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In Baking and Pastry class, our chef instructor Stephen Durfee asked us to consider what makes a great restaurant dessert. He should know a thing or two about it- he was the Pastry Chef at The French Laundry for years before coming to CIA-Greystone.
Thrilled at the chance to get esoteric and wax philosophical (can you tell I’m my father’s daughter), I wrote the following essay.
What Makes A Great Restaurant Dessert?
Why do we order dessert even when we’re already full? What is it that makes a dessert desirable? For starters, dessert tastes good, or at least it should. Durian ice cream, peanut crumble and fish sauce caramel could be a dessert, but it’s unlikely, because it won’t taste good to most diners. Chocolate, strawberry ice cream, chantilly: these ingredients appear and reappear in our dessert language because they taste so darn good. Yet, when we start to ponder what really makes a dessert memorable, we yearn for more than just sweetness.
Let us consider the physical particulars of a dessert. It should be interesting to the mouth. A great dessert has smooth elements, crunchy, crispy, crackly elements. Some ingredients are hot and vivid, while others are chilled and stoic. I remember with pleasure a simple dessert at Kokkari in San Francisco: Baklava ice cream. Well-made vanilla ice cream, not too much fat masking the taste on my tongue; with crispy, caramelized edges of baklava folded in. Neither the baklava nor the vanilla was a taste revelation, but the two textures together were a home run. That dish represents one definition of a great restaurant dessert: simple, well-executed, delicious, and texturally interesting.
A great restaurant dessert should also be visually pleasing. Depending on the type of restaurant, a dessert’s appearance can vary widely; however, it should be sexy. It does something for you. It sizzles, it smokes, it makes your mouth feel things it’s never felt. A slice of mile high apple pie, though lovely at Aunt Bess’ house, does not qualify as a great restaurant dessert because it’s not sexy. It’s squat, it’s cloying, it’s not elegant.
In contrast, a great restaurant dessert is seductive. A great restaurant dessert is a striking lady across the bar who makes you want to order one more drink to go talk to her. It doesn’t lay it all out there on the table, much like an intriguing person isn’t the man who speaks the loudest or the gal in the shortest dress. Rather, a great restaurant dessert tempts with a few words on the menu, free of technical jargon and superfluous prepositions. Then, it surprises with compositions not previously imagined, just in the way a provocative conversation flows in unforeseen directions. Consider a dessert from Alinea that promises “chocolate ganache,” but fascinates with the addition of gelatin that makes it moldable. Have you had chocolate ganache before? Sure! But not chocolate ganache like this.
I never ate at El Bulli, but I’m enthralled by their avant-dessert Natura, which featured fruit treated in multiple ways: pickled, candied, freeze-dried, fresh. It’s as if the El Bulli kitchen was in love with the multiple personalities of fruit, unable to pick just one to highlight. The dish is a culinary version of Picasso’s Cubist portraits: a simultaneous depiction of one object from multiple vantage points. Sexy, intriguing, even confusing, a great restaurant dessert is a challenge.
In conclusion, a great restaurant dessert captivates with taste, visual appeal, textural interest and often cultural reference. Call it a beautiful lady, a technical wonder, a Cubist painting, or just call it delicious. We may be full, but we’ll order it anyway.