Small and sweet

Petite desserts bring a taste of the tapas trend to the end of restaurant meals

September 27, 2006|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun restaurant critic

It's a small world for pastry chefs these days.

When trendy Vin opened in Towson this year, diners found that one of the highlights of their meal was its World's Tiniest Desserts Menu. The desserts, each $2, come in porcelain dishes the size of dolls' dinnerware: tiny bowls of creme brulee, a miniature chocolate ganache cake, apple crisp with cardamom ice cream, and a cute little fried banana split with chocolate ice cream and sugared walnuts.

His customers really enjoy them, says chef/owner Christopher Paternotte, who "heard a buzz about tiny desserts" before he opened Vin and decided it worked well with the "sampling" concept of the restaurant. "It's a sweet taste after a meal."

Quantity traditionally has been as important as quality when it comes to all-American desserts, from big slabs of apple pie a la mode to multilayer cakes with inch-thick frosting. But other cuisines always have understood the delights of a sliver of sweet, most notably France's petits fours, Switzerland's individually wrapped miniature chocolates and the Middle East's small, rich diamond of baklava.

Recently, though, desserts at some of the nation's best-known restaurants have been downsized so that it's possible to enjoy a tiny tiramisu or two-bite brownie after a big meal. Even a casual-dining chain like Houlihan's has shrunk its desserts, although they can't be called petite: The chain offers Mini Yums for $1.99 each.

That's good news for all of us who don't order regular-sized desserts because we know we'll polish off every last bite of chocolate and whipped cream, no matter how good our intentions are.

Houlihan's introduced its small sweets in 2003. Before then, the chain served the larger desserts you'd expect at a casual-dining restaurant.

"We launched mini-desserts to stay ahead of the curve in casual dining and do what upscale restaurants were already doing," says spokeswoman Jen Gulvik, "and that is offer smaller portion sizes in response to the macro trend of health and wellness."

Since the switch, she says, dessert sales are up 2,749 a week in Houlihan's restaurants.

Seasons 52, a Florida-based group of upscale restaurants, is known for its fresh, seasonal, good-for-you entrees. They all have fewer than 475 calories. But when it came to planning the dessertmenu, says Clifford Pleau, the restaurants' director of culinary development, he realized no one wants a healthful dessert. Instead he decided on portion control.

Seasons 52's small indulgences are served layered in shot glasses. Some are traditional, like Key lime pie, and some are more unusual, like the rocky road (chocolate mousse, marshmallows, chocolate chips and cake). For those who don't want to be tempted at all, one is fruit: 50 calories worth of diced mango, pineapple, oranges, berries, kiwi and fresh mint. The portions are only a bite or two, but they are beautiful and deeply satisfying.

"People are absolutely drooling" when they see the dessert cart, says Pleau.

The tiny trend

The downsizing-of-desserts trend -- let's call it a "trendlet" -- has many facets. The popularity of cupcakes (huge in New York and now sweeping Los Angeles) is one part of the move to smaller desserts, says Andrew Knowlton, an assistant editor and writer of the "Restaurant Reporter" column in Bon Appetit magazine.

But it's a "confluence of things," he says.

Like the amuse bouche, the whimsical tidbit chefs sometimes send to the table at the beginning of a meal in upscale restaurants, miniature desserts can showcase the skill of a chef.

This has nothing to do with healthful eating and everything to do with a clever concept. Local food consultant Diane Neas remembers with pleasure being served seven tiny creme brulees by renowned French chef Marc Verget, each with a different flavoring and all of them unusual.

Nina Zagat of the popular Zagat Survey restaurant guides says plates of miniature desserts can be found at some of New York's finest restaurants. There might be a choice of different flavor themes, such as an all-lemon sampler, or the chef might play with, say, white and dark chocolates on one plate. The selection might contrast crunchy with smooth. Whatever the theme, all of the desserts will be beautiful or whimsical.

What the selections won't be is random, like an old-fashioned dessert sampler. "I don't think that works anymore," says Neas. "It's not what the trend is about."

The Iron Bridge Wine Co. in Columbia, which specializes in small plates, recently had a trio of desserts on its menu: a spoonful each of lemon custard, orange-scented rice pudding and a classic caramel Peruvian dessert. The three pale, custardlike desserts from three different cuisines were arranged in tiny white porcelain containers on a white porcelain plate.

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