You know the feeling: when they come around after you've demolished your meal, asking if you have room for dessert. You want something sweet to round off the night, but the dessert menu is the same tired list of cheesecakes and molten lava cakes that aren't even made there. So you lie, tell the waiter you're too stuffed, pay your bill and proceed to the nearest Rite-Aid for an ice cream cone.
If you went to any of the places on this list, there would be no need to do that. This is a list of great restaurant desserts. Some are from establishments that employ actual pastry chefs, while others, well, not so much. But they all have something in common: these are sweets that are as delicious as the main entrees, and are worth ordering on their own if you're inclined. Sharing, by the way, is overrated.
1. “Heaven” at Papa Hassan's
We're pretty sure this isn't the only dessert out there someone has decided to call “Heaven.” When you see a dish called such anywhere other than Papa Hassan's Grill, it's because of a lack of imagination; but when you have it at this Little Arabia classic, it's because no other description is worthy. For the record, the proper name for it is aish al saraya, a chilled bread pudding-cum-custard, dripping with a subtle sweetness from honey, topped with fluffs of cream and dusted with crushed pistachios. It's airy, soft, white and good–just like, um, heaven.
2. Croissant Bread Pudding at Cafe Hiro
There was a time when Cafe Hiro chef/owner Hiro Ohiwa only offered his croissant bread pudding during the holiday season or whenever he felt like it. These days he seems to understand that his customers love this dessert more than the others he actually has on the permanent menu. If you order one dessert at Cafe Hiro–heck, if you order anything at Cafe Hiro–let it be this. In the rectangular serving of warmed bread pudding made from ultra-buttery croissants, he's embedded dark chocolate chips, which melt, and cuts into the eggy sweetness of the custard. By itself it's already a genius stroke of the dessert arts, but then he goes further: Ohiwa lays it down on a puddle of house-made caramel sauce, which has just the slightest bit of bitterness that's almost coffee-like. It's just enough to ground the whole thing and make you realize sharing this dessert with even one other person was a bad idea–everyone needs to order their own.
3. Bananas Foster Nuggets at Back Bay Bistro
A martini glass is used for the best thing Back Bay Bistro does: the Bananas Foster Nuggets. You will never have anything involving bananas that will impress more than this dessert. Encrusted in a fried shell, it will remind you simultaneously of donut holes and apple fritters. Each bite led to the warm, sweet and mushy insides of fruit. Over the three golden-brown morsels and the vanilla-bean-ice-cream base, banana puree and caramel was drizzled. It was more of a treat than the panoramic views of Newport's Back Bay or any of the actual main courses served.
4. Chocolate S'mores Pudding at Simmzy's
It'll stick to your spoon as well as your teeth. Both your dentist and family practitioner would probably advise against ordering it. It's tooth decay and diabetes in a cup. But if you're going to have dessert, you might as well have Simmzy's chocolate S'mores pudding, a deceptively simple but oh-so-ingenious chalice with bittersweet chocolate pudding on the bottom, a shower of crushed graham crackers for texture, and then a crown of real marshmallows that is torched as though a crème brûlée, burnt crisp in spots, with the rest a decadent gooeyness. You can always get your fillings redone and refill your shots of insulin later.
5. Mango Tart at Urban Plates
Perhaps the single best reason to queue up with the yuppies at Urban Plates is the mango tart–a pastry that sells for a slightly exorbitant $5 a slice, but is still kind of worth it. The crust is a shortbread-like, dense and crumbly thing about twice the thickness of what you'd find in a pumpkin pie. This is slathered with a layer of smooth custard, then mangoes arranged like petals on a flower. Together it forms an amazing dessert.
You won't taste mangoes this ripe, juicy and sugary since the last time you had it with sticky rice at a Thai restaurant. You might as well shell out $30 for the whole tart. As a yuppie, you can afford it.
6. Popcorn Ice Cream at THE RANCH
When you eat THE RANCH, pastry chef David Rossi's plate designs are often so elaborate and gorgeous it might just distract you from his masterpiece: the popcorn ice cream, the best new flavor discovery since sea salt and caramel. Order it, and you'll shake your head how uncanny this humble scoop is in re-creating the buttery and toasty notes of the movie-theater snack. Perhaps when Extron owner Andrew Edwards decides to go into the ice cream business as he did the restaurant business, they'll sell it in cartons.
7. Panna Cotta at Coconut Rabbit
Dessert at Coconut Rabbit–perhaps the best Thai restaurant in our county not named Thai Nakorn–is just as sublime as the meal that preceded it. A mango with sweet, sticky rice is made extra-special here. The rice is formed into a neat cylinder on a banana leaf, still warm and sprinkled with just-toasted sesame seeds, and then topped with a tuile, a lacy, homemade French wafer the chef's niece–a young woman who studied pastry at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris–carefully baked just for the purpose. But the dessert to get is her panna cotta–a trembling, wiggly, cool sensation of a treat topped with a layer of berry sauce, a masterpiece worthy of Top Chef's Just Desserts, if it were still on the air.
8. Chocolate Haupia Pie at North Shore Poke Company
Shawn Gole is responsible for the refreshing pokes North Shore Poke Company serves, but his sister Melissa, gets full credit for the chocolate haupia pie they serve for dessert. This is a pie which improves upon an often-overlooked traditional Hawaiian dessert of coconut-milk gelatin, now constructed into a two-layered, crumbly crusted wedge. Its saltiness combines so well with the sweet fluff of chocolate mousse and the jiggly coldness of haupia that it's the worthy sibling and follow-up to her brother's main dish. Ms. Gole gives to her haupia what Shawn Gole gives to his poke: respect.
9. Butterscotch Pot De Creme at Lola Gaspar
Caramel and sea salt is so ten years ago, but hey if something works, it works. The concept of something sweet undercut by something, um, salty is applied again at Lola Gaspar's butterscotch pot de crème, a lidded jar filled with a silky-sweet pudding that finishes with sea salt tickling your tongue. It's served in a charming flip-top jar, dolloped with a cloud of whipped cream, and when you finish it, you'll debate whether you want to wipe the glass clean with your finger.
10. Chocolate Soufflé at Bistro Bleu
Just like at any uppity French places that would charge twice as much, you should order the soufflé at least a half-hour in advance at Bistro Bleu. But at $6, Bistro Bleu's automatically distinguishes itself as the most reasonably priced soufflé in the county. Though this soufflé is a shade lighter than most, it's also fluffier and comes with a soupier chocolate sauce that doesn't overpower the delicateness of its tenuous existence as an air-puffed brownie. And yet the same kind of formality precedes the soufflé here as it does at any Michelin-starred place: A server will cut a small hole at the top with a spoon, then pour the sauce and send dollops of cream down the well.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.