There’s only one acceptable answer to the question that concludes every meal: “Would you like to see a dessert menu?”
Saying yes to a bite of something sweet after a fantastic dinner is the culinary equivalent of a standing ovation. And if the entrees were less than great, the outing still ends on a high note. These finales are some of our favorites in Washington — chosen for their impeccable flavor combinations and ability to satisfy our sugary cravings. Some are old, some are new, some are traditional and some are inventive.
One thing’s for certain: They’re all worth saving room for.
Pot brownie sundae at the Riggsby
This dish at chef Michael Schlow’s classic American restaurant is full of contrasts: The ice cream is cold while the batter — baked in a cast-iron pot — is steaming hot; the hazelnut brittle is crunchy while the whipped cream is fluffy; the dark chocolate pearls are round while the toffee is in shards; and the doughy dark chocolate brownie is slightly bitter while the chocolate sauce is pure sugar. Every ingredient pulls your taste buds in different directions, but it all adds up to a wonderfully balanced dish. One more contradiction to note: Though the name implies otherwise, the only surprise hidden inside this brownie is the firm hazelnut ganache. 1731 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 202-787-1500. $14. — Holley Simmons
Smith Island Cake at Old Maryland Grill
Smith Island, the last island in the Chesapeake Bay not connected to the mainland by a bridge, is home to fewer than 300 people and Maryland’s official state dessert, the Smith Island Cake. The origins of the towering confection, famous for its individually baked layers of yellow cake and chocolate frosting, are hazy, but it’s been served on Smith Island for centuries. The freshest version in the Washington area is, appropriately enough, at the Old Maryland Grill in College Park, where the moist layers are separated by a rich, fudgey frosting. Chocolate ice cream is served on the side, but this slab of cake is good enough to stand on its own. 7777 Baltimore Ave., College Park. 301-955-3413. $11. — Fritz Hahn
Turkish delight at Zaytinya
This is not your typical rose-flavored gelatinous confection. A deconstructed dessert done right, this artfully arranged dish harnesses Mediterranean flavors, having earned its keep as a staple on José Andrés’s menu. Two orbs of walnut ice cream sprinkled with caramelized pine nuts support a crispy pastry panel on a plate bordered with tangy yogurt mousse and a bright, orange-caramel sauce. Tiny squares of honey gelee deliver the texture of the dish’s namesake. It’s a sight to behold, but the best way to indulge is to muss it all up so each bite includes every element. 701 Ninth St. NW. 202-638-0800. $4 mezze; $8 full portion. — Matt Brooks
Ube bread pudding with ube ice cream at Purple Patch
Ube is the star of this dessert concocted by Purple Patch owner Patrice Cleary. Combining her Filipino and Irish backgrounds, the treat features a springy bread pudding baked with granola and ube (pronounced “oo-beh”), a starchy tuber also known as a purple yam. The vibrantly colored ingredient has a mild and sweet nuttiness, similar to a pistachio’s, but with a creaminess. A drizzle of rich caramel builds on the pudding’s delightful gooeyness, and a cool scoop of bright ube ice cream caps it all off. 3155 Mount Pleasant St. NW. 202-299-0022. $8. — Winyan Soo Hoo
Forest gnocchi at Ambar
The Balkan restaurant’s most popular dessert isn’t actually Balkan at all. Inspired by the cuisine’s diverse flavors, the forest gnocchi feature a variety of ingredients and textures: chocolate mousse, bitter orange cake, ground chocolate, orange gelee, tarragon gnocchi and passion fruit foam, served in a chilled stone bowl. The elegant arrangement is short-lived, as a server comes by to fold the mixture together after using a bell creamer to pour black-tea sauce. Arlington, 2901 Wilson Blvd. 703-875-9663. The District, 523 Eighth St. SE. 202-813-3039. $9. — W.S.
Chocolate panna cotta at All-Purpose
Panna cotta is the epitome of Italian comfort food: a lush, filling custard that serves as the sweet punctuation to a meal, even when you’re so full of carbs you can’t possibly have more than a bite. Or at least that’s what you think. At All-Purpose, you’ll probably lick the bowl clean. The base comes from Buttercream Bakery’s Tiffany MacIsaac, who said the decadent texture and slight smokiness come from a custard “enriched with buttercream and laced with espresso.” The restaurant’s kitchen tops the custard off with a ricotta made with Luxardo cherry liqueur and bright sprinkles. The whole cherries are worth fighting your date for. 1250 Ninth St. NW. 202-849-6174. $9. — F.H.
Habanero peppers dessert at Kith and Kin
At Kith and Kin, chef Kwame Onwuachi’s celebration of African and Caribbean cuisine, the vibrant reds and oranges of these “peppers” really pop. Made with peppers called habanada, a defanged variety of habanero bred to eliminate spiciness, the dessert looks like it’ll light up the Scoville scale, but it’s actually mellow and sweet. The cooked habanadas are pureed with white grapes and sudachi — a Japanese citrus fruit — into a subtle mousse that’s covered with a dyed white chocolate-gelatin glaze, cleverly reproducing the pepper’s original form. Set over a bed of tart granita, it’s an absolute stunner. 801 Wharf St. SW. 202-878-8566. $11. — Gabe Hiatt
Floating Island at Convivial
The classic French dish at Convivial is made with a ball of meringue that’s steamed, not baked, which results in a fluffy — not crunchy — sphere the size of a baseball. Chef Cedric Maupillier rests the dome atop a pool of crème anglaise overnight so that a rich flavor can be absorbed throughout, then covers it to-order with brown-sugar caramel. Topped with candied almonds for crunch, it looks like a scoop of ice cream, but your spoon glides through it with no resistance. 801 O St. NW. 202-525-2870. $8. — H.S.