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Sweet Companions Entice diners to order something sweet by going beyond the usual presentations

Drinks and desserts make creative companions, indeed, bringing out the best in sweets like this mini red velvet cake bite with cream cheese frosting.
PHOTO CREDIT: The Cheesecake Factory Bakery

Drinks and desserts make creative companions, indeed, bringing out the best in sweets like this mini red velvet cake bite with cream cheese frosting. photo courtesy of the cheesecake factory bakery.

The economic downturn of the past five years has squeezed restaurants’ bottom lines. But no category has suffered more than desserts—the indulgent finale to a great meal out. To lure diners into staying put, operators have had to dream up creative ways to trigger dessert purchases.

Fine-dining full-service restaurants, where price isn’t usually a consideration, have long paired after-dinner wines and cordials with desserts. But a new and increasingly mainstream approach serves classic and imaginative sweets in fresh, modern ways. Now, artisan beer is stepping up to the dessert plate. Dessert “flights” offer tastings of one or more treats to satisfy diners’ impulse to share. And successful pastry chefs are working hard to convey why their dessert course is one not to miss.
Diners are more likely to order a great-tasting dessert that offers indulgence presented in a newly inviting way.

Old Friends
Pairing sweets with drinks is a practice that’s ages old. It works for good reason. Rick’s Dessert Diner, a retro-inspired dessert hotspot in Sacramento, will soon add wines to its menu of gorgeous cakes and pastries. Rick’s benefits from the trend toward all-day desserts: Sweets are moving from the confines of after-dinner treats and into the category of anytime snacks. By offering dessert-and-wine pairings, the restaurant expands its horizons—and its check averages.

Other operators, such as The Wine Cellar & Bistro in Columbia, Mo., are using dessert as a way to highlight a commitment to local spirits and wines. Its Locavore Cheesecake is a peanut butter-goat cheese cheesecake with a pecan crust, topped with goat milk caramel and chocolate buttercrunch. Sommelier Sarah Cyr pairs it with 1855, a small-batch sherry from Adam Puchta Winery in Hermann, Mo.

At Robert’s Maine Grill in Kittery, Maine, pastry chef Jen Woods pairs a traditional scratch-made chocolate whoopie pie with a glass of ice-cold milk. (The restaurant also offers the option of ordering their desserts in “bite size” to tempt diners who are on the fence.)

Tradition once mandated that the beverages in a multi-course meal grow increasingly intense as the meal marches on. Some fear the dessert beverage will taste weak, compared with those that came before. But successfully pairing a dessert with a glass of wine, cordial or another beverage should bring out the flavor in both.

Beer Makes It Better
Growing popularity in artisan beer is one trend operators are using to capture the attention of diners who may not be drawn to dessert. Beer is appealing for two reasons: It attracts men, and it’s relatively inexpensive to pour. Pairing beer with desserts freshens up the presentation of each.

“Though there are some gender roles attached to beer that are completely baseless, it’s still perceived as a masculine beverage,” says certified cicerone Mike Reis, based in Oakland, Calif. “The fact is, everybody is intrigued by the world of beer. If they see a beer and food pairing, they might take notice.”

The “Minister of Education” for specialty beer distributor Lime Ventures used to manage beverages for two Bay Area restaurants, The Monk’s Kettle and Abbot’s Cellar. “Pairing beer with dessert was absolutely fun,” Reis says now. “Putting a glass of beer down in front of people who didn’t expect a beer with dessert was exciting.”

But how do you do it? Given that what’s in the bottle is static, and what your chef can create is fluid, Reis says it’s easier to tweak the food around the beer. Sweetness is the cardinal rule when pairing beer with dessert: “The sugar in your dessert affects your perception of the beer you drink alongside it,” he says. “Choose a beer that’s at least as sweet as the dessert with which you’re pairing.”

Barley wine, imperial stout and double IPAs often end meals, but they’re best paired with the richest, fattiest desserts on your menu. Imperial stout was practically made to enjoy with flourless chocolate cake. Belgian, German and some English ales, as well as sweet fruit-forward beers, pair well with fruity desserts.

As more craft beers enter the market, the possibilities are only growing. The key now is in educating operators and their staff about great pairings in their midst. “I’ve gotten a lot of interest when I tell them, ‘This beer you already carry pairs well with a dessert you already serve,’” Reis says. “It’s a one-two punch: You need your staff to sell diners on the pairing with confidence. They want to be able to explain a bit about the beer and a little about the dessert. The two go hand-in-hand.”

Jimmy MacMillan, executive pastry chef of Cathedral Hall in Chicago, says he knows how hard-hit restaurants have felt in recent years. That has been especially true for more adventurous culinary experiences, which diners might not consider worth the extra expense during lean times.

His restaurant has been somewhat insulated from that dip, he says, in part because it has a reputation for great desserts that he has worked hard to uphold. “A dessert has to far surpass visually, but it has to be honest,” he says. “There was a time when pastry chefs made things that we thought were cool but weren’t satisfying to the diner. And they took the approach: ‘If you don’t get it, that’s too bad.’ Well, diners weren’t coming in and they weren’t getting dessert.”

Instead, he offers options: For those eating more cautiously after the holidays (and anytime), MacMillan uses fresh ingredients and offers lighter—yet still wildly creative—combinations. Multiple components—like a sampling of several treats on one plate—keep dessert offerings fresh. His crème brûlée, filled with heirloom sweet lemon confit, arrives with vanilla and pineapple gelatos, fresh pineapple, green tea crisps and blackberries. “It’s not as large as a single crème brûlée, but the balance of the dish is enough for diners to finish it all but kind of want a little bit more,” he says. “It’s a composition.”

A growing number of diners with special dietary needs also get to indulge in a gluten-free and vegan dessert composed of Asian pears, huckleberries (sun-dried and rehydrated with hibiscus flowers), cucumber sorbet and an assemblage of hazelnut cookies. These layered desserts offer great value—and they look spectacular. That’s why he sends complimentary desserts into the dining room anytime it’s more than half full during the first 30 minutes of service. Dessert sales always spike.

Just as important as serving something memorable is explaining your dessert clearly. “If you come up with something interesting, but it’s not simply worded on a menu, it can be a distraction,” MacMillan says. “And if it’s too plain, diners will avoid it because they could make it at home. The key is to entice the diner and be very inclusive. I use flavors that are clear and easy to understand. Then, you surpass their expectations with quality and consistency. It has to deliver every time. When you do that, diners come back, wanting more.”

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Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos

Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos writes and edits stories about parenting, food and simple living for many national publications.