My friend stared down at the little bowl the waiter had set down in front of him. A single, stinting scoop of ice cream. No sauce, no cookie, not even a prettifying sprig of mint.
“Is this the palate cleanser?” he asked.
I had to keep from laughing at his expectation that something more substantive and exciting was still to come, a touching bit of naiveté that spoke to an age that now feels long past.
Not a simpler age—a grander, more exuberant one, when good restaurants understood that they needed to dazzle you at the finish and send you home smiling.
No longer. In our supposed golden age of Washington dining, the end of the meal is marked by $9 dishes that look like something you could whip up yourself—without a cookbook.
It’s confounding. Meals of elaborate technical excellence and imaginative daring now peter out in a procession of puddings, custards, and creams (or, increasingly, crémeux—which I guess is supposed to make the price feel less extortionary). You can begin a night out, as I did recently, with sweetbreads and Pinot Noir and end it with cookies and milk. Imagine someone changing the channel on you from Truffaut to Disney.
Perhaps my friend should have been grateful even to get that dollop of ice cream. Some restaurants, including the new Ocopa on H Street, Northeast, have done away with dessert altogether—a one-bite cookie comes gratis with your check.
Places that regard something sweet as the final act of the play still find ways to ruin a perfectly good meal. Witness the recent practice of turning pie into a cerebral deconstruction: the filling turned into a chilled slab of gel, the crust reduced to a dusty heap, dabs of cream all around. Or pulling the “for two” scam, in which a soul-satisfying item—the fruit crumble at Gypsy Soul, say, or the baked Alaska at DBGB—is sized a little larger than normal and given an inflated price.
What’s going on? If a nice dinner out is a three-act play, why are so many theaters content to mount a production that goes out with a whimper?
The answer is more economic than gastronomic.
In the post-crash economy, pastry chefs are no longer seen as essential employees but as pricey appendages.
“It’s not just saving the salary,” one restaurant owner told me. “It’s saving the space, too. To have a good pastry program, you need a designated area of the kitchen, you need a place to store the ingredients. The 10,000-square-foot restaurant has become the 7,000-square-foot restaurant. Everything’s smaller now. There isn’t the space.”
More and more, the task falls to chefs and line cooks who, lacking any background in baking, have contrived to fill their menus with simple, quick-fix solutions. Puddings, custards, panna cotta (an Italian term for what is essentially Jell-O made with cream) don’t require a lot of effort or expense; all can be made in the morning and stashed in the walk-in refrigerator.
Some restaurants have given up entirely. “More restaurants than you would think” are outsourcing their sweets to independent bakers, says Mark Bucher, who owns Medium Rare, with locations in Cleveland Park and Barracks Row. Bucher’s is among them. “You give them your recipes and they’ll make them for you. That way you can still say that they’re your desserts.”
He makes no apologies for outsourcing most of his sweets, pointing out the difficulty of delivering a streamlined meal of steak, fries, salad, and dessert—the only meal his restaurants serve—for $19.75. “The economics of the business—and I mean all of the business, not just dessert—are brutal right now,” Bucher says, adding that “most restaurateurs aren’t out consciously to gouge you. They’re trying to make the numbers work.”
The problem is that restaurateurs are unwilling to charge more than $30 an entrée. That number has held steady for years, the Maginot Line of the industry. Forced to look elsewhere, they’ve sought to recoup their escalating expenses by aggressively targeting the start of the meal, upping the prices of appetizers and “snacks,” cocktails, and glasses of wine. At some places, you’ll pay nearly as much for a six-ounce pour of Chardonnay as you would for a plate of chicken.
The question is why so many restaurateurs have opted not to jack up the prices of dessert, too.
“It’s just not worth it,” a successful owner told me, noting that the prices of dairy have gone up by as much as 150 percent in little more than a year. High-fat butter, a necessity for gourmet baking, sells for more than $4 a pound, double what it was in the summer of 2013. “A cocktail brings in twice as much money as a dessert, and it doesn’t hold up a table at the end of the meal. You have to turn the tables.”
There are holdouts, and the amateurishness and asceticism of the scene have only made them seem more glorious. Alex Levin at Osteria Morini, Naomi Gallego at Blue Duck Tavern, Tom Wellings at Fiola, Fiola Mare, and Casa Luca—all stage a rousing final act. A fitting one, too, reinforcing the level of detail and the lusty abundance of everything that has come before.
The king of the scene, Central Michel Richard, still produces ten desserts of extraordinary imagination and technical excellence, including its tour de force, Celebration Cake—a Trojan horse of a chocolate shell concealing sponge cake, fresh fruit, and whipped cream, capped off with a candle that blazes like a roadside flare.
Why is Central the anomaly and not the norm?
The average food cost for most restaurant desserts is 12 to 15 percent. At Central, according to one of the restaurant’s investors, the average is 30 to 35 percent. He told me that scaling back on desserts was never under consideration. Chef Richard began as a pastry chef, and sweets have long been his signature. To scale back at the finish would be to betray the restaurant’s identity.
Most nights, when making my rounds as a critic, I order dessert more out of a sense of duty than with an expectation of getting something exciting. Often, I’m tempted to do what my friend did when he discovered that his palate cleanser turned out to be his ice cream and go get a second dessert someplace else. That night, it was Georgetown’s Baked & Wired, the best of a burgeoning crop of bakeries in the city.
Baking, it turns out, is alive and well—just not in restaurant kitchens.
The biscuit company Mason Dixie recently found a home at Union Market; Frenchie’s is producing terrific breakfast pastries at the H Street, Northeast, farmers market and other outlets; District Doughnut has given DC a third gourmet doughnut shop; and the boutique bakery Rare Sweets just opened in CityCenterDC. And cupcakes continue to be baked by the thousands across the area at the many high-end “cupcakeries.”
“I keep hearing about the death of pastry, but pastry chefs are flourishing,” says Tiffany MacIsaac, who recently left the Neighborhood Restaurant Group to open her own project, Buttercream Bakery, a full-service sweet shop she hopes to launch next fall. Like Dominique Ansel, who left chef Daniel Boulud and birthed the Cronut, and Sherry Yard, who after nearly two decades with Wolfgang Puck ventured out on her own to make both sweets and savories for a national chain of restaurants and movie theaters, MacIsaac is gunning to become “a star and not the punctuation to the meal.”
Another breakaway act is New York-based Christina Tosi, whose hotly awaited Milk Bar opens this year at CityCenterDC. Tosi didn’t break from her partner, chef David Chang—Milk Bar will be adjacent to his forthcoming restaurant and will prepare all of his menu’s desserts. But it will be a standalone venture, with its own staff and its own entrances and exits. If you’re hankering for a slice of her vaunted Crack Pie, you won’t have to sit down to a meal next door to have it. All you’ll have to do is walk up to the counter.
You might run into me in line, en route home from dinner cut short someplace else.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Dessert in this town: oy.
Deconstructed pie (or “decomposed," as an addled server at Blue Duck Tavern explained one of the sweets on the menu to a friend of mine last year). Precious portions that are carried off without flair or exuberance. Sorbets everywhere.
Now comes an insidious little innovation called “dessert for two.”
Take the peach crisp at chef RJ Cooper’s new Gypsy Soul in Falls Church. It’s listed as “for two,” and charges accordingly ($14). Daniel Boulud’s DBGB launched last month in City Center with a baked Alaska, also for two and also charging accordingly: $14.
Nor is the trend limited to the splashy and cheffy. Jeff Black’s Pearl Dive, on 14th Street, has an apple pie for two. Founding Farmers, a kind of Bob’s Big Boy for the World Bank set, offers its chocolate mousse for two. At Kellari, the Greek fish emporium on K Street, the chocolate dessert—there’s one at every restaurant, always—is a trio of tastes, and it, too, is priced for two.
A couple things are going on here.
One is that the economy still isn’t great, food costs are high, and restaurateurs are loath to jack up the costs of their entrées. So what they do is, they pinch at either end of the menu.
That’s one reason appetizer costs are skyrocketing (I’ll talk more about this next week).
The final course of the night is an even more prime place to pinch.
Prices for desserts have remained steady in recent years, even as pastry chefs are becoming extinct in all but a handful of restaurants and the selection in most restaurants has become pitifully uncreative. (The only thing more annoying these days than hearing "Are you still working on that?" or "Let me tell you how the menu works" is seeing: "scoop of gelato or ice cream $9.")
“Dessert for two” is another low-cost gambit for turning a profit. Restaurateurs know that couples who go out to dinner tend to split a single dessert, so coming up with desserts for two is a shrewd way to squeeze more money from the cover.
Good for them, I guess. But do we really need two slices each of baked Alaska? Is a peach crisp really the kind of thing you want to eat an entire casserole dish of?
And even more to the point: do we really want to be made to feel that dessert, which should be all about joyous indulgence, is becoming little more than a cynical exercise in maximizing profit?
Move over, cronuts and attendant “doissant” knockoffs: Another food with a cult-like following is getting spun in DC. Degrees at the Ritz-Carlton Georgetown revamped its menu earlier this week, and now features ramen sliders. The original ramen burger from chef Keizo Shimamoto caused hours-long waits and crowds of thousands when it was served at food festivals in New York and Los Angeles, and has become the white whale of the meat-and-bun world.
The full-size original features a “ramen bun” made of fried noodles, which hugs a beef burger, scallions, arugula, and shoyu sauce. The miniature version from Ritz chef Quang Duong differs in size as well as toppings. Two petite patties arrive garnished with hoisin, Sriracha aïoli, lettuce, and tomato. The noodle bun (the essence of the ramen burger) is a similar makeup of bound ramen noodles, with each half getting a light sear for crunch.
The soup-burger hybrid isn’t the only mashup—or en trend dish—on Quang’s new menu. Influenced by his Asian and French cooking background, you’ll find dishes such as a duck confit bánh mì and French onion soup dumplings—xiaolongbao (steamed buns) filled with soupe à l’oignon and topped with melted Gruyère and a brioche crouton. New cocktails also reflect popular trends. Ever had a shot of Fireball whiskey, one of the current “it” shooters of the college crowd? Well, now you can try the house-made (and, shall we say, handcrafted) version, wherein Maker’s Mark is infused with cinnamon and mixed into a Manhattan-like cocktail. I’ll take mine by the fire.
This morning, Eater National posted a pretty insane picture of people standing in line for hours to buy the trademarked cronuts from Dominique Ansel bakery in New York City. The croissant-doughnut hybrids have been selling like, well, cronuts (who orders hotcakes anymore?), and the bakery now suggests lining up two hours prior to its 8 AM opening for a chance at the pastries. (Note: There’s a two-per-person limit.)
To the poll!
Going out for Chinese on Christmas Day is a time-honored tradition among Jewish people, since Chinese restaurants almost always remain open on December 24 and 25. These days, a lot of other sorts of restaurants serve through the holidays (see our full roundup here), but since the Washington area’s best Chinese restaurants are fairly far-flung, the season presents the chance to travel to a new neighborhood. Inspired by a recent post on New York’s Grub Street blog, we thought we’d share eleven of Todd Kliman’s favorite Chinese restaurants in the area—all of which are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Enjoy.
Head to A & J Restaurant in Annandale and Rockville for Northern Chinese dim sum.
Dumplings are the star of the show at Rockville’s China Bistro, where the dough is made fresh several times each day.
There are two menus at China Jade in Rockville; ask for the other one.
Hong Kong Palace is the Falls Church spot for Szechuanese dishes.
High-quality ingredients elevate the Cantonese, Szechuan, Malaysian, and Burmese dishes at Jesse Wong’s Asean Bistro in Columbia.
Head to Michael’s Noodles in Rockville for Hainan chicken rice and pan-sautéed dumplings glazed with chili oil.
The dish in question: General Tso's Sweetbreads by Billy Klein. Photograph by Erik Uecke
The Washington Post reports that Great Wall Szechuan House on 14th Street is getting a makeover to become “something more than a take-out,” providing diners more seating room to sample chef Yuan Chen’s fiery Szechuan cooking. But some of Great Wall’s neighbors, among them chef Billy Klein of Café Saint-Ex, are addicted to the Chinese-American fare that the foodies pass over for the more “authentic” menu. In fact, Klein has ordered the same thing at least once a week for the past ten years: General Tso’s Chicken.
The BLT Monument comes topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato, cheddar, and a giant onion ring. Photographs by Erik Uecke.
BLT Steak is a prime haunt for spying politicos, and now you can spot them on the menu, as well. Chef Victor Albisu, a self-proclaimed C-SPAN junkie, just debuted a lunchtime burger menu, and each sandwich is named after players and events in the political scene.
Look away, coffee snobs. While we may not understand the excitement over the return of the McRib (what’s with that, people?), there is one chain restaurant product to which we have an inexplicable, slightly shame-inducing addiction: the pumpkin spice latte. In autumns past, we’ve begrudgingly braved the morning lines that snake around Starbucks more times than we’d care to admit for a hit of that toasty-sweet goodness. But this year, the folks in tents down at Occupy DC have us rethinking where we should spend our hard-earned cash. For those looking to spread the love to some local establishments, here’s a quick rundown of other Washington-area coffee shops ready to satiate your pumpkin spice craving.
Coming up with a good cookbook title can be challenging (remember Cooking With Pooh?), and the same goes for restaurant dishes. While they may be perfectly tasty, here are eight of Washington’s most dubiously named offerings, all on a menu near you.
Sun Drenched Tropical Salad
Where: Pusser’s Caribbean Grille in Annapolis
Remember when you left the salad out during a picnic and it got all sun-drenched—that is, wilted and hot?
Braised Wrinkled String Bean
Where: Spices in DC’s Cleveland Park
The idea of a lone, wizened bean isn’t all that appealing. Even one cooked with Szechuan-preserved vegetables.
Where: Cheesecake Factory (multiple area locations)
Nothing says glamour like a hefty patty that’s topped with pulled-pork barbecue, coleslaw, mayonnaise, and melted cheddar.
The Midas Touch cupcake, a toffee-pear cake with 12 year rum and almond creme, and the Headless Horseman, a pumpkin-walnut cupcake with Blanton's Bourbon and cream-cheese frosting. Photograph by Anna Spiegel
Washington is saturated with cupcake shops, but PS 7’s bartender Gina Chersevani and pastry chef Lauren Whitledge have managed to make a worthy contribution: alcohol-packed sweets they call “cuptails.”