Picture this: You're on a date, conversation has sparkled, wine has been drunk, food has been shared, dessert has been offered, and you have to say, “I'm good, thanks.” Or you're with friends, a fragrant hunk of sticky toffee pudding was just delivered, and you say, “This is all you, guys.” It's awkward. It's sad. It's just plain unfair. Being gluten-free shouldn't mean that you have to go dessert-less into that good night. Yet, when dining out, we the free are often S-O-L.
Sure, pretty much every dessert menu nowadays includes a selection of artisanal ice creams, fancy gelatos and exotic sorbets, but these are generally relegated to the bottom of the page, like footnotes. Because, it's assumed, nobody is going to order the a la mode without the apple pie.
Since no one really likes to be (or eat) the afterthought, we've rounded up some great restaurants featuring terrific gluten-free desserts that can take the spotlight in their own right. Here are eight ways to finish the meal in style.]
8. Bignolè (Salted Caramel Cream Puffs) at Hostaria Del Piccolo
If your Beard Papa's cream puff habit was tragically sidelined by gluten sensitivity, this place is your godsend. Somewhat of an anomaly among Italian restaurants spread across L.A., Hostaria Del Piccolo offers an allergy-friendly menu for all your meat/gluten/egg/dairy-free diet needs. But the most compelling “free” find is on their Dolci menu.
Executive chef Bobo Ivan uses a simple recipe of rice flour, eggs, and sugar to make the restaurant's signature bignolè. The shells are baked in the oven, emerging almost indistinguishable from wheat-based pastry, and then generously filled with a sweet vanilla mascarpone pastry cream and drizzled with salted caramel. Gluten-free, yes. Calorie-free, no. But they're definitely worth the extra cardio. 606 Broadway, Santa Monica; (310) 393-6633. 512 Rose Ave, Venice; (310) 392-8822.
7. Beignets at Muddy Leek
This little farm-to-table jewel box kinda looks like it was lifted from Edward Hopper's famous Americana “Nighthawks” painting and set down on a street corner in Culver City. The menu of elegant, creative comfort food changes seasonally, but one thing remains constant: Gluten. Free. Beignets. Chef Whitney Flood and his 5-year-old daughter are both gluten intolerant, so he and his wife, co-owner Julie Retzlaff, started making gluten-free desserts for birthdays.
The beignets became a family favorite and soon quickly gained fans in the restaurant – according to the bartender, one French customer says they taste just like beignets from her childhood. A mix of rice, sorghum, garbanzo, fava and tapioca flours is combined with eggs, vanilla bean, buttermilk and olive oil to make the dough, which is fried, then rolled in sugar. Served piping hot with a sprinkling of candied almonds, the beignets have a sweet, crisped outer layer and a moist, fluffy interior perfect for soaking up the cinnamon-milk chocolate sauce. Heavenly. 8631 Washington Blvd., Culver City; (310) 838-2281.
6. Butterscotch Budino at Osteria La Buca
Butterscotch budino. Just thinking about it induces a craving so strong it's pretty undeniable. Most people know about this luscious dessert, which achieved fame after debuting at Nancy Silverton's Mozza. Iterations of it can now be found on Italian menus across town, but Osteria La Buca's rendition is one of the best.
While chocolate lovers will rejoice over Buca's classic with a sinful twist Flourless Molten Chocolate Cake, the budino is their best-selling dessert. And with good reason. Their take leans toward rustic simplicity, yet it's refined nonetheless. Served in a hipster-approved mini Mason jar, topped with a haphazard dollop of fresh whipped cream and salted caramel, this rich, velvety, salty-sweet butterscotch pudding inspires hyperbole. In other words: sex on a spoon. 5210 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 462-1900.
5. Flan with okinawa syrup, mango & white sesame at Hinoki & the Bird
If you're uber-stylish, subscribe to (newly single) Gwynnie P's GOOP newsletter, and know that charcoal isn't just for grilling, then like any foodie worth their fleur de sel, you've surely been here, done that aaaages ago. But the culinary artistry, abundance of gluten-free selections, and crazy delicious cocktails are what keep you coming back to Hinoki. And need we mention the smoking cedar black cod? One could sing chef Kuniko Yagi's praises to the rafters, but we're here to talk dessert.
At Hinoki & the Bird, the mochi ice cream isn't of the typical sushi joint, Trader Joe's freezer section variety. These soft mounds of sweet glutinous rice flour and ice cream are less chewy, more silky, cool, creamy on the tongue and come in unique flavor combinations, like salted miso mochi in butterscotch with togarashi spice or ginger mochi in honey caramel with lemon jelly. Exotic flan layered under sweet Okinawa syrup that tastes faintly like burnt caramel, with fresh mango, white sesame crackers, and bits of sugar candy, is a new menu addition for spring – and a must try. 10 West Century Drive, Century City; (310) 552-1200.
4. Red Bean Mochi at Pot Cafe
The recently renovated Line Hotel in Koreatown is already drawing the foodie cult to Roy Choi's new culinary triumvirate, where the menu and cheeky theme maintain his signature style of gut-busting, Korean-rooted, college stoner dorm food. Typically, Asian restaurants offer more choice for the gluten-averse – provided you can handle a bit of soy sauce if the chef isn't willing to omit it from a dish – but this seems an unlikely place to safely indulge a sweet tooth sans wheat. Fear not. Just outside the restaurant, beyond Pot's Lobby Bar, lies salvation in the form of Pot Cafe, Choi's version of a Korean bakery run by pastry chef Marian Mar of NYC's Momofuku – so that should give you an idea of the gluttony on offer.
Among the custard buns and Hello Kitty cakes, you'll find two formidable gluten-free entries. The Mocha Chip Cookie, a deep, dark chocolate cookie made from quinoa flour and sprinkled with sea salt, is simultaneously crunchy and chewy on the outside, with a brownie-like center and intense chocolate taste with strong espresso overtones. At the other end of flavor extremes is the Red Bean Mochi. A subtly sweet square spread with red bean paste, topped with candied pistachio crumbles and dusted with powdered sugar, it has a dense texture more similar to marzipan than mochi. Both choices are surprisingly addictive, so we recommend buying multiples of each, lest you find yourself out at midnight, wearing pajamas in public and looking to score. 3515 Wilshire Blvd., Koreatown; (213) 368-3030.
3. Bourbon Ice Cream Sundae with Flourless Chocolate Cake at Akasha
Perhaps you've heard of Akasha Richmond. Famous proponent of vegan cooking, cookbook author, magazine columnist and, oh yeah, former private chef to the late Michael Jackson. Akasha, her restaurant in Culver City, focuses on local, organic foods and functions as both a New American gastropub and a veritable playground for gluten-free diners. Richmond eats meat now, but realized she feels better when she avoids gluten, which is why this is a place where one person can eat the rib-eye beef burger on a rosemary garlic wheat bun while another person can get the same burger on a gluten-free brioche bun (from Rising Hearts Bakery, who also supplies GF bagels and sandwich wraps). And the must-order, perfectly crispy, rice flour coated onion rings are loved by all.
Even more exciting is Akasha's rotating selection of gluten-free desserts and baked goods, which can include at any one time: carrot cake, berry pound cake, banana walnut bread, flourless chocolate torte, meringues, coconut macaroons, cookies and one delectable ice cream sundae. Make no mistake, this isn't your ordinary sundae. Flourless chocolate cake made from just cocoa, eggs, butter and sugar sits in a bed of whipped cream and comes topped with bourbon ice cream, smudges of thick salted caramel and candied walnuts, effectively elevating the humble ice cream dessert to lick-the-bowl-clean status. 9543 Culver Blvd., Culver City; (310) 845-1700.
2. Mango Sticky Rice at Soi 7
Thai food's best kept secret also happens to be one of the most delicious: naturally gluten-free desserts. Situated between Mo-Chica and Bottega Louie is the often overlooked and underrated Soi 7, which serves up some seriously good Thai food that in some dishes feels more upscale than authentic, and for dessert a modern update on the traditional mango sticky rice.
Usually prepared as a mound of fresh sticky rice bathed in warm, sweet coconut milk and topped with fresh mango, here a sticky rice patty coated with shredded coconut is pan-fried, then topped with a scoop of creamy coconut sorbet, sprinkled with black sesame seeds and accompanied by sliced Phillipine mangoes and liberal smears of salted coconut cream. As you dig in, the coconut sorbet dissolves into the toasted sticky rice and the sweet mango mingles with the salted cream for a perfectly balanced salty/toasty/melty/sweet flavor bomb in every bite. Order your own, because when you're suddenly looking at an empty plate with just one lonely black sesame seed left behind, you'll definitely regret sharing. 518 W. 7th St., Downtown L.A.; (213) 537-0333.
1. Le Grand Macaron at Bottega Louie
As you enter this venerable, always-crowded dining hall, you're greeted by the very thing that made Bottega Louie famous: a rainbow display of flawless macarons. If you've ever attempted baking macarons with frustratingly mixed results, you know they are a finicky, temperamental species. There is debate as to whether the macaron originated in France or Italy, but many swear by the Italian method of pouring a hot sugar syrup into whipped egg whites to create a more stable meringue shell. That would explain how Bottega Louie, a predominantly Italian restaurant, built its reputation on producing a predominantly French confection with military-like precision. Regardless, the basic ingredients are the same – powdered and granulated sugar, egg whites, almond flour – and the cookies are always gloriously gluten-free.
Bottega Louie's macarons are also utilized above and beyond their accustomed station. Beyond the entrance is an extensive dessert case that could make Marie Antoinette blush (further evidence of Bottega's split personality), where you'll find other GF desserts, such as the Chocolate Princess Cake made from dark chocolate ganache over a single macaron shell “crust,” and Le Grand Macaron, which is exactly what it sounds like: an oversized macaron filled with raspberries, a thick milk chocolate ganache and white chocolate puffed rice for added crunch. Other gluten-free sweets include the de rigueur butterscotch budino, a variety of other verrines (layered single-serve puddings), chewy dark chocolate walnut-studded cookies, and coconut rocher – because calling them coconut macaroon balls would be molto gauche. 700 S. Grand Ave., Downtown L.A.; (213) 802-1470