Defending Dessert

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

It was almost a perfect night.


Through a planetary (and scheduling) alignment, Emily and I had managed our first “date night” since getting married back in January. This was the scheme:

1. She picks the place, makes the reservation, and sends me the address and time.
2. We dress up and leave SEPARATELY.
3. When we arrive separately and are shown to the table, we get to surprise each other with how we look, like our first date.

Despite my fumbling and clumsiness, this goes off without a hitch, and my wife wears a gorgeous red dress. It feels like seeing her for the first time all over again.
She chose the restaurant well- Wilfs, at Union Station in the Pearl District of Portland. A jazzy restaurant, festooned in old fashioned standards- rich decor, lush wingback chairs, live jazz music, all harkening back to the steakhouses of yesteryear. Albeit with an off-menu kiddy selection for folks who can’t get a sitter.

The drinks and dinner are marvelous. Caesar salad and Steak Diana prepared tableside by the bubbly, paternal maitre’d. French Onion Soup to be held as a paradigm for all other cheese-and-bread-covered soups on Earth, and- as must be the case- two well prepared but minuscule stalks of broccoli rabe to accompany the meat. A gentle but sincere “f*** you” to the vegetable kingdom after the salad course.

Then comes dessert. A small menu, paired with an aperitif/cognac/nightcap list arrive. A pleasing selection to be sure- Bananas Foster prepared tableside (likely by the same bubbly maitre’d), a chocolate cake slice, a crumble of seasonal fruit, some special-diet-friendly options. The classic-but-expensive option of a cheese plate.
Normally I would leap straight for the Bananas Foster, an all-time favorite dessert of mine. Tonight, however, after the fresh Caesar, the French Onion Soup, and the exquisite Steak Diane, I wanted something a little lighter and more refreshing. Emily and I opted for the slice of Frozen Grasshopper Pie.

It was…. disappointing. A cold slice of minty green ice cream cake, under an adamantine chocolate ganache shell, and atop a frozen-to-tastelessness shortcookie crust. A bizarre lump of gray, mint-flavored fondant was placed on the side of the plate, as though left there by accident and dodging the eye of the expediter.

Certainly it can be argued that I simply chose wrong, or I am too picky.

Certainly the adage holds, “You don’t go to sushi bar and order the pizza.”

As a customer though- should I be expected to pick “right?” Why is that pizza on the menu in the first place? If the “obvious” answer was the tableside Bananas Foster (which WILL be the selection next time I go. Despite the dessert, I wholeheartedly recommend this place,) why HAVE the other options on the menu if they are not to be executed with love, skill, and attention?

It is not the first time I have asked myself this question after an otherwise impeccable dinner.

———————-

It’s rather a sad truth that students of pastry and baking would do well to learn now, if they wish to make a living out of making dessert:
In the current American culinary environment, unless you are employed somewhere that specializes or is famed for their desserts, you are officially the red-headed stepchild of the kitchen.
You will receive low priority, little attention, and be seen as little more than an obligation imposed by the restauranting world. Your single biggest task will be finding a way for the world to give a crap about your work, and convincing your boss that your job CAN’T be done by a starry-eyed intern/stagieri with a freezer full of boxed pastries for half the cost.
The reasoning comes down to pure economics- unless you are a business DEVOTED to sweets and baked goods (like a bakery or cafe,) or you don’t already have a reputation for fine desserts (like Papa Haydn here in Portland,) people don’t come to your restaurant just for that. Restaurants operate on notoriously slim profit margins- any way to cut expenses, make something out of nothing, or pull money out of waste is leapt on like a drowning man on a milk jug.
At most restaurants, the pastry department (if it exists) is an afterthought. A moneysink. Having a freezer full of bought cakes and a couple squeeze bottles of strawberry/chocolate syrup is more cost effective than having someone around to make pastry that 15%- AT BEST- of your customers will buy.

That said, I am personally exhausted of having fine dinners with disappointing conclusions.
To me, the dessert course is the last opportunity for a restaurant to make an impact. A good dessert can obscure the memory of a poor appetizer. It can conclude a meal with either a gentle denouement to an evening’s story, a fulfilling coda to a symphony of flavor, or a no-mercy knockout punch to floor the diner- leaving them with no doubts regarding their culinary experience. Either way, a good story needs a good ending.

Imagine if someone decided to remake “Casablanca” (if you haven’t seen it, stop here and go watch it on Netflix or something. It’s a classic.) Imagine if the guy remaking it (probably Michael Bay) dropped an incredible action scene in the middle, with Rick and Ilsa gunning down the Nazis trying to shut his club down- but instead of the beautiful airplane scene at the end, Rick gets on the plane with Ilsa, and a bunch of Muppets show up to wave goodbye as they fly into the sunset, and “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” plays. Roll credits.
“Travesty,” you might say. “Blasphemy!” It happens in fine restaurants all the time- an otherwise beautiful night with a clumsy, poor-quality ending.

Picture

“Of all the movies in all the studios in all they world… they had to put Kermit the Frog in mine.”

Since I have been a member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs, I have been able to attend some truly remarkable dinners. Some were executed with beauty, balance, and precision to make any but the most callous diners sigh in reminiscence. Some were grand, but flawed- perhaps not overreaching, but grandiose to border on the grotesque (no one can ever tell me that a cook CAN’T overdo it with the truffles.)
Amidst all those dinners, however, I can only remember two dessert courses- all the others forgettable, or regrettable. One of them was a strawberry cassata cake, perfect and elegant in its simplicity and presentation. The other was an Earl Grey Dacquois berry tart- and I was the guy that made it. Years later, I still hear from people who remember that dessert.

While I’m still proud of that night, this betrays a fact I can only wince at admitting- that from some of the best kitchens and finest talent in the country, so few people choose to go “all the way.” The economic reasoning is there and it must be considered with fairness. Surely, though- everything on your menu, from acclaimed favorite to begrudged offering- shouldn’t it be made with an eye to perfection? A sense of balance, and by a caring hand?

This is all as may be, though. Colleagues of mine claim that pastry chefs are being sought in more and more restaurants. Temporary economic gain may finally be giving way to the wish for a skilled and specialized hand on the dessert line. I can only hope this is the case- that excellent dinners from talented chefs will no longer bear the blight of a poor final course, whether from economics or inexperience.

All the same, get rid of the friggin’ pizza in sushi restaurants. Save the menu space for what you do well- or hire someone who knows how to throw.

Stay Classy,