Pink, fluffy and a hot mess if you don’t watch out. No, not Nicki Minaj. We’re talking about cotton candy: the featherweight spun sugar that dissolves at the touch of your tongue, invariably sticks to your fingers, and provides a sugar-fueled rush. For a long time, the treat was relegated to fairs and circuses, but now chefs and mixologists are putting new spins on the carnival classic. “We are all kids on the inside,” says Azur chef-owner Frederik De Pue, who serves a pineapple-flavored version at his Penn Quarter restaurant. “It’s one of those desserts that’s always fun to eat, no matter how old you are.” Here are four places in the area to get your cotton candy fix.
A cotton candy machine sits on the counter of this Barracks Row hot dog hot spot. “It fits into our carnival theme,” chef and general manager Anthony Piscioneri says. The treat is served on a paper cone or in a bag, and the flavor changes about every week: It could be banana, blueberry (left), watermelon, bubble gum, raspberry, strawberry, pina colada or vanilla (all $1.99). There was a slight hitch in production when a fire destroyed Frager’s Hardware store, as Piscioneri sourced his cotton candy flavoring from the neighborhood institution. Luckily, he quickly found an online supplier.
DC-3, 423 Eighth St. SE; 202-546-1935. (Eastern Market)
A walk through New York’s Little Italy during a festival is a sugar addict’s dream, with stands selling fresh-fried zeppole and cannoli brimming with sweet ricotta. The sweet scene inspired the cotton candy dessert ($5) at this small-plate trattoria from the team behind Cava. Chef and co-owner Dimitri Moshovitis serves a bubble gum-flavored version, though he’s tinkering with adult-friendly flavors like sea salt and burnt caramel that he’ll serve within the next month. “Children don’t order it; it’s mostly adults,” he says. “They’re looking for a little nostalgia.”
Sugo Cicchetti, 12505 Park Potomac Ave., Potomac, Md.; 240-386-8080.
Before his seafood-centric Penn Quarter restaurant opened in April, De Pue discussed plans for the dessert menu with his kitchen staff. “I told them I wanted to offer a bowl of cotton candy,” he says, “and everyone looked at me like I was crazy.” Despite the first reaction, De Pue began experimenting with flavors you’d never find at a carnival. After some trial and error, he devised a smoked pineapple cotton candy (above, $5) that tastes like sugary, dehydrated rings of the tropical fruit. The naysayers stay quiet now — it’s one of Azur’s most popular desserts.
Azur, 405 Eighth St. NW; 202-347-7491.
Jose Andres’ cocktail lounge — which opened in February next door to Minibar, his cutting-edge molecular gastronomy restaurant — slings whimsical libations such as the Cotton Candy Old Fashioned ($16). Orange-flavored cotton candy is placed in a glass, and then chilled Old Overholt rye and bitters are poured over it. “When they touch, the cotton candy melts to create a sweetener,” cocktail innovator Juan Coronado says. “It’s a magical moment.” Flavors change seasonally, so you might get smoked mescal, chartreuse or vanilla spun sugar instead, but the drink always induces oohs and aahs.
Barmini, 855 E St. NW; 202-393-4451. (Archives)