Rockville Centre, New York

November 2009

My first question to Emma Tso, the chef and owner of Chat Noir was what are you doing here?  She seemed a bit taken back thinking maybe there was something wrong with the meal.  Noticing her hesitation, I assured her that everything was delicious.  Actually, mouth-watering delicious which is why I found her beautiful little patisserie/tea house stuck near the end of a very ugly block of other retail and eating establishments in this bar-friendly but not food-friendly suburban landscape a treat.

Having spent 15 years working as an x-ray technician at a local Rockville Centre hospital, Chef Tso decided her real calling was pastry and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.  Three months after she graduated, she managed to get Chat Noir up and running. What’s even more astonishing (besides the career move) is the fact she admitted “not knowing anything about setting up a restaurant.”  But what’s even stranger is that she’s been in business nearly seven months in Rockville Centre without even the slightest “meow” on the Long Island culinary scene.  A restaurant this incredibly good needs to be green-flagged – as in get there as soon as you can.

When you walk into Chat Noir, the room is spacious, beautifully decorated and comfortable.  It also happened to be packed by the time Rachel and I arrived at 11 a.m. that Saturday morning for an early brunch. Looking over Chef Tso’s menu offerings, we  couldn’t decide what we wanted to eat.   There were just too many interesting dishes to choose from.  Since Rachel and I consider ourselves “professional eaters” (having eaten both here and abroad with upscale restaurants our forte), we decided to order her signature tea service.

If the effect was to transport us to England or some other place on the other side of the Atlantic by the dazzling display of food put before us, the charm worked.  We ordered a pot of Earl Grey tea (from nearly two dozen types of tea if not more to choose from) and made our way through the three-tiered cake plate that was loaded with goodies.

Starting from the bottom were six fairly large scones – cranberry, chocolate chip and butterscotch — with delicious strawberry jam, butter and clotted cream accompaniment.  Truth be told I’ve never been a scones fan.  The ones I’ve had in the past were ultimately belly bombers.  Chef Tso has managed to somehow transform her scone version into hearty but yet light tasting pastries.

Next row: three different kinds of tea sandwiches (dare I mention on house-made white bread) filled with cucumber and crème fraiche, turkey with a cranberry compote and ham and brie with apricot preserves.

Looking at the crustless white bread and the lovely tea service, I suddenly remembered the tiny but real china tea set I had bought Rachel when she was about 10 years younger.  Being a full-time working mother, I wondered if she and I ever had time to actually have tea. (Probably not!)   Another surprise was the choice of china and matching tea pots at Chat Noir.   In an era where most chefs these days want to hop on the über-modern design bandwagon when composing a table, here the place settings are refreshingly feminine (think floral).

The piece de resistance however was the top layer of the cake stand: two miniature chocolate pastry tarts plus two miniature lemon custard pastry tarts topped with berries plus two cream “swan” puffs filled with pastry cream complete with a “swan” pastry neck.  (When you looked at the dish from across the room, the swans truly looked like they were swimming on a snow covered pond.)

It was an enormously generous amount of food given the price but Rachel and I had no problem whatsoever eating every last bite.  Besides the tea service, breakfast pastries (croissants and brioche), French toast, a variety of salads, quiches, and sandwiches are on the menu.  There’s also a soup du jour and at least three warm entrees.

That afternoon there was a single man dining at the tea house.  Chef Tso told me most of her clientele were women.  When I asked her if she hadn’t expected that given the menu, she nodded.  Currently waiting for a liquor license so she can serve beer and wine as well as extending the hours to serve dinner, she confided she wanted the restaurant at night to be a “date night kind of place.”

Looking at my date for the day, my lovely daughter Rachel, (who knows nearly as much about food and cooking even at her young age as I do), I can’t wait for Chef Tso to get that liquor license in place, have dinner and enjoy her talented cooking.   Chat Noir already has a romantic je ne sais quoi kind of ambience going on.  Dinner service would let me bring back a different kind of date: Rachel’s father.

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