Not so long ago dessert at full-service restaurants was an event. Bananas Foster or Cherries Jubilee flambéed tableside, carts with tiers of pastries and cakes wheeled around the dining room, even candle-topped birthday sundaes delivered with a song. Such dessert spectacle has largely disappeared from restaurants in favor of more modest meal-enders designed to appeal to diners watching their waists or their wallets. Lately, though some chefs are bringing back the drama, making dessert something to behold again.
“You get a presentation like that and it tastes better,” said pastry chef Jen Shen. “You have a moment with dessert — that’s why I do dessert.”
At Wolfgang Puck at Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles, where Shen is the executive pastry chef, the dessert menus features an elaborate PB&J. Housemade peanut butter ice cream pops coated with a caramel and chocolate shell crusted with roasted peanuts, puffed rice and fleur de sel are served atop a piece of petrified driftwood and garnished with chocolate mints, violas and whole raspberries filled with raspberry jam.
“We bring in the drama,” said Shen. “When you’re in this kind of setting … it’s gorgeous, it’s outdoors … it really suits our clientele, adds to the experience.”
At Study in Cambridge, Mass., which specializes in ambitious but accessible new American cuisine, co-owner Tse Wei Lim offers an off-menu coconut dessert served in a Weck jar coated with white sesame “glass” that guests shatter with their spoon before eating.
Inspired by common Thai flavors, the dish features black sesame anglaise with deep fried coconut sponge cake, Thai basil as gel and leaves, mango pudding and chile on top of a sugar tuile. Some of the components are on top of the sugar coating and fall into the jar when diners break the sugar coating.
Lim says he created the dish because it “seemed like a good idea,” and because he “wanted to explore the possibilities created by adding, essentially, a pure, plain sugar component to a dessert.”
Barton G. the Restaurant in Miami is known for its theatrical desserts, such as Marie Antoinette’s Head — Let Them Eat Cake, a life-sized ceramic head topped with cotton candy and surrounded by strawberry shortcake and fresh berries. The restaurant’s latest extravagance is called 7 Deadly Sweets, a Latin-inspired dessert that features a dulce de leche brazo de gitano — or jelly roll — a La Mancha saffron apple tart, tres leches cake, caramel flan, cortadito tiramisu, mango cheesecake and honey buñuelos, all served in an altar-like presentation complete with a thinker bust draped with a rosary-like candy necklace and votive candles.
At Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer in New York City, which opened last March, chef/partner Joe Isidori puts the drama back in birthdays with his Oreo Cookies & Cream Birthday Milkshake. The dessert is made of vanilla ice cream that’s spun together with whole milk and crushed Oreos, poured into a cup lined with chocolate syrup and topped with whipped cream, marshmallows, Oreo pieces and lit sparklers.
“[We] enjoy showing [our] appreciation of [our] loyal customers through honoring them on their birthday with this extra special birthday dessert,” said Isidori.
At Tao Uptown and Tao Downtown, also in New York City, chef/partner Ralph Scamardella has been going big with dessert for many years with his Giant Fortune Cookie.
A plate-sized version of a classic fortune cookie made of flour, egg whites, butter, sugar and salt is dressed with chocolate and almonds, filled with dark and white mousse and served on a chocolate-coated plate with fresh cut fruit. Like its normal-sized counterparts served at Chinese restaurants, the oversized cookie comes with fortunes inside, including witticisms such as, “Always take a job that is too big for you” and “There is no sex in the Champagne room.”
“The guests love such a grandeur presentation,” said Scamardella.“It will be available forever — it is the bestselling dessert.”