Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Unjust Desserts

I have a list of restaurants which I love, whose food I start to dream about and salivate for as soon as the reservation has been made, even if weeks in advance. Very infrequently does the dessert menu appear in these fantasies. This is probably because I am not really a dessert person. Desserts are more of a luxury than a staple, saved for fancy dinners and special occasions.

That said, there is nothing worse than enjoying an exquisite dinner and then submitting to the temptation of the dessert menu, only to be disappointed by the final taste of the evening.

At 44 & X Hell's Kitchen, Husband and I enjoyed a superb anniversary dinner. Our appetizer was a goat cheese and pistachio souffle, garnished with endive and a pomegranate vinaigrette. This dish was the perfect combination of flavors and textures. Husband enjoyed short ribs with a root vegetable mash, black truffles and a port wine reduction - the short ribs were braised then grilled, full of savory and sweet flavors that mesmerized the tongue. I had crispy sea bass with chanterelle mushrooms, asparagus, and artichokes in a saffron mussel broth which was also quite delicious, even though the artichokes were better in theory than in practice as they were mushy and flavorless.

After relishing our three successful dishes, we debated over dessert and decided to go for it. We ordered the fallen chocolate souffle, with chocolate soup and Tahitian vanilla ice cream. I knew that Husband was looking forward to this treat as chocolate souffle is one of his favorites.

When it arrived I was immediately put off - the chocolate soup had been dumped over the entire souffle, then oozed down to pool at bottom of the dish. I could practically hear the poor souffle crying out for mercy as it drowned. The taste was as unappetizing as the dish's appearance. While the souffle was adequately light and fluffy, the chocolate was neither sweet, nor rich. I drank a full glass of water after sampling it in the hopes of eliminating the chalky aftertaste that was left in the back of my mouth. Unfortunately, I was still tasting it as we walked home from the restaurant.

44 & X is not the only restaurant that suffers from Disappointing Dessert Syndrome. Crispo, a heavenly Italian restaurant, is in the same predicament. After being wowed by the chef's talents at making even the most ordinary entree such as roast chicken a culinary masterpiece, I have continually been distraught over their desserts. Rather than being crispy, light and airy, their zeppole are overly greasy and sink to your stomach like hard little stones. The gelato lacks the smooth, indulgent quality that distinguishes it from any ordinary ice cream that you could get from your grocer's freezer.

Why is it so difficult for restaurants who excel at starters and entrees to provide equally good desserts? I understand that a chef is not the same as a skilled pastry chef and perhaps it is time for chefs to realize that are doing their customers (and ultimately themselves) a disservice in not finding a pastry chef of equal caliber.

In all fairness, I cannot say that these mediocre dessert offerings have ever ruined my entire dining experience (not even I am that melodramatic). I have never vowed to boycott a restaurant based on desserts alone. However, on those rare occasions where I was served a dessert which was as thoughtfully created and well executed as the previous courses, I have left the restaurant not only sated, but elated.

Like a sweet good night kiss on a first date, a good dessert has the ability to transform an enjoyable night into a heavenly one. Likewise, a weak offering may not turn you off forever, but you may think twice before again subjecting yourself to the boorishness of the slobbery, unpleasant kiss of a chocolate drenched suitor.

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