Leave some room for just desserts at Candybar

Beth Laberge/Special to the S.F. ExaminerPerfectly delicious: Candybar’s not-quite traditional red velvet cake has a house-made marshmallow and lovely vanilla bean-flavored frosting.

Ever since the convenience store near my house shuttered, I’ve been playing a game with my ladyfriend, Sarah.

The rules are simple: Pick a new business venture, and talk about how we’d make it work in the empty storefront.

I’m gunning for a whiskey bar, or maybe something with puppies, but Sarah is adamant about her idea: a late-night dessert bar in the style of New York’s ChikaLicious, or Pix in Portland, Ore. She imagined she’d be the first in The City.

Alas, a cozy nook called Candybar has been fulfilling Sarah’s dream for more than four years. It’s a dessert cafe, only open in the p.m. hours, until midnight on the weekends.

Candybar’s lighting is low and velvety, casting a sanguine glow on loud urban art and coffee shop-style tables and couches. Combine that with a smooth “ambient groove” soundtrack and I’m reminded of Euro-club lounges I used to walk by in Queens.

Much of the crowd seems to be on dates, sinking into the deep sofas or mooning across intimate two-tops. There are also clusters of teens playing board games, in contrast with the after-hours romantic groove.

But Candybar is more than just a dim lounge for canoodling and Yahtzee; virtually every table is crowded with multiple desserts (or their crumb-and-frosting remnants).

These are desserts as entrees, elaborately constructed twists on sweet standards. Want an ice cream sandwich? Think chocolate ganache sandwiched between almond macarons, with berries and house-made honeydew ice cream.

Each top-shelf creation runs $9 or $10. If pennies are being pinched, thrifty daters can get away with splitting one.
But once you order two desserts, you’re already in the $20 range. It’s easy to justify an upgrade — for $25, Candybar offers a four-dessert package deal. Save some appetite.

Cathleen Li started as a pastry intern at Candybar, but solid instincts propelled her to executive chef. Some of her creations are magic, justifying the rapid career ascension. Others need fine-tuning.

Candybar’s red velvet cake skewed somewhat traditional, only tweaking the classic with a hulking house-made marshmallow and a whisper of vanilla bean in the frosting. Moist and luscious, this was a near-perfect dessert.

The Drunken S’More featured hot Bailey’s chocolate sauce spilled over toasted marshmallow and a chocolate ganache tart (with a splash of salted caramel). Li said this decadent triumph is the runaway best-seller. Twin squares of luscious honey-almond panna cotta were set off with berries and a generous teardrop of chocolate ice cream. This one didn’t need its grainy toss of caramel powder.

Similarly, Nutella powder gave unwanted grit to the creme fraiche semifreddo, a dessert that already had a lot going on: almond brittle, cantaloupe, lavender, etc.

Only one item really missed the mark, a retooled apple pie that suffered from rubbery fruit slices, a leaden hazelnut crust and cloying, overpoweringly spiced gingerbread ice cream.

But a misfire or two won’t dampen the fun of discovery.

Every time I review Candybar’s menu, I’m newly intrigued: cheesecake with pink grapefruit leche, shortbread and Rice Krispies crunch? Summon my tasting spoon!

I tried convincing Sarah that there’s room in this city for two late-night dessert bars. She was inconsolable, but that may have just been her sugar crash.

Candybar

  • Location: 1335 Fulton St. (at Divisadero Street), S.F.
  • Contact: (415) 673-7078, www.candybarsf.com
  • Hours: 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Sundays, 6 p.m. to midnight Fridays-Saturdays
  • Price range: $9 to $10
  • Recommended dishes: Honey-almond panna cotta ($10), red velvet cake ($9), Drunken S’more ($10)
  • Credit cards: All major
  • Reservations: No

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