Here's to the restaurants that take dessert seriously

A passion for sweets

Valentine's Day meals, whether in high-end restaurants, neighborhood joints or at your own dinner table, have at least one thing in common: No one is likely to skip dessert.

In order to tempt, desserts must be especially captivating, because they are eaten at the point in the meal when diners are sated. A successful dessert must stimulate another kind of appetite, which is perhaps why so many classic dessert ingredients are also traditionally aphrodisiacs, such as chocolate, vanilla and lemon. Great desserts are not just romantic, they also inspire an almost childlike glee in their pure deliciousness.

There's barely a restaurant in Pittsburgh that doesn't serve dessert, but there are few that treat it as a course with any importance. It is common to find Web sites where the dinner menu and even the wine list are posted, but the dessert list cannot be found, even at some venues with excellent desserts. The implication is that diners might pick a restaurant by the savory food, but they wouldn't be influenced by dessert. And that is simply not true.

Fortunately, there are a growing number of pastry chefs in Pittsburgh who have both the skill and the necessary support to create desserts that are unmissable and unforgettable.

If you go

The first restaurant that comes to mind when one thinks about great restaurant desserts is Mio Kitchen and Wine Bar.

Executive chef and owner Matthew Porco has emphasized the importance of dessert from the beginning. "When you eat somewhere where it's technically sound and food is coming out the way it should, there's a progression. The same is said with dessert. As you eat rich and savory things and you move into something sweet I think it really complements everything and brings it all together," explained Porco. He believes that the way a restaurant handles dessert "shows the level of commitment the restaurant has to the whole experience."

Mio pastry chef Barbara Ferguson's desserts are flavor-driven -- she uses technique in presentation to enhance flavor, and not as a means of showing off skill. Her desserts are never simply sweet. Rather, they layer different kinds and levels of sweetness, and often create further dimension with a hint of savory note.

But she also brings great technical skill to bear. Ferguson is a chocolatier, as well as a pastry chef, and the truffles she makes under the label Fraiche Confections showcase many of the same skills as the dessert list at Mio. In fact, her truffles could almost be viewed as perfect miniatures of her desserts. She is someone so dedicated to the details as well as the big picture that she didn't just make her own ice cream for root beer floats, she made her own root beer.

Mio's current list includes lemon pudding with citrus salad and pistachio biscotti, as well as sweet potato pie with butter-pecan ice cream, marshmallow, pecan streusel and bourbon toffee sauce. Each component brings something to the final product, whether it's a subtly different flavor or a contrast in texture or both.

In an interview after the restaurant's opening, Ferguson said, "I taste [Porco's] food and it inspires me." And her desserts are truly a continuation of the menu, a part of the complete experience.

Ferguson was the opening chef at Eleven Contemporary Kitchen. Eleven has a separate pastry kitchen that one can observe from the street and an entire pastry staff. But this restaurant group deserves general praise for consistently making dessert a thoughtful, relevant part of the meal.

At Eleven, chef Ericka Idler's desserts currently riff on classics, such as Banana Cream Pie or the S'more. The Banana Cream Pie ($8) is a strikingly architectural construct of biscuit-like banana graham cookies, a giant pile of dulce de leche mousse, and a bruleed piece of banana. The S'more ($8) is almost an Americana-inspired piece of pop art. A grill outlined in melted chocolate sets off a pile of bruleed marshmallow fluff -- a toasted marshmallow like you've never seen before. Chocolate and graham crackers are there, but in a distinctly more sophisticated form.

At Casbah, Julie Martin'sdesserts are a little bit simpler and more directly inspired by seasonal flavors and cravings. Right now you'll find a pistachio strudel, served with white truffle-honey ice cream, rosewater and a chocolate drizzle, as well as dark chocolate-raspberry bread pudding served with creme anglaise.

Richard Chen in East Liberty is one of the newer entries to this list, and it also has the distinction of employing one of the area's few male pastry chefs. Bill Schwerin started out working the savory line, but he went to work for Mediterra bakery when it opened and subsequently became the lead pastry chef at Giant Eagle Market District. But when he saw an ad looking for a pastry chef for Richard Chen, he decided to apply for the job. The rest is culinary history.

Schwerin's desserts utilize the pan-Asian concept that is the inspiration for the restaurant as a whole, but they also rely on many traditional European pastry techniques and even riff on American classics. The coconut tapioca with tropical fruit and passion glaze is the perfect example: It relies on pearl tapioca, imported to America along with bubble tea, as well as tropical fruits. But it is impossible to eat it without thinking at some point about tapioca pudding. Some new additions just this week include pineapple upside-down cake with kaffir lime cream cheese sherbet and banana praline parfait with chocolate sorbet and salted caramel.

"Inspiration comes from everywhere," says Schwerin, but he also emphasizes the importance of having a restaurant support him. "They're really super-committed to the whole thing. ... I have an $8,000 ice cream machine." And with that ice cream machine, Schwerin creates some of the creamiest, dreamiest frozen concoctions in Pittsburgh and perhaps anywhere, in flavors such as coconut (sorbet) and ginger dulce de leche (ice cream).

Many of the restaurants that offer stand-out desserts are larger ones with more substantial financial backing. But restaurants that are too small or too casual to consider having a dedicated pastry chef have no excuse for purchasing desserts or putting together lackluster, boring creations.

At Dinette in East Liberty, chef/owner Sonja Finn's desserts are simple but beautifully executed and incredibly satisfying. The chocolate pot de creme ($6) is rich and creamy and topped with real whipped cream (the kind that is made with a whisk, not from a canister). The arborio rice pudding ($6) will make a rice pudding lover out of anyone, and the baklava ($6) is sweet without being overwhelming.

Legume Bistro in Regent Square has long relied on a few solidly spectacular desserts, emphasizing consistency and quality over variety. But chef/owner Trevett Hooper recently announced on its updated Web site that "with the addition of our new prep area in the basement, we hope to break free from our chocolate cake/panna cotta dessert rut." Although I hope those desserts will make the occasional appearance -- the Legume truffle cake ($7) is one of the best chocolate cakes I've ever eaten -- it's already apparent that Hooper brings the same passion and creativity to his expanded dessert menu that he does to his savory menu. For just a few weeks Legume is offering traditional mincemeat pie ($7), made from candied citrus peel, a variety of dried fruits and beef tongue then aged for a month. For the slightly less adventurous, new additions have included banana cream pie with chocolate and caramel ($7) and Nathan's lemon cake, an import from Michele Coulon Dessertier in La Jolla, Calif., where Hooper picked up his pastry skills.

Hooper used to be a pastry chef? Who knew? It's a common stereotype that chefs who work with savory foods don't respect the pastry arts. But the truth is that a chef who doesn't respect the sweet side of the menu probably doesn't truly respect the savory side either.

When you go to a great restaurant, you invariably find great desserts. And now that Pittsburgh has more great restaurants than ever, the rest of them had better start upping the ante. Because once you've had a few great desserts, you won't be able to go back to frozen cheesecake, one-note molten chocolate cakes or bottled raspberry sauce.

Post-Gazette restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or .


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