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What’s Up With … Herbs in Desserts?

The Oval Room’s kalamansi-lime tart, garnished with powdered candied cilantro and fresh micro-cilantro, proves that savory and sweet aren’t strange bedfellows. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Combine the arrival of President Obama with some new celebrity chefs in Washington and you get a restaurant scene that’s as much a draw as the museums. Dining trends, such as molecular gastronomy—innovative cuisine that includes foams, “molecules,” and flavored “air”—have migrated south from New York and east from Los Angeles. Now Washington pastry chefs have picked up on the latest fad: using herbs as garnishes, infusions, and ingredients in desserts.

“It’s a changing of the guard here—the younger chefs are exploring and pushing a little bit harder,” says Tony Conte, chef at the Oval Room. A disciple of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who opened eyes at his Manhattan restaurant Jean-Georges by mixing herbs with sweets, Conte seems to push harder than most. On his current menu, a kalamansi-lime tart comes with candied cilantro.

Washington restaurantgoers are responding well to the trend. “Five years ago,” says Heather Chittum, who has a sage pound cake on the menu at Hook, “I don’t think diners would have been willing to try something with herbs.”

Even some tradition-bound restaurants are playing the savory/sweet game. At 1789, pastry chef Travis Olson garnished a chocolate torte with a fennel-seed wafer. At Marcel’s, where classics such as boudin blanc and chestnut soup are mainstays, a plum-and-tarragon tart showed up on the dessert menu.

Conte, pushing the point, recently served an apple cake with rosemary ice cream. Caramel—a typical pairing—he says, “would just be too easy.”

This appeared in the March, 2009 issue of the Washingtonian.  

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