Just a few blocks from the perpetually busy corner of Houston and Lafayette in NYC's SoHo neighborhood lies a tranquil outpost for New Zealand cuisine that channels the calm reserve of the island nation. Just four months after opening in October, 2013 The Musket Room was awarded a Michelin star. Since then, the awards have continued come in and the restaurant—with native Kiwi Matt Lambert at the helm—has not stopped pushing its New Zealand cuisine further, impressing diners and critics along the way.
The latest addition to the team is head pastry chef Becca Punch (formerly of the renowned Eleven Madison Park). The Musket Room is one of a growing number of fine dining destinations that is giving its dedicated staff free and full creative reign over the sweets. "This is my first pastry chef job, so it's really fun to take all of the ideas I've been storing up and hash them out onto plates," Punch says. "When something new comes into season, you get all these ideas, you start to get inspired again—and yes, summer's the best time." Though Punch isn't herself from New Zealand, her Montana upbringing means nature and seasonal ingredients are near and dear to her just like her Kiwi colleagues. Punch took us through a few of her favorites from the current menu.
The optimal way to experience The Musket Room's cuisine is through its tasting menu—the meal takes on a sort of narrative and each course blends seamlessly into the next, complementing what precedes and succeeds each flavor. The Spring Pea Cremeux acts as a transition between the last savory courses and more rich, decadent desserts. "I love the freshness of peas in the late spring and summer, and it pairs really well with the lychee—they're both subtle, softer flavors," Punch says. A mint jam adds a serious pungent kick to the softness of the pea and lychee, "The jam is made from mint in our garden; all the plants we use from the garden is always lot stronger than the stuff that we buy, just because you go out and pick it then use it right away."
A rarity for NYC restaurants (especially in Manhattan), The Musket Room sources a fair amount of its herbs and garnishes from its own backyard. "Having the garden is definitely a blessing," Punch says of the season inspiration steps from the kitchen. But getting the most out of the produce requires a bit of diligence. "You need to pay attention to the plants—you want to pick everything in its peak, or else it goes to waste."
Kiwis will attest, that there's no dessert more traditionally New Zealand than pavlova. The meringue-based dessert was originally named for a visiting Russian ballerina has become a fixture in both Kiwi and Australian cuisine since the 1920s. Traditionally paired with strawberries and cream, Punch adds a touch of passionfruit for an unexpected zing. "We've taken our pavlova apart in two shapes," Punch says. "I really like making cylinders and I like it because it kind of looks like a styrofoam cup spilling strawberries." The meringue is baked at a low temperature to achieve crispiness on the outside and marshmallowy softness on the inside. It's then garnished with flower petals from the garden. Of working in a Kiwi kitchen, Punch says there's a more straightforward attitude towards criticism. "They say it to your face, then you move on. It's done, it's been said and we're back to work."
Balancing rich chocolate with tropical fruits, Punch's coconut vanilla pudding with tapioca is a nod to bubble tea in dessert form. Aerated chocolate and dark chocolate compliments the creaminess of the pudding while bursts of tangy mango and passionfruit come from the colorful tuile atop the dessert (which Punch nostalgically describes as "Fruit Roll-Up-like"). "I never really considered chocolate and tropical fruit to be a thing until I worked with a chef from Seoul Korea," Punch says, "It was a whole new world of flavor combinations for me so this is a test in that theory." Beneath the puddling is a hidden sphere of mango sauce, that adds a playful note of fruitiness to the dessert.
A true sweet tooth at heart, Punch explains her approach towards desserts and how they relate to the rest of the meal succinctly. "You eat a meal for sustenance, but you have dessert for fun." There's a clear sense of playfulness in the young chef's desserts, from the plating to the surprises flavors that lie in wait. "Desserts are not just sweet for your palate, but for your spirit and your eyes and something that should really cheer you up," Punch adds. Needless to say, when visiting The Musket Room, be sure to save room.
Photos by Hans Aschim