As a pastry chef for the past several years, most recently at FINO Restaurant Patio and Bar and Asti Trattoria in Austin, I’ve obsessed over the height
of my meringue, the precision of my mint chiffonnade, and the chewiness of my coconut macaroons. Working in the sweet side of the kitchen can be as demanding as any otherjob in the restaurant, which is why, when dining out, I often bypass the en trees and turn straight to the dessert menu. Whether experimenting with molecular gastronomy, using childhood memories as guidelines, or satisfying a taste for nostalgia, restaurant chefs throughout Texas are proving their pastry prowess by creating desserts that steal the show.
Austinites flock to Uchi, the wildly popular sushi restaurant created by Tyson Cole, to feast on dishes so dazzling in color and texture they sometimes appear more like art than dinner. The dessert menu of Uchi pastry chef Philip Speer is a playful extension of the ingenious Uchi menu. With the aid of modem kitchen gadgets and an ingredient list that reads part farmers market, part laboratory, he concocts magical dishes that successfully merge American flavors with Japanese aesthetics.
For example, Speer serves his signature peanut butter semifreddo (a luxuriously creamy, frozen mousse) with a tangy-yet-earthy apple-miso sorbet. Topped with the crunchy apple chips he calls “ringo crisps;’ the dish offers a surprising combination of familiar and exotic flavors. Making the most of kitchen alchemy, Speer offers a delicate sphere of silky, coffee-flavored panna cotta with encapsulated mango juice, which quivers like an egg and promises to ooze its sweet contents at the mere prick of a fork. A scoop of white chocolate sorbet on the side balances the dish’s sweetness.
If Speer is a consummate innovator, then brothers Hugo and Ruben Ortega are true traditionalists. At Hugo’s, the central-Houston restaurant that introduced Oaxacan-style fried grasshoppers to Texan palates, the brothers based their dessert menu on the traditional sweets of their childhoods in Mexico. Dishes like arroz con leche, tres Zeches cake, and flan are all homages to the chefs’ taste for authenticity. But they make sure to elevate every item with a modern twist.
For a fresh (and over-the-top) take on churros, a popular Mexican street food, Ruben fills slender tubes of crunchy fried dough with warm, goat’s-milk dulce de leche, dusts them with cinnamon-sugar, and then serves them with house-made chocolate ice cream and a rich cup of hot chocolate-the latter a nod to his grandmother’s original recipe. Ruben makes his own chocolate in-house, patiently pan-roasting cocoa beans, then grinding them in an imported stone molcajete while they are still warm. The extra effort results in an eye-rollingly satisfying dessert. “People will kill me if I take the churros and hot chocolate off the menu,” Ruben jokes.
Tradition also reigns at Royers Round Top Cafe in Round Top. According to owner Bud Royer, who runs the cafe with his wife, Karen, and their four adult children, the perfect dessert is a prodigious piece of pie, a la mode. Customers drive to Royers from the edges of Texas to eat pork chops and other comfort-food standards, and they often grab a beer or two from the cooler outside (and pay later on the honor system) before sitting down to peruse the lengthy pie menu. chocolate chips, pecans, and coconut; D’Ette’s Strawberry Rhubarb, a pretty pink triangle topped with crunchy granola; or Ann Criswell’s Pecan, a not-toosweet version of the Texas favorite. Or try Royers’ “pie shots”—a trio of two-bite pies served in shot glasses with mini-scoops of ice cream. While all of the pies here are nostalgia-inducing wonders, Bud’s Chocolate Chip Pie makes customers weak at the knees. Pulled straight from the oven, the pie fills the dining room with heavenly aromas of brown sugar and chocolate. Dense, intense, gooey, and especially irresistible topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, this pie testifies to Royers’ reputation as a dessert destination.
Through innovation and passion, Uchi, Hugo’s, and Royers have redefined the role of the last course, elevating it from optional encore to anticipation-worthy showstopper. With such stunning sweets as theirs, you may be tempted to skip the main course all together.