November 19, 2012 | BITE: My Journal

Toot Sweet: Sugar & Plumm

 

 Amazed by the perfection of just-cooked shrimp on grits on an early visit.
Amazed by the perfection of just-cooked shrimp on grits on an early visit.

 

          Forty-three hundred square feet of sugar and fat.  I couldn’t wait to try the something-for-everyone menu of the sprawling Sugar & Plumm, “Purveyors of Yum,” new to my neighborhood.  I loved the cartoon mural of sundaes and sweets on the back wall, hoping my alcohol-spiked milkshake would help me handle the echoing din. I resolved not to be grouchy if careering toddlers racing in pursuit of shrieking five-years-olds banged into my chair.

 

 
Doting parents revel in a darling tyke’s discovery of ice cream excess.

 

          The gestalt, after all, was to lure Upper West Siders and their offspring for early dinners, birthday parties, or just dessert after a walk in the park. Word spread that strollers were welcome at the table or you could check yours with the stroller valet.  I was glad I didn’t need to bring a tyke to get a table.

 

 
It’s almost my mom’s macaroni, but it needs to be crustier, browned, not so saucey.

 

          Actually, I decided not to finish my thick and luscious banana rum flavored cocktail, dessert in a glass.  I wanted to do justice to marvelous lemony grits, crumb crusted mac’n’cheese, and the crisp chicken with freshly cooked waffles to slather with butter and Vermont maple syrup. It seemed something of a miracle to find perfectly cooked shrimp with bits of tasso ham and a buttery swamp of grits in a concept exported from a Paramus shopping mall. (And soon to sprout on Bleecker Street.)

 


Delicate nubbins of lobster, shrimp and scallop make an amusing “fish and chips.”

 

          The $13 so-called “fish and chips” starter surprised me with bits of battered shrimp, lobster and scallops and purple potato chips -- not what I expected, but the delicacy of its frying was remarkable.  There were too many stems and not enough confit in the “rabbit season” salad, but still, you want to give a point for the audacity to offer rabbit where kiddies might be permanently scarred to see anyone eating Bugs Bunny.

 

 
The chicken and waffles were wonderful on an early visit; a disaster later.

 

          It was early on and our servers seemed hopelessly confused, bringing entrees before we’d finished our appetizers and trying to wedge them onto the table. We sent them away, wondering what they would do to the burger to keep it warm and rare. We quickly finished and waited for someone to clear.  Arm flailing didn’t work. Our waitress had vanished. 

 

 
An elegant Cobb with iceberg lettuce wedges combines two favorite salads.

 

          Finally I cried out to an unseeing guy in a suit, definitely a supervisor, wandering but without antenna. Startled, he came quickly to clear.  “We didn’t expect anyone to come this weekend,” he said.

 

          “Whose son-in-law is he?” I wondered. “How long will he last?”

 

 
The classic cheeseburger is a towering apparition on its sesame bun.

 

          That first night our classic cheeseburger was good enough but dauntingly stuffed. My neighbor Garry complained it didn’t fit into his mouth. (Too much is usually just enough for me.) Removing an inch or two of lettuce was not much of a sacrifice. Both crumbed mac’n’cheese, elbows with optional bacon, not wildly soupy like some, and the crisp chicken parts with waffles were decidedly over salted but good enough to be pleasing. My friends took the leftover macaroni home for breakfast.

 

 
Sundaes come in tall glasses as does gingerbread man adult milkshake with pumpkin.

 

          Would we overlook dessert in a place where dessert is the point? I don’t think so. Both the turtle sundae (with chocolate and pecans) and the strawberry shortcake packed with fresh berries and pound cake in tall cocktail glasses were better than “It’s Just Cake in a Jar,” a berry-lemon trifle that was just cake in a jar and needed to be more citric.

 

 
On second tasting the grilled cheese sandwich was scant and prmmer than remembered.

 

          I was eager to taste more. I could imagine just stopping by after the movie for the mini grilled Muenster cheese sandwich with mushrooms.  A week later I did drop in, amused to see that the sauce alongside that American classic tasted like Campbell’s Tomato Soup.

 

 
The kid in me struggles to resist the cute chocolate lollypops.

 

          My friends, first-timers here, didn’t know what to make of the mix.  Dating couples, doting parents shooting photos with their phones. Twenty tweens at a birthday party under the mural screamed when birthday cakes arrived, sounding like forty.  But a round of bruisers who looked like they’d just come from bowling were yelling too.

 

 
A friend from Atlanta objects to maple syrup on pulled pork with waffles.

 

          The clever Cobb Wedge with crisp baby iceberg, house-smoked chicken, blue cheese, organic egg and avocado combined two of my favorite salads in one. Big rounds of chicken and Neuske’s bacon in the salad made up for the over-cooked salmon (our fault that we didn’t say “rare”). Pulled pork with waffles and maple BBQ sauce didn’t quite work, though I liked the coleslaw on top and a side of shoestring fries.

 

 
There very good bonbons are made for Sugar & Plumm by a Parisien chocolatier.

 

          The “S’More” sundae was less, not fully loaded, marshmallows not properly melted. Ditto with the peach cobbler milkshake, thinner than it ought to be.  We ordered a selection of the house’s French bonbons, at $1.55 each.  An excellent finale.

 

          I probably would not make a significant detour, even for the great shrimp and grits or the elegant Cobb Wedge.  But Sugar& Plumm is such a short walk from my place. So I’m back. I thought two women friends, recently transplanted from Atlanta, might find it homey, a change of pace from late night deli dinners and Lower East Side mating heat.

 

          It was a Wednesday, almost two weeks after Sandy in a part of town the storm barely touched. I was shocked how empty the place was at 8 o’clock: a few people eating sundaes at the communal table up front. Some kids checking out the library wall of candy. No strollers. No birthday parties. No bowlers. No laughing toddlers hurtling across the floor. No floorshow. No fun.

 

          One of my companions sipped a Prince Thomas Collins, a wonderfully fizzy upscaling of the classic. I had an Old Fashioned. I ordered the grilled cheese and “fish and chips” to eat while we studied the menu. The sandwich seemed primmer than I remembered and a few scattered chips struck my companions as a little chintzy with the otherwise delicious nubbins of battered sea food.

 

 
Carefully cooked lobster is piled into a buttery bun. I wish it were not so chilled.

 

          We could have been at Schrafts in the 70’s. I sent back the nicely crumbed mac’n’cheese, asking the kitchen to make it crustier and browner.  It came back not very toasted, a little too cheesy. (But for me, almost any macaroni is better than none.)

 The Maine lobster roll with Meyer lemon aioli wasn’t Pearl’s lobster roll, but then, whose is?  The lobster was chilled but not icy cold, carefully cooked. The roll was properly rich and buttery.

 


Tonight the dark and twiggy chicken tastes reheated from cooking a week ago.

 

 

          The few chicken twigs on the waffle dish tasted as if they’d been reheated from a week earlier. The Turtle sundae was better than the S’More but it was the Gingerbread Man, adult milkshake with pumpkin-gingersnap ice cream and maple-pecan rum, that was marvelous.  I could see my friends tabulating the calories as I took a sip and then another.

 

          Up front, someone who might have recognized me put together a plate of macarons for our table.  They were very fresh, very good.

 

 
As long as I can have chocolate every day, I can resist Gummy Bears and Swedish fish.

 

          I wondered what to make of the retreat from this ambitious yummery. Was it just this particular Wednesday?  Was it crisis fatigue? Were people saving themselves for Thanksgiving, or saving their money for Christmas? I noticed the prices had gone up since opening day. In some cases sharply. Two dollars an item on the “Big Kids Menu” -- pulled pork, chicken and waffles, the lobster roll -- from $19 to $24 for the salmon, from $18 to $23 for a breast of chicken.  Twelve dollar cocktails were now $14.

 


Just inside the lollypop entrance is this fabulous mosaic on the floor. That’s my foot.

 

 

          Cantankerous Upper West Siders had greeted Sugar & Plumm’s orchid barricade with serious paranoia in 2011. Granted, the pastel barrier stretched half a block on Amsterdam from West 78th where a cuddle of beloved merchants had faded away. An irate detractor set up a website to stir a protest. The place was too big. It was too cute.  It was too New Jersey. It was evil. It would lure vulnerable offspring and foster obesity. In July homemade stickers appeared: “Tooth Decay.” “Juvenile Diabetes.” “Drunken Nannies.”

 

          The Rockwell Group was hired to undo the tackiness and persuade the local neighborhood board of good intentions. The Landmarks commission approved the new plans. On my first visit I noticed the glass door with its gold lollypop handle was very heavy (Surely, no toddler could get in without a consenting adult).

 

          Maybe it turns out the locals don’t consider Sugar & Plumm the neighborhood’s best purveyor of yum.  As I walked down Amsterdam after dinner, I noticed the crowd yumming it up just a block south at blatantly inelegant 16 Handles with its frozen yogurt at all those serve-yourself spigots and the mesmerizing mish-mash of irresistible add-ons. I wanted to feel morally superior. But how could I?

 

377 Amsterdam Avenue between 78th and 79th Streets.  212 787 8778, Sunday through Wednesday 8:30 am to 10:30 pm. Thursday through Saturday 8:30 am through 11:30 pm.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.

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