have to polish these by hand. It's why it looks so shiny — we put so much labor into it." It's also about what goes in those shells: Yoon uses multiple ingredients more complex than your average ganache.
Already, a half-dozen flavors have gone through a natural evolution — by Valentine's Day, strawberry bubblegum had morphed into strawberry crème fraîche — and regular customers notice and are impressed by her small tweaks. "One day they realized I added a chocolate ganache in the center [of the speculoos s'more], and they got excited, posted about it on Facebook, and I think it's so cool," she says. "I can't believe they notice it!"
Yoon won't settle for anything but the best, a level of quality control from Per Se she can't shake. "It's why we use Valrhona — we used Valrhona at Per Se as well," Yoon says. "There's a consistency of what you've been working with, what you taste, and you can't go down, can't use something less. We source the matcha that we want, import the yuzu from Japan, even roast fresh bananas."
How is her shop different from Per Se? Laughter.
Working fourteen-hour days at that restaurant, she'd rarely see sunlight, and while she was too busy to notice the cameras in the kitchen keeping track of every cook's movements from across the country at the French Laundry, even smiling was frowned upon. "If I did need to laugh, I'd have to jump down to the lowboy," she says. "It was serious business." Now her co-workers laugh so much that their knees get weak and they fall to the floor, save for the mornings when Yoon arrives early to hand-paint her confections.
"It's Zen when you're in the kitchen, quietly painting away," Yoon says. "At Per Se I didn't feel Zen, I felt freaked out all the time. Now I come in early, and when there's no one here, it feels like therapy."
The last time she freaked out was when she saw her third-choice storefront, months before signing a lease. "It was like a cored-out apple, no concrete in the basement," she says. "I thought it was going to be too expensive, too much work, and they don't know if this little Asian girl can make it." But by the time she tore down the papers from the windows, there was no doubt she could. The neighborhood was quick to support her, from local artisanal shopkeepers to eccentric regulars who pop in daily to have six black sesames at a time boxed up.
And Yoon's artistry extends to that packaging, too.
Chocolate boxes are disguised as chic storybooks, like designer Olympia Le Tan's embroidered dustjacket clutches for nostalgic gourmands. "Not to make it sound too sentimental," Yoon says, "but it's a little diary for your chocolates — like 'Oh, I was eating peanut-butter-and-jelly all the time as a kid, or this caramelized banana reminds me of the pancakes my dad used to make.' Then you can take out the tray and put in your secret love letters, put it with the rest of your library books, and no one will ever know."
Just be careful who shares in them; anyone familiar with the subtle lemon zest underlying her vanilla custards, or even Yoon's own nostalgic choice of inimitable Skippy peanut butter, are sure to suss out your secret stash, empty or not.
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