“No dessert for me.”
The words — apologetic, often delivered with emphatic stomach-patting — draw the curtains on so many great restaurant meals. Perhaps you placed one too many orders of shishito peppers, or rang up the tab with too many bottles of Rioja. But it’s just as likely you made your choice only when the high point of the dessert menu turned out to be yet another cookie plate.
Meticulously made pastries used to be the coda to high-end dining, the indulgent stuff of spare-no-expense accounts and anniversaries. But like reservations and formality (and those expense accounts), as more restaurants adopt the trappings of easygoing bistros, that soufflé has gone flat.
“The economic downturn was what precipitated, in restaurants, the cutting away of areas that they thought were not critical to making the restaurant survive,” explains Alex Levin, executive pastry chef at Osteria Morini in Southeast Washington.
Compounding the decline of the dessert course — for all its strides since the days of calcified “New York” cheesecake and trifle that look better than they taste — is serious competition from elsewhere on the menu. The $14 cocktail that now commences so many restaurant meals? To temper end-of-meal sticker shock, it’s logical to nix the panna cotta in favor of another Manhattan. Small plates, we’re looking at you, too: Only Paul Bunyan could be faulted for begging off dessert after four or five servings of scallop carpaccio and roasted cauliflower.
Pastry chefs are also fleeing busy kitchens, hanging up their aprons to make cakes, doughnuts and breads for their own ventures. Tiffany MacIsaac, formerly the pastry whiz for Buzz Bakery, Birch & Barley and the rest of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, is laying ground for her Buttercream Bakeshop; Meredith Tomason, who toiled in the kitchen of New York’s famed Craft, opened RareSweets late last year in CityCenterDC; Jason Gehring, late of Fiola and Table, is angling to become a biscuit mogul with Mason Dixie.
But have we arrived, as New York magazine’s Adam Platt has compellingly argued, at the nadir of desserts?
Nah. Here’s the scoop about desserts such as the perfect quenelle of ice cream or Central’s Celebration Cake, which arrives like a marching band on the Fourth of July: Those who love dessert will seek it out, but chefs say some customers will never crave it, making their job as much about marketing as it is about baking.
“There are a million different kinds of customer,” MacIsaac says. “That’s what makes it so complicated.”
There are traditionalists, who will always swoon over Key lime pie; there are the cake eaters and the cheese-plate people; and there are those looking, simply, for the full Willy Wonka experience. (They can get it, too, in the chocolate syringe from Max Brenner in Bethesda.)
To recapture the attention of dessert-wary diners, some Washington-area restaurants have brought the final course back into the limelight, serving it with flair, changing the options regularly and making a straightforward pitch for the diners who usually never order it.
Suddenly, the region is brimming with retro baked Alaskas, delivered with theatrics typically reserved for a production of “Wicked.” At Mintwood Place and DBGB, the desserts are set ablaze in an ostentatious tableside ritual just charming enough to ensure that a dozen more will sell.
At Osteria Morini, Levin is embracing seasonality, spiking his menu with perfect winter citrus: His pistachio pudding nearly induces tears of joy thanks to the zest of Meyer lemons.
And how to one-up the ho-hum cookie plate? Make it as complex as a plate of petit fours. Not only is the upgraded version at Logan Circle’s Birch & Barley an homage to the nation’s most enduring sweets, but it also is outsized, offering a little something for everyone. It was the most labor-intensive of MacIsaac’s desserts but also the biggest seller. “I called it, like, my best worst idea,” she says.
And speaking of appealing to the masses, at a mere $3, the gourmet soft-serve at Daikaya would be easy to love even if it weren’t also complex, spiked with avocado and lime zest, chilies and, yes, wasabi peas. Daikaya chef Katsuya Fukushima, sous chef Kristian Felix recalls, directed staff to find something that would remind customers of a McDonald’s sundae. As such, it arrives in a paper cup. “It’s very lowbrow,” adds chef de cuisine Nick Cezar, with palpable pride.
“People always want decadence, and to be a little naughty. Everything has a little ebb and flow,” says James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Sherry Yard, who has brought her cream puff and other sweets to the iPic luxury movie theater chain, which includes a location in North Bethesda and an adjoining restaurant, City Perch.
Yard, who spent years working with Wolfgang Puck, isn’t the only pastry chef to credit Dominique Ansel — “Mr. Cronut,” as she calls him — with restoring whimsy (and competitive spirit) to dessert.
“Maybe it seems silly, but even the fads, they come and go, like the cronut and the cupcake, but it does bring attention to pastry,” says Caitlin Dysart, the pastry chef at 2941 in Falls Church, who last year took home the Pastry Chef of the Year Award from the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
If everything in the restaurant world comes down to metrics — and it does — dessert has never been a cash cow. Dysart says she typically moves 40 desserts a night, or one dessert for approximately every fourth guest. To find restaurants with desserts worth saving room for, there are a few obvious guideposts.
Levin suggests that diners look at the length of the dessert list: A restaurant with more than four items, he says, is probably investing in its sweet fare. (To wit: Levin’s menu at Morini and Dysart’s at 2941 each have seven options.)
Dysart and many of the best sweet-makers in the region focus on textures and temperatures, perhaps even more than simply tickling patrons’ sweet tooths. A good dessert has “gotta hit a couple of notes,” Dysart says. “I like contrasts. Warm and cold.”
Or look, as MacIsaac does, for signs that a pastry pro is in the kitchen. “Dessert has a bad rap, because there are a lot of restaurants that don’t have pastry chefs,” she says. “It’s almost impossible that you’re going to sell enough dessert to pay for that pastry team. When you see that a restaurant has a pastry chef, they’ve really made a commitment to wanting to have that feature for their guests.”
You could also start here. With help from area chefs, we’ve rounded up some of Washington’s best and most memorable sweets.
This glorified ice cream cake sounds every bit as retro as bananas Foster. Actually, it’s older. Baked Alaska is a relic from the early-19th century, made of sponge cake wrapped around ice cream or sorbet, all ensconced in egg-white merengue and charred. Sounds as quaint as Waldorf salad, but, oh, what a show: At Mintwood Place and DBGB , the meringue is topped with a spirit and set ablaze at the table. The head-turner seems to restore dessert to its place as the course no one should skip. No wonder it’s turning up on menus across town.
$8 at Mintwood Place, 1813 Columbia Rd. NW. www.mintwoodplace.com. $16 at DBGB, 931 H St. NW.
Also try: The baked Alaska tart at City Perch in North Bethesda, where pastry chef Sherry Yard offers a twist, with pumpkin gelato. At 2941, it’s made with creamy peanut butter ice cream. City Perch, 11830 Grand Park Ave., North Bethesda. www.cityperch.com; 2941, 2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church. www.2941.com.
Pastry aficionados may turn up their noses at what amounts to warmed-over dough and a side of milk. But go on, just order the cookies and confections plate dreamed up by Tiffany MacIsaac during her time at Birch & Barley . You’ll be elbowing your date for a pick of the nostalgic goodies on display, including homemade versions of a Snickers bar and Hostess cupcake, caramel corn ice cream and oatmeal cream pie.
$10 at Birch & Barley, 1337 14th St. NW. www.birchandbarley.com.
Also try: Ripple serves simple-but-perfect chocolate chip cookies with Trickling Springs milk; Iron Gate’s cookie plate is Mediterranean-influenced, with amaretti, biscotti and sesame varieties. Ripple, 3417 Connecticut Ave. NW. www.rippledc.com; Iron Gate, 1734 N St. www.irongaterestaurantdc.com.
It’s pudding, people. Just. Pudding. But when Nancy Silverton of Los Angeles’ famed Pizzeria Mozza served it in glass with rosemary cookies, the Italian dish several notches up from J-E-L-L-O became that carbophobic city’s best dessert and spawned a nationwide budino renaissance. Alex Levin’s budino at Osteria Morini is the loveliest in our city, mingling textures with a sprinkling of brittle, a side of tiny olive-oil cakes and perhaps the world’s best toffee. The flavor changes regularly, but this season’s version — with nutty pistachio spiked with zesty Meyer lemon (perfect for diners unmoved by chocolate) — will give you the feels.
$12 at Osteria Morini, 301 Water St. SE. www.osteriamorini.com .
Even Dominique Ansel, that pastry provocateur, has taken a stab at the sundae, and this year, so did a handful of D.C. area shops. Dolcezza has the unbelievably elegant Fruity Pebbles, topping various gelatos with a thatch of flosslike candied citrus zest and delicate marcona almonds. But even more whimsical and awesome is Daikaya’s vanilla soft-serve sundaes, the best of which come topped with crushed wasabi peas, Calpico yogurt and chocolate crisps; or avocado and lime sauce with toasted coconut. Goodbye, maraschinos, you won’t be missed.
Substitute something other than cream cheese and you’re looking at a whole new dessert. That means fluffy ricotta at Italian restaurants (delightful with a little football-shaped quenelle of blood-orange sorbet at Osteria Morini); and at the Spanish small-plates shop Estadio , it’s funky sheep’s milk manchego cheese, rendered so tender it veers into flan territory. It’s topped with a quince syrup and pistachio, blending dessert with the cheese course in one blissful package.
$9 at Estadio, 1520 14th Street NW. www.estadio-dc.com.
Also try: Room 11’s popular honey goat, which gets makeovers seasonally, meaning you always have a reason to order it. 3234 11th St. NW. www.room11dc.com .
The French call them mignardises: whimsical little tokens from the kitchen to close out a meal, never mind that you already had dessert. At Rogue 24, where dinner is 24 courses, you’ve actually had three desserts (yes!) before Giane Cavaliere, just named one of the city’s rising stars by StarChefs, sends out her Happy Endings/Little Things box. It is packed with creamy house-made chocolates, dainty passion-fruit gels and other toothsome bijoux. It’s a way of showing off a half-dozen techniques in a handful of tiny things, but these are so pleasing that even if you can’t take another bite, just empty the contents into your bag for later.
$10 per person at the bar at Rogue 24, 922 N St. NW. www.rogue24.com.
Restaurants know that more tables skip dessert than order it. Some blame goes to those terrible misanthropes who just don’t go for chocolate, gooey textures or the last-minute addition of calories. Wooing them requires a dessert for dessert haters. And so chocolate is disguised as salami at Etto , with a fudgelike mix of cocoa, delicate nuts and crushed Italian biscuits in the shape of a sausage.
$11 at Etto, 1541 14th St. NW. www.ettodc.com.
Also try: The Foieffle at Barmini: You’re there for the drinks, but this peanut butter foie gras waffle — which doesn’t bill itself as dessert — has a cult following.
855 E St. NW. www.minibarbyjoseandres.com.
Tiny, silver-dollar-size pastry puffs are stuffed with ice cream or cream for this dessert, a staple in French-inspired restaurants. But bake the shells too long, or serve them past their prime, and profiteroles are as delightful as three-day-old croissants. At 2941 , Caitlin Dysart’s are perfectly soft and practically overstuffed with an unconventional pumpkin pie sorbet, an excellent upgrade from plain-old vanilla ice cream. Adding to the Thanksgiving-all-the-time vibe: a tart cranberry fruit gelee, squiggling its way through the sweetness.
$8 at 2941, 2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church. www.2941.com.
Also try: Le Diplomate’s profiteroles, drizzled in chocolate sauce as is traditional, are proof that the puff — called pâte à choux in French — makes all the difference. These are light as air. 1601 14th St. NW. www.lediplomatedc.com.