Check out our annual restaurant issue, which this year celebrates desserts, out this Thursday, August 8.
A great dish can define a chef or a restaurant, can install itself in the collective consciousness or trigger happy memories (see: Proust, madeleines) in a way that transcends the meal itself. Consider your mother's pie, which was probably not very good, but has become so over time, the fictionalization of memory and love having made it so. Now consider this when it applies to pies or puddings or plated desserts — Why desserts? Because we love them, and because they encapsulate both homey comfort AND old school patisserie achievement — orchestrated by very good, highly trained pastry chefs.
Over the years, the pastry chefs in this town have made some glorious desserts, beautiful creations that cover disparate genres and techniques, and that live on — either because we remember them with great fondness, or because they've entered into the canon, or because every time we go to Mozza, we helplessly order the same damn thing for dessert.
Turn the page for 10 of the desserts that we can't seem to get enough of, either in our dreams or in real life.
10. Chocolate bento box soufflé, from Matsuhisa
You do not generally to go Japanese restaurants for their desserts. After a meal of omakase or sashimi, donburi bowls or tempura, mostly what you'll find are bowls of green tea ice cream or sliced fruit, maybe black sesame gelato if you're lucky. But at Matsuhisa, Nobu's first (1987!) and still our sentimental favorite of his restaurants, you will be presented with a bento box, a pretty lacquered box in which you'll find an old-school warm chocolate souffle cake, topped with vanilla sauce, adjacent to a scoop of ice cream, a sprig of mint, a few raspberries. It's a retro dessert, but one that stays on the menu, even migrating to the fancier Nobu restaurants, a happy throwback to the '80s.
9. Hostess cupcakes, from City
Back in 1981 (Bobby Sands, MTV, birth of Peyton Manning), Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken opened City Cafe, their precursor to the legendary restaurant City, and on the menu put happy desserts like peanut butter cookies and brownies. Another thing they put on the menu that year was a Callebaut chocolate cupcake filled with Mexican vanilla pastry cream. It was their riff on the Hostess cupcake, the name “City” piped on the top, and it became so popular that when City opened, it was there too, dozens of them on a big platter on the double pastry case. City is long gone, but every Leap Year, Feniger and Milliken host a City Night at Border Grill — and the cupcakes are always on the menu. See you in February, 2016.
8. Vacherin, from Maison Giraud
Many years ago, in 1997, long before he opened Maison Giraud, or presided over the kitchens of Anisette and Bastide, chef Alain Giraud created a lovely version of the classic French vacherin. This was at Lavande, Giraud's first restaurant after cooking under legendary French pastry chef Michel Richard, and it was the restaurant's signature dessert, an ode to lavender. Sixteen years later — after iterations at Bastide and Anisette — it's still on Giraud's dessert menu, a study in ice cream and meringue and strawberries and Giraud's beloved Gallic herb.
7. Sea Salt Caramels, from Little Flower Candy Co.
Can an empire be built on a piece of candy? If you've ever unwrapped Christine Moore's sea salt caramels, unfurling the chewy bronzed bits from their little squares of waxed paper, and eaten one — or two, or a pound, as some of us have, in a single sitting — and been astonished at how, well, perfect they are, you'll see why The Little Flower Candy Co. has become what it has. Moore, a veteran of Campanile, started making caramels in her Highland Park kitchen in 1999 after she left that career to raise a family. Fourteen years later, her two cafes and online candy business are largely fueled by her vats of caramel — or so it seems to many Angelenos for whom the stuff operates like household currency.
6. El Rollo, from Cake Monkey
When pastry chef Elizabeth Belkind and her business partner Lisa Olin opened their cake business Cake Monkey six years ago, one of the first things they put on their menu was their upscale riff on Hostess Ho-Ho's (yes, this is a recurrent theme), a roll-up of chocolate cake and vanilla cream, made with Valrhona and TCHO chocolates and Tahitian vanilla. Your childhood junk food obsession, reworked as addictive pastry chef-produced dessert. The El Rollo is still one of the company's best-sellers, as everyone — even Olin, who hoards the things in her desk at the bakery — finds them impossible to resist. Since they're always available, even for same-day orders, why even try.
5. Lemon tart, from Hatfield's
Karen Hatfield has run the pastry kitchens of many restaurants — currently the two she co-owns with her husband Quinn, Hatfield's and Sycamore Kitchen — and for the last decade there has always been a lemon tart in her rotation. Hatfield, who can do comfort food and fancy plated desserts with the same technique-driven focus, likes the versatility, the way she can riff on the classic lemon meringue pie with whatever compotes, sorbets, crumbles or meringues strike her fancy.
4. Pistachio gelato, from Bulgarini Gelato
To say that Leo Bulgarini makes ice cream is not unlike saying that Jack White plays the guitar — an understatement bordering on idiocy. When he first decided to get into the gelato business, Bulgarini, a Rome-born ex-sommelier, spent two years scouring Italy for gelato-makers who still did it the old way, an art that seemed to him to be growing extinct. For his breathtaking pistachio gelato, Bulgarini brings back pistachios from Bronte, Italy — in his suitcase. Now that he has two gelaterias (Altadena, Culver City), Bulgarini continues to be a bit, well, OCD about the process, for which we are all exceedingly grateful.
3. Green Gage Plums, from Red Medicine
At Red Medicine, where Jordan Kahn works both the savory and pastry sides of the culinary fence, the desserts are not casual after-thoughts to a meal but plated masterpieces: Antonin Carême's architectural sugar studies crossed with a Swedish botanical garden. Really any one of them could have made this list — the chocolate cream, encased in a chocolate cage, strewn with nasturtiums; the verbena ice and orange blossom bubbles in what looks like a lidded fish bowl — but it's the dish of Green Gage plums, shortbread and sorrel curd that we come back for. Imagine Titania's crown in edible form.
2. Butterscotch Budino, from Pizzeria Mozza
These days you can find butterscotch puddings and budinos (which is simply an Italian word for pudding or custard) on half the dessert menus in town. But when pastry chef Dahlia Narvaez put it on Pizzeria Mozza's menu it was a rarity: a happy collision of caramel and cream and salt in a glass that quickly became one of the main reasons people flocked to the restaurant.
1. Kaiserschmarrn, from Spago
Although Sherry Yard made many, many fabulous desserts over her many, many years running Spago's pastry kitchen — chocolate tarts shaped like boxes, souffle-filled sugar-dusted baked whole apples, baumkuchen and profiteroles and stunning Oscar-themed confections — it is perhaps her Kaiserschmarrn that she was best known for. It's a homey Austrian dish, a puffed pancake studded with strawberries, that transcended comfort food at the same time it defined it.
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