BY DEBORAH FENKER | Few images are as cozy and calming as a furry feline curled up in a window’s nook, purring peacefully in its sleep. It is this sense of comfort and tranquility that newcomer DongJu Song means to conjure with his new venture, The Sleeping Cat bakery (160 Seventh Ave. btw. W. 19th & 20th Sts.).
Song is a former attorney who has been honing his skills as a baker for over 20 years. The recent trend to follow one’s passion into entrepreneurship spurred Song to pursue this new project—which will arrive in Chelsea with the added, fortunate fact that he’s gotten pretty good at it.
A West Village resident since 2005, Song interned at several established bakeries throughout the city to perfect his craft, then endeavored on the arduous hunt to find a viable location for his own enterprise. He worked with a realtor for nearly a year before arriving on a Chelsea location, the prior address of restaurateur Georges Forgeois’ beloved Le Singe Vert, a longtime neighborhood favorite. Forgeois had progressively closed all his restaurants in a slo-mo domino effect beginning with Cercle Rouge back in 2016, through Jules Bistro and Bar Tabac, and then Singe.
The challenge of maintaining a restaurant, or any business, in Manhattan these days is daunting. For Song, though, his initial challenge “was to find a place with the right vibe,” a vibe he had already integrated into his concept after settling on the name–The Sleeping Cat. Singe Vert definitely had those bones, with its tin ceiling and wide polished bar. And yes, Song owns two cats: Hobbes and Selene, both of whom he claims are exemplary sleepers and provide both solace and inspiration.
The bakery, expected to open in January 2024, will embody all those warm-fuzzies, both in the ambiance and the delicacies Song creates. He will be specializing in classic American desserts with a respect for a tradition, but the liberty to add some modern and global tweaks. “I love the classics done well,” he says, and as such some of the menu highlights will be voluptuous seasonal fruit pies, the dearth of which nearby Bar Veloce owner, Frederick Twomey, has often lamented. He is readily anticipating the blueberry pie (Twomey’s self-declared favorite), but other flavors like peach and cherry will also be available. Another specialty will be one of Song’s all-time favorite indulgences–Strawberry shortcake. His will feature a scone-esque biscuit smothered in jammy macerated berries—and instead of the typical whipped cream, a rich vanilla pudding to double down on the element of nostalgia.
While the menu is still being finalized, in his two decades of baking, he has landed upon some inarguable crowd-pleasers. A crisp-edged butter cookie, a chewy, caramelized oat and pecan marvel, and a peanut-butter sandwich cookie are definites, as is the requisite chocolate chip cookie, between which two versions (thin and crispy vs. thick and chewy) are still being decided upon.
As for cakes and cupcakes, they will not immediately be among the offerings. With Empire Cake and Billy’s Bakery in such close proximity, the need for those seemed less urgent. He doesn’t rule out the possibility of evolving into their inclusion, however, as the bakery matures. Song acknowledges, for better and for worse, New Yorker’s hyper-localism, and sometimes even a few blocks—often even one—can make a difference in where one decides to source any given comestible. But for now, the above menu items are the focus, as Song wants everything that comes out of his kitchen to be the absolute best it can be.
There will also be some savory offerings, or at least non-sweet, like a sliceable sandwich loaf and dinner rolls of the Parker House variety, but made even softer and suppler using the Japanese milk bread technique. A smattering of sandwiches and flaky-crusted hand pies will provide more formidable sustenance, and so as not to leave you carbed out and unhydrated, Song will also include an array of juices, espresso-based coffee drinks, and his passion, a diverse roster of specialty teas.
As for dietary specifications, Song prefers to perfect the originals, without “imitating things.” So while there will be a few concessions for the more common sensitivities, for the most part the emphasis is on traditional technique, as some items are just fundamentally better created with their original ingredients. While some things are adaptable, others hit home precisely because of the potentially scurrilous ingredients they harbor: gluten, sugars, eggs, and whatnot. “The whole point of a bagel is the chew, the crust,” which relies on the alchemy of its components (gluten among them) to achieve greatness. But Song is willing to make accommodations, when possible, as long as they don’t compromise the final product.
The Sleeping Cat is expected to open for business, for the first time, in January 2024. Its operating hours (spanning morning, noon, and night; 8am-10pm, tentatively) are calibrated to satisfy creatures of habit as well as those whose appetites can be fickle and unpredictable. Wants may vary from person to person–but as their website notes, “The need for comfort, coziness and community is greater than ever.”
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