Three Desserts are Better than One

(Note: This article was published in South Bay Accent in early 2006.)

If you consider your appetizer and entree just pre-dessert, your time has finally arrived, cupcake. The end-of-meal treat in the post-modernist era is evolving into a showstopper as some creative chefs in tony dining rooms put main-course-level oomph into their desserts. No wonder there’s a new focus on the meal’s finale after the long dreary years when carbs topped the evil list, making most of us desperate for a sweet bite. And some South Bay restaurants are encouraging this rebellion by offering the most irresistible among today’s new dessert trends – dessert samplers. A hands-down hit, these multi-element sweet tastings “introduce the wow factor to desserts,” in the words of one restaurant manager.

Considering the oh-no-not-crème-brulée-again sameness of many local dessert lists today, South Bay sweets lovers are delighted to nibble the creative output of the handful of pastry chefs now offering these samplers.  Their numbers are sure to increase. In the big-city hangouts of the hipoisie, dessert tasting plates featuring Lilliputian-sized portions of three or four complementary items are more visible on the menus of top-ranked restaurants.

Dessert: Why eat just one?

A sure sign that this dessert concept will multiply in our region is how the most buzz-worthy, high-aiming newish restaurants are offering dessert samplers. For example, one of the most exciting — Cyrus, in downtown Healdsburg – continues its culinary glories full steam into dessert with offerings like a nine-flavor “toasted rice tasting” in which a long log of crème caramel has a row of different toppings that include crunchy rice, sweet bean paste, gingered melon balls, minted mango, cardamom sorbet, sesame tuille and cashew mousse, delivering a new taste experience with each lovin’ spoonful.

Less is more

Dessert samplers are a good way for serious-minded restaurants to get the attention of jaded diners and make them want to return.  “I only have one chance to make an impact,” explains pastry chef Carlos Sanchez from Parcel 104 in Santa Clara. To this end, he is succeeding in spades with one of the South Bay’s largest selections of dessert samplers. He rolled out the restaurant’s first tasting plate two years ago and has never looked back.  Now that’s all he offers on the regular menu, despite the fact that preparing three or four teensy individual desserts per plate – the menu contains five — is that much more work for him and his three-person staff of culinary-school-trained cooks.

Carlos Sanchez — the South Bay’s king of dessert samplers

But it’s worth it; 98 percent of Parcel 104 dinner guests eat dessert, which is a remarkable and enviable statistic in the competitive restaurant industry. Only the steeliest willpower could resist Sanchez offerings like his “classics” plate. These particular “little bites” – his term for his samplers – include a thimble of lush, slightly warm tapioca with a drop of raspberry; an “interpretation” of a cool mojito drink, with more sweetness, less rum and a shotglass-size portion of the popular minty, citrusy cocktail;  a couple of creamy, wonderful mouthfuls of vanilla-rich flan; and a tiny square of warm, out-of-this-world French toast topped with a fresh banana slice, a drizzle of warm caramel sauce and a tablespoon-size scoop of house-made ice cream.

Beautifully displayed on white rectangular plates, Sanchez’s samplers deliciously demonstrate that a few luscious licks or nibbles of a particular dessert times three or four is more enticing than shoveling in a single heaping portion. As Sanchez explains it with his charming South American phrasing, “A big piece of chocolate cake – the second bite, you get tired.”  Indeed you do, which is why a dessert tasting plate whose contents contrast temperature, texture and flavor while carrying forward an overall theme is an indication of an evolved pastry chef at work.

Extending the tasting menu

The appearance of dessert sampler plates fits within today’s full-throttle gastronomic scene in which serious diners approach a meal as if it were a symphony or play in several acts encompassing a range of experiences. Ambitious chefs aim to seduce and astonish their guests, which is best done with a series of little courses following the leitmotif of that particular establishment.  In skilled hands, dessert should continue the cadence of discovery, perhaps with a pianissimo of subtle bites followed by a crescendo of bold, assertive flavors.

A great place to get an inspired South Bay tasting menu that continues the little-bites concept into dessert is Manresa in Los Gatos. Pastry chef Deanie Hickox has the challenge of architecting desserts that maintain the excitement level of executive chef David Kinch’s exemplary savory courses. Happily for us, she is up to the task, beginning a three- or four-course progression with a lighter dessert such as rose gelée granita or berries in sweetened 50-year-old balsamic vinegar onward to a final rich aria that could be caramel-praline soufflé with gianduja crème anglaise.  For those who can’t get enough dessert, tasting menus usually include post-dessert mignardise, the final plate of little sweet goodies that sends you happily on your way home. Manresa’s mignardise include yummies like baby-finger-sized chocolate madeleines, mini éclairs and one-bite marscapone cannoli.

Whether as part of a tasting menu or as a dessert sampler on a few enlightened menus, this fantasmagoric approach to sweets is evidence of a culture that seems more beguiled by new mouth experiences than ever before. Even sugar itself is being rediscovered. Move over plain white granulated and brown sugar. Enter jaggery, piloncillo, muscovado, demara, malt, date and plum sugar.  Gourmand chocolate lovers don’t reach for any old brown stuff, but seek out their favorite varietal chocolate from one of the far-flung areas where this addictive substance is grown. Venezuelan cocoa beans are supposed to have spicy and nutty aromas. Ecuadorean beans have the floral smells of the rain forest. Beans from Trinidad, Madagascar, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Indonesia have their own particular point-of-origin aromas and flavors – and serious eaters have opinions about their favorites. With so much interest these days in all things food related, the dessert sampler is a tasty sign of the times.

The power of pastry

Today’s sugar high does more than make diners happy.  Restaurants squeezing their bottom line in these post-crash years know that profit margins are larger on dessert because ingredients like sugar, flour, butter and cream are inexpensive when compared to savory foodstuffs such as costly meats and seafood, wild mushrooms, truffles and pricey cheeses. So having an enticing dessert menu that is well promoted and creates some buzz is a smart business move. The confluence of new restaurant profit strategies with diners who have cast aside a dieting mindset while seeking heady close encounters of the sweet kind can be seen in more ways than dessert tasting plates. A recent survey of 350 executive pastry chefs by a professional organization asked the chefs to name the latest dessert trends and produced a shortlist of new approaches to treats. Improved-upon renditions of retro desserts, fusing a couple of ethnic themes in an enticing new concoction, and drinkable desserts are among the hot themes – or cold, in the case of exotic new flavors of house-made ice cream like saffron honey.

Dessert tasting plates were mentioned as a sizzling trend just beginning to appear beyond the high-end foodie meccas where new movements are typically launched.  Interestingly, dessert samplers can showcase some of the other new trends like retro classics, ethnic innovations, alluring ice creams and drinkable desserts such as teensy milkshakes, fruit “soups” and other liquid refreshments – all on one plate.  Other trends sometimes seen in dessert tastings are whimsy and presentation power.  One Las Vegas pastry chef serves what he calls “reconstructed cappuccino.” Freshly made, thumb-sized donuts are floated on a moat of cappuccino broth and can be speared with a caramel pixy stick. Alongside is a house-made cream soda with a straw made from a vanilla bean; sipping the soda through the straw produces more intense vanilla flavor. Finally, this sampler includes caramelized popcorn of a much higher order than found at your local street fair.

As revealed in the pastry chef survey, inventiveness is another hallmark of new-century desserts.  Manresa pastry chef Hickox has served a munchkin-sized waffle piled with roasted apricots and garnished with corn ice cream (trust me, it’s good), while one of Carlos Sanchez’s most delectable creations is luscious blondies (the non-chocolate version of brownies) that contain ground, dried candy cap mushrooms, which have an intense maple syrup aroma. However, in the South Bay, pastry chefs like Travis Thomas from Alexander’s Steakhouse in Cupertino are careful not to let their creative urges work overtime. In suburban areas where not everyone is an adventurous eater, there is a thin line between innovative and weird to some diners. “In the end, it doesn’t matter how good the dessert is. If it scares the guests, it won’t get sold,” he explains pragmatically. There’s only one line he wants his desserts to cross.  “Dessert is our last chance to really make the experience for our guests unforgettable,” he says.

The allure of the “C” word

In the pastry chef survey and in our own area, chocolate continues to top the list of attention grabbers for dining patrons. Finding a menu without at least one chocolate dessert is as difficult as maintaining an ordering philosophy of moderation in the midst of all the mousses, warm, gooey cakes and other ambrosial goodies beckoning from the page.  More diners in general are heeding the call of dessert sampler plates – particularly ones featuring chocolate.  That’s what guests gravitate toward at San Jose’s Le Papillon, says executive chef Scott Cooper, so that’s the theme of his popular dessert sampler. “Women, in particular, react very positively,” he explains.

Bariatric surgery aside, indulgence seems to be guiding the meal choices for many of us in the South Bay of late. In an era when sales of super-premium, super-rich ice cream continue to climb while buyers increasingly shun the reduced-fat equivalents – 41 percent of sales compared to a scrawny .7 percent, according to the USDA — dessert samplers feed a need for occasional hedonism. And for the moment, it’s legal. Samplers can more successfully push aside any budding guilt because it’s easier to justify savoring a few delectable mouthfuls of a variety of sweet treats rather than tackling that mountain-sized hunk of cake. You can bet that mouthful number fifteen will taste just the same as the first forkful, so why not spend your calories on something more interesting?  With Valentine’s Day around the corner, the following South Bay restaurants can deliver a plate of enticing morsels optimized for savoring by you and your sweetie.

Alexander’s Steakhouse, Cupertino

As difficult as it may be, try to restrain yourself from ordering that 14-ounce Porterhouse so you won’t be in a fat-fueled stupor by the end of your entrée. You won’t regret saving room for one of pastry chef Travis Thomas’s samplers, which are creative, delicious and often reflect the season. The six-strong dessert staff keeps experimenting with new items and tweaking old ones, but it’s a safe bet that the crème brulée tasting plate, some swoon-worthy chocolate sampler, and “fire and ice” – mini raspberry Grand Marnier soufflé paired with frozen orange parfait and a lush poppy seed honey assemblage – will be among six selections. Exotica like confections that play out a spice and herb theme have appeared. At press time, Thomas had just perfected a fall/winter selection based on apples and nuts that includes mini cakes, caramel apple, nut mousse, apple confit, house-made maple ice cream and even a slurp’s worth of hot spiced apple cider.

The $9 to $11 sampler plates nominally have three desserts, but it seems like more once Thomas adds lines of lush sauces, garnishes and tiny extra treats. For example, a particularly popular selection showcases a Valrhona chocolate creation whose various layers deliver creamy milk chocolate and a darker, cinnamon-rich chocolate, with a white chocolate mousse topping and 24-karat edible gold, all of this draped with caramel sauce and sprinkled with raspberries. Along with this comes a line of sweet milk foam, a scoop of cracked black pepper chocolate sorbet and a thin line of chocolate cake dust. And there’s more: a vanilla tuille twist and a chocolate cake florentine, which Thomas describes as “part cookie, part candy, part florentine and absolutely pleasing.”

Kuleto’s, Los Gatos (note: this location is now Dio Deka restaurant)

This posh Italian eatery within a luxurious boutique hotel has your number if you’re a chocoholic. Hyperbole aside, they call their dessert sampler “Something to Live For” and it’s all about the cocoa bean. Debuting during the holidays, it’s a study of tastes and textures for $9.50 that features a “frozen element,” in the words of food & beverage manager Josh Weeks, which is chocolate sorbet. The “creamy, smooth” part is chocolate mousse, he said, while texture comes from a chocolate crunch cake that layers sponge cake with a “sort of chocolate brittle.”  Accompanied with arty pulled-sugar decorations and berry coulis, this offering resides on a showy, expensive, 12-inch square Bernaudad china plate.

The dessert tasting idea was initiated by Weeks shortly after his arrival in the fall and is executed by chef Daniel Patino and staff. Kuleto’s first foray was a selection of mini cheesecakes in flavors like white chocolate and huckleberry that was offered to private parties and on the tasting menu. It was well received, so the kitchen revved up its chocolate extravaganza.  According to Weeks, they are also kicking around other ideas such as “six ways of apple,” with the overall objective of the dessert tasting program being to, as Weeks says, “to bring oohs and aahs” from the guests.

Manresa, Los Gatos

Contributing to the fame of Manresa’s tasting menu is a trio (and sometimes more) of carefully orchestrated desserts at the end of the meal. Like the courses that precede it, dessert here is highly creative and engineered to give your mouth new experiences. Some of pastry chef Deanie Hickox’s offerings have included a mini baba au rhum (a liquor-soaked, cream-filled yeast cake) paired with exotically fragrant kefir lime and pineapple, or a petite Braeburn apple tart with marscapone ice cream and huckleberry compote.

As part of her strategy to begin the dessert train with lighter items, Hickox has started guests out with a champagne glass of yogurt sorbet covered with olallieberries, or tiny scoops of assorted melon sorbets with yogurt and mint. To lighten things up, she uses lots of seasonal fruit — for instance, a roast fig and pistachio torte with honey panna cotta. But the progression inevitably moves on. Say, to a rich chocolate marquis with condensed milk ice cream and marinated cherries.  For Valentine’s Day, Hickox is doing a new special menu that adds a “chocolate box” at the end of the meal, from which guests can select a heavenly house-made chocolate truffle made with El Ray chocolate, which some gourmets consider the tastiest on the planet.

Parcel 104, Santa Clara Marriott

Pastry chef Carlos Sanchez is a happy perfectionist whose dessert samplers have turned around even those who don’t normally eat sweets. His creations follow the restaurant’s theme of farm-fresh American cuisine, so you’ll find desserts with pick-of-season fruit and similar fine ingredients. Of the five samplers on the menu, those like his “Classics” are always available, while others follow the season and his weekly recipe development sessions. For example, a popular fall offering included an indescribably delicious candy cap mushroom blondie topped with caramel and fruit, a teensy apple-pear crisp and miniscule pumpkin pie.  However, even the always-available choices like his “Taste of Americana” will include items that change with the season. Say, a mini peach melba in the summer will be replaced by an “autumn parfait” later in the year.

Sanchez and his team make some wonderful ice creams and sorbets that often accompany the dessert samplers. An intense banana-chocolate chip ice cream recently came with the deeply delicious devil’s food cake, chocolate malt shake and chocolate pot de crème on his “Chocolate Kisses” offering. A great way of experiencing his desserts is to sit at the counter in front of his dessert station and watch him put your plate together. He also tours the dining room to “explain my desserts” to dinner guests, who are invariably so charmed that they can’t help but order some.

Pagoda, San Jose Fairmont

Dessert isn’t an important element in traditional Asian food, but that hasn’t slowed down the Fairmont’s pastry chef, Fernando Arreola.  The Fairmont’s Asian fusion Pagoda restaurant has several Westernized desserts made by Arreola to tempt guest from all backgrounds but it’s in the “chocolate bento box” that he has truly outdone himself.  Priced at $15 and designed for two people, it’s so gorgeous that it seems like a shame to actually eat it. Almost.

Beckoning from the various compartments of a handsome black laquered bento box (the traditional container for Japanese meals on the go) is a handful of seemingly familiar Asian items. There’s “sushi,” which are actually oblong truffles of chocolate and mango or pistachio, white chocolate and ginger. “Spring rolls” deliver smooth chocolate custard inside a crispy shell, while two pieces of chocolate-dipped deep-fried banana beckon from another compartment. Finally, a delicate chocolate cup is filled with a compote of exotic fruits like lychee and kiwi. There’s a dark and white chocolate “chopstick” to nibble on and if you can’t get enough chocolate, you can slather on some chocolate sauce from the center well.  This spectacular dessert redefines decadence.

Le Papillon, San Jose

Chef Scott Cooper knows how to elicit swoons among his diners, delivering a sampler plate on his tasting menu called “Chocolate to the Fifth Degree.” And he’s not kidding. A square plate features cold chocolate espresso soup in a shot glass, hazelnut semifreddo with coco nibs, warm chocolate timbale, a delicate phyllo shell filled with dark chocolate mousse and sundry garnishes like a tiny house-made truffle and a petite, warm, house-made chocolate chip cookie. You can bet that the latter is composed from the best ingredients. Cooper urges guests to try this extravagant tasting plate with a glass of 35-year-old rare sherry whose creamy richness and nutty aroma are divine with chocolate. Mmmm. Yes, please!

Cooper’s foray into a dessert sampler is an outgrowth of an increased focus on tasting menus as well as savory dishes that present variations on a single ingredient. For example, he has served an appetizer featuring four treatments of heart of palm. Elegant and very French, Le Papillon is where you go when you want to sample bites of chocolate desserts that evoke a high-end Parisian patisserie without having to shell out airfare.

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