panna cotta by summer wright photo by greg rannells

Save room for dessert

Chocolate lava cake. We’ve all had it; we’ve all loved it. And let’s be honest, we’ve all gone up a jeans size because of it. But gone home raving about it? Not since ’97.

Dessert is the final act, the grand finale, the cherry on top (sorry). But what if it could be more than just a little something sweet? What if dessert was the beguiling destination dinner’s twists and turns were leading you to all along? What if dessert was a love letter to the seasons – if ice cream came in flavors like pawpaw and candied bacon was thrown around like confetti? What if dessert was just as surprising as dinner?

Prioritizing dessert means hiring a pastry chef – a tough cost for small restaurants up against the sobering odds of the industry. Most can’t even consider the expense, which is why so many pastry experts end up in hotels or bakeries. But some ambitious eateries find a way, enlisting trained pastry chefs to apply the same fierce passion and unapologetic enthusiasm of the savory side of the menu over to the sweet one. Their goal? To make dessert un-pass-up-able. Their results? Desserts that leave even the biggest sweets naysayer asking, “Where has this been all my life?”

When chef Matthew Daughaday began assembling the team for his Maplewood restaurant, Reeds American Table, an executive pastry chef was at the top of his list. A skilled pastry chef in the kitchen meant passion, innovation and the ability to make as much as possible in-house. Daughaday reached out to Summer Wright, an uber-talented pastry chef he’d met during their tenures in Gerard Craft’s Niche Food Group.

Unlike some kitchens, where the pastry chef is relegated to a small corner away from the hustle of the line, Wright is woven right into the madness. She is named a co-founder on the website, and the sweets menu is right there on the main menu (“I want people to plan,” she grinned.). In fact, Reeds’ brunch service grew partly out of Daughaday’s desire to let Wright show off her affinity for flaky, buttery pastries. “We always try to further someone’s skill set,” Daughaday said. “If you’re limited to this four-slot space at the end of the menu, that’s not room for growth.”

Wright’s composed desserts are equally thoughtful. Like her fig tart, a sucree tart shell filled with custard steeped in Japanese black tea until the cream’s sweetness is tempered just enough. Chewy dices of candied oranges, toasted almonds and a whipped cream quenelle are drizzled with a sweet and complex burnt local honey caramel. Perched atop are fresh figs, proud in their green and ruby glory. It’s clear why this is one of Wright’s all-time favorite desserts. It respects the season in the truest – and tastiest – way.

fig tart // photo by greg rannells

The same could be said of her panna cotta, Wright’s ballad to Missouri’s grape harvest. The light-as-fall-air vanilla bean panna cotta is surrounded by slivered, halved and quarter-cut local red Mars and green grapes and splashed with saba, the balsamic vinegar-like syrup made from grape must, leftover after wine is made. “It’s a great transitional dessert,” Wright noted. “It’s very poetic.”

Back at Niche Food Group, two other familiar faces are taking a slightly more whimsical approach to pastry. Niche expats Mathew Rice and Sarah Osborn returned from stints in Chicago – she at Boka, he at Nightwood, The Publican and Girl & the Goat – to breathe sweet new energy into dessert at Taste, Pastaria, Porano and Sardella (which may be open by the time you read this). At Taste, Rice is revisiting some of the signature desserts he crafted for the cocktail bar when it was just a six-seat hidden gem in Benton Park, like his Watchamacallit-inspired semifreddo. Back then, it was a malted milk ball-chocolate semifreddo with malted brittle, chocolate ganache and a chocolate-dipped peanut butter crispy rice treat. The 2016 reboot trades in ganache for magic shell and crispy treats for nougat.

Rice is also having a blast geeking out on “all things ice,” keeping the gelato case at Pastaria rife with new flavors (oh hello, sprinkle cake and gooey butter cake) and mastering the Willy Wonka-like gelato pops at Porano. To understand what that means, first, forget everything you know about pudding pops. Take for example Rice’s Tang Pop (yes, Tang) – flavored with the bright orange drink, dipped in a white chocolate magic shell (crunchy, sweet and a wee bit tropical) and then rolled in a pile of Pop Rocks that crackle and pop the same way they did when you were 9. So bubbly, so good. Or pick up what Rice called his “grown-up version of cookies and cream”: the Matcha-Chocolate Cookie, made with green matcha gelato half dipped in dark chocolate magic shell and rolled in crushed chocolate cookies.

porano gelato pops // photo by greg rannells

By his side, Osborn is busy crafting a dessert menu that will change with the seasons for Sardella. Osborn’s creme fraiche semifreddo gives a peek into how the dessert menu will play out. Cut through this leaning tower of apple-y goodness to get a bite of everything – the cold and creamy semifreddo, the crazy-moist applesauce cake, the apple terrine and the sticky salted caramel sauce. Oh, and don’t forget the candied ginger sprinkles.

No offense to the chocolate lava cakes and basic creme brulees of the world (We’ll still happily order you with coffee.), but a sweet finish can be more than mere menu obligation. A dessert list that surprises and satisfies, innovates and elevates is a symbol of a restaurant willing to go to great lengths to provide you with every aspect of an incredible meal. But despite their insane talent and clear passion, these pastry chefs are up against another challenge: really awesome dinner menus. So next time you’re out, do yourself a favor: Save room for dessert.

Tags : Places, Restaurants