For years, as chefs first began playing with their food–collapsing the distinctions between courses, and turning dinner into dinner theater–it seemed that dessert was being left behind in all the fun. Sweets remained largely an afterthought–a simple sendoff, nothing more.
Sure, you could turn up the occasional passion-fruit soufflé or deconstructed tart, but only if you were paying big money at Citronelle or the Inn at Little Washington.
More typically, opening a dessert menu meant confronting a familiar litany of crème brûlée, molten chocolate cake, and tiramisu.
Those warhorses are disappearing, thanks to an explosion of new ideas that's helping make the ends of meals as memorable as the beginnings and middles. Sweet is gaining on savory, in much the same way that a new guard of restaurants is gaining on the traditionalists.
"It used to be we only had steakhouses and crappy French . . . a lot of chefs getting fat in their genres," says Steve Klc, pastry chef at José Andrés's restaurants. "Chefs here see the competition–and lemon meringue pie doesn't work in a modern restaurant."
What does work is whimsy and junk food. Maestro in Tysons Corner winds things down with dessert cocktails and house-made marshmallows. 2941 sends diners home with cotton candy. Until Signatures shut its doors in November, lobbyists closed their tabs over cheesecake lollipops. At Citronelle, the last course could be a classic napoleon–or a bowl of house-made cocoa flakes with minted milk.
Klc has brought that innovation to a mass audience, without dumbing things down. His desserts are highly conceived and, at no more than $7 each, highly accessible. At Zaytinya he's created a splendid sundae of walnut ice cream, goat's-milk mousse, and orange caramel–an inspired riff on Turkish ingredients rather than a literal re-creation of a traditional dish. His sweets at Oyamel, including a liquid hibiscus cooler and a chocolate cake filled with mole, are often more compelling than the chef's savories.
Even the supposedly simple stuff is no longer simple. At Dupont Circle's Firefly, a crème fraîche panna cotta with cider jelly is a little tease–you might think apple pie à la mode, but you won't taste it. A few blocks away at Mark & Orlando's, ice cream flavors include ancho chili and black pepper.
Speaking of which, who would expect that the smoothest, creamiest, best-tasting vanilla ice cream in the city would turn up not at an ice-cream shop but at a pizza parlor–2 Amys in Cleveland Park?
Of course, it's one thing to say that pastry has come of age. It's another to say that the city has sloughed off its culinary reputation for conservatism.
David Guas, the pastry chef at DC Coast, TenPenh, Ceiba, and Acadiana, says he's constantly having to balance his desire to experiment with adventurous dishes, such as a gelatin cheesecake with lemon salt, against his audience's demand for desserts like mocha cupcakes. "You might look at my menu and say, 'Did these even come from the same person?' But a lot of people want what they know."
And what they know, Klc says, is something Southern, something comforting.
That would explain why the most popular dessert at Restaurant Eve–currently without a pastry chef–is a pink-iced slab of birthday cake. And why at Vidalia, co-owner Sallie Buben's vintage recipe for lemon chess pie garners more attention than pastry chef Naomi Gallego's cherry financier with crème fraîche ice cream. Even Palena's Ann Amernick, the only local to be nominated for the James Beard Award for best pastry chef, is lauded most for her simple DeMayo chocolate cake.
What does it mean? It means that, like so much else in this fragmented, Northern/Southern city, we're divided about our desserts. We embrace change. We cling to tradition. For every pastry chef with a Pacojet to play with, there's an audience that clamors for something sticky and sweet. Yes, we're saving room these days for coconut two ways with vanilla-lime gelée, but don't take that molten chocolate cake off the menu just yet.