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Bay Area Dessert Tour: A Very Long Report

In the past month I have eaten more than my fair share of restaurant desserts. As promised I am going to try and give a report.

Best desserts: Oliveto, Delfina and Bar Tartine
2nd best: Ame, Lalime's and Rubicon
Worst: Campton Place and Salt House

Oliveto's desserts were clean, simple and perfect. We ordered the whole menu. They got points for seasonality & innovation, as well as a dessert I had much disdain for initially but blew me away: a "Raisin Tart" with a tender, delicate, buttery crust. My favorite was a mandarin orange frozen parfait and an impressive coco nib pannacotta-- silky smooth, not too much gelatin, redolent of chocolate without the heavyness of actual chocolate.

At Delfina we had the carnaroli pudding with cherry compote, buttermilk pannacotta and pistachio gelato. The carnaroli was my favorite but i like the new plating on the pannacotta-- there was a tangerine miroir/gelee on top instead of the usual caramel. I don't like my pistachios toasted, but the gelato was great otherwise: good strong flavour.

Bar Tartine has come a long way. Desserts tasted: Rose geranium pannacotta with rhubarb consomme and stewed rhubarb, and Chocolate mousse cake with red beet ice cream, sesame tuile, candied kumquats & beets.
The first one was surprisingly nice, if a bit sweet. The rose geranium flavour was well balanced, although the whole dessert was fairly soft. Coconut chunks were floating in the soup that didn't make sense, but besides that all was well executed.
Beet ice cream was creamy and not "dirty" tasting the way beets tend to taste as a concentrated flavor. Mousse was light in texture, tuile flavor didn't make much sense on the plate but it was delicious, kuquats were great for acid and bitterness against a mostly sweet dessert, but neither of us appreciated the actual beets on the plate.

Ame and Rubicon get points for trying hard. For giving it a go at seasonality (I looked at the Americano dessert menu and 3 out of 4 desserts were chocolate.) and pretty plating styles. Although Ame played it so safe it felt boring and Rubicon took some poetic license I didn't appreciate.

Ame: Chocolate Mousse Crunch with chocolate sorbet and sour cherry red wine compote, Rhubarb Pie with strawberry ice cream, and strawberry salad, Meyer Lemon Beignet with mango Lassi and Black Cardamon honey.
The choc. dessert was seamlessly executed and pretty to look at but it lacked soul or depth. To much sameness. The crunch at the bottom of the mousse-cake had peanuts in it which didn't make sense in the overall flavor profile and the sorbet only tasted of cocoa.
The strawberry dessert was confused. The crust on the pie was possibly made of just cream it was so tender, but the pie itself had little to no sugar which didn't work with the corresponding garnishes. A strawberry ice cream seemed overly sweet in comparison and tasted so strongly of strawberry it made me and my companion suspicious. Are they using fruit puree? What let us know they were was the "strawberry salad"was a few haphazardly sliced strawberries with coulis poured over the top, but, the strawberries themselves had no flavor. (or the flavor of commercial strawberries in March.)
The beignets were also confusing. they were indeed yeated doughnuts, fried to perfection, but they tasted nothing of Meyer Lemon. There were three components: "beignets," lassi and a pot of marmalade. The sauce over the doughnuts was barely cardamon nor honey. A pretty plate, but not cohesive.

Rubicon's pastry chef is doing a good job, but could be doing a lot better. The chef's food is more refined than hers and it shows in comparison. Desserts ordered: Bittersweet chocolate pecan crepes with oven roasted pear and Szechuan Pepper Sabayon, Spiced Apple Beignets with dried Moyer Plums and salted caramel ice cream, and Pistachio Rose petal Meringue with honeycomb, dates and yogurt sorbet.
the chocolate dessert should be named something else. Three, what looked to be fried but are actually baked tiny square puffs are served in a bowl with sabayon in the middle and the plum-pear stuff going on underneath, the sabayon could be a dessert all on it's own it's so fantastic. Subtle, light, gorgeous deliciousness! Fantastic use of/for a strong spice. Two puffs are filled with very bittersweet chocolate (cake batter?) and one is filled with pecan pie filling without the nuts. the bowl could use to have more balance-- maybe another pecan pie puff? maybe actual crepes if that's what the menu says? The baked puffs are almost impossible to cut with a fork, and although you could just pick one up and pop it in your mouth, it would deliver too powerful a punch t be able to taste anything else.
The beignets are not that. They are overcooked, dry, cake doughnut middles, small and covered with too much sugar. besides the ok ice cream, this dessert is not good. And because salted caramel ice cream is on so many dessert menus, it shouldn't show up unless it's very very good. (Like the version at BiRite creamery.)
The pistachio-rose petal dessert is very pretty, but quite small in relation to the amount and size of the other desserts, like a quarter of the size. I liked the flavors although my companion was put off by how cold it was. I imagine the sorbet is pre-scooped and frozen so that it will stand up to a torch on the meringue exterior. The rose water flavor was strong and could do to be pulled back on, but this was the best dessert overall.

At Campton Place we ordered every sngle dessert so I can safely say that they were all awful. The dessert of carrot ravioli and avocado mousse was fine, if you like those flavors. Me not being one to be impressed with smoke an mirrors I found the flavor man behind the curtain to be missing. This is a European trained pastry chef so the execution is spot-on, but much of the components were so bitter or strongly flavored we could not eat more than a few polite bites. If you are looking for very "strange" flavor combinations and that's all you care about, these desserts are for you. But too many of them tasted only of a particular alcohol used or the overall flavor compositions were too confusing to get a straight read on any of them. So unsatisfying it made me sad.

Salt House was worse than Campton Place because the desserts had no flavor at all. We also ordered the entire dessert menu so it's not that we didn't have "the good one." A rhubard gratin was raw rhubarb set into pastry cream with a burnt custard crust (not bruleed with sugar or anything), what looked to be overcooked granola on top and a scoop of flavorless (rhubarb?) sorbet. There was a chocolate mousse thing which was dense and weird. A lemon pudding cake which was dry (isn't the point of the pudding cake to be moist?) with scattered huckleberries on the plate, a "marshmallow" that was no more than a stale piece of meringue, a bitter maple-walnut tart with tough crust, a giant scoop of ok banana ice cream, although too sweet, on top, a very odd pineapple-coconut triangle parfait on top of dry cake-- the pineapple was not ripe, the plating was something out of the midwest and the cake was practically inedible. Considering that the pastry chef was recently featured in The SF Chronicle I though these desserts were going to wow me with at least flavor. But from the childish plating style to the execution to the flavor, this was the worst experience of them all.

What I learned is that SF likes to follow trends. Chocolate mousse, doughnuts and attempts at odd pairings appear to be all the rage. Seasonality still has a long way to travel, even in our organic-local-farmers' market driven city.

Restaurants for desserts I'd still like to try: Boulevard, Ritz Carleton Dining Room, Jojo, and Masa's (just to see who they get next.)

Thanks for the suggestions initially!

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  1. Is there a SF trend in prices? More $8-$9 desserts on menus? And, portions — smaller or enough to share? I'm enjoying this vicarious touring of your desserts.
    Impressive reporting; thank you :^)

    1 Reply
    1. re: Cynsa

      Desserts ran $7-10. But I think these prices are fair, especially as compared to some savory items in comparable price ranges. (Like soups and salads.)
      You're welcome-- glad someone could get through the whole report!

      1. re: sugarbuzz

        I had a lovely "Caramel-Custard" tart with a cocoa crust. The bottom layer was caramel and on top was a thick white custard, like pot de creme, but baked in. On top was a toasted almond covered, chocolate mousse filled "truffle" and on the plate was a nice chocolate caramel. Some other desserts looked nice as well but we were quite full. (I had just that day taught a class on custards and we had all eaten way too much dessert already!)

      2. I always thought Delfina's standout dessert was the cannoli. Very few places have decent cannoli and theirs is amazing. My husband is a cannoli-fiend and I can't imagine that we haven't eaten almost every one in the Bay Area. His previous Favorite Bay Area Cannoli Award was given to Romolo's, but Delfina's is better.

        1 Reply
        1. re: larochelle

          FYI for anyone wisely looking to follow up this helpful tip, it's the Pizzeria and not the main restaurant that has cannoli. Or at least, the Pizzeria *always* has them the way the mother ship always has panna cotta, choc. cake, and profiteroles; perhaps the m.s. also occasionally has or had them. I recently had dinner at the restaurant and then, craving the cannoli, relocated next door to get one--it felt like a [Italian word for coup?].
          p.s. Speaking of Italian (though not myself speaking it), is cannoli the plural of . . . cannolo? Or is it a sing./collective noun like biscotti? (Italophones?)

        2. Thanks for the report! I second your comment about "odd pairings appear to be all the rage" because it also seems to me that restaurants either want to do weird desserts, or buy the same boring ones from the same supplier (molten ch cake, creme brulee, bread pudding). Why not just a normal, expertly-executed pie, tart, pudding or ice cream made with excellent-quality ingredients? And perhaps add a little twist or tweak to them? Since I do that at home, and places like Fleur de Cocoa and Tartine can do it, it's not brain surgery. Especially at $8 apiece, restaurants should hire a true pastry chef or just source quality desserts. Grrrr...

          2 Replies
          1. re: Claudette

            I think A Cote and Bay Wolf both do a good job at classic desserts, using seasonal ingredients. A Cote does a lot of clafouti with seasonal fruit, which I love. They're rarely innovative or beautifully plated, but they're delicious and satisfying. I mean, they're not sloppy either, they're attractive but rustic in presentation. Which I kind of prefer anyway.

            Are there any superstar pastry chefs in the SF Bay Area, like Claudia Fleming was in the 90's?

            1. re: daveena

              Great write-up ... carrot ravioli and avocado mousse ... heh ... I'm not sure whether to appaud your bravery or roll my eyes at anyone ordering that.

              Well, at least they are over the huckleberry thing hopefully in Bay Area restaurants. It does get dreary the way trends get followed. Now it is beneigts. Back in the late 90's there was that awful upscale tiny pricy donut thing.

          2. Great report! Seasonality is tough for a pastry chef this time of year, as I'm sure you're well aware. Apples and pears have been sitting in cold storage for months, kiwis are gone, strawberries still need a few weeks before they reach their peak, and most of this year's citrus crop is either frosted or water logged.

            1. I really think you should try the desserts at Pizzaiolo. The pastry chef has been there now for 5 or so months and she is honestly the gift of the Gods as far as pastry goes. Her gelato is fantastic, crostatas crisp and sweet, and her fleur de sel caramel sauce (sometimes on her profiteroles) is to die for.

              On the other hand, I've had the salted caramel ice cream from Bi-Rite, along with the roasted banana, and the malted vanilla with chocolate covered rice krispies. They are so overly done that the taste was enough. I had bought a pint full of all three and the salted caramel in particular was so overwhelming that I threw is away just to get to the banana. Unfortunately, I felt that most of their ice creams were far too robust to be enjoyed as more than a taste

              7 Replies
              1. re: Doodleboomer

                I had those profiteroles with fleur de sel caramel sauce (with coffee gelato inside) this weekend, and oh man. Even my non sweet tooth hating companion fought me for the last bite.

                I agree that the desserts at A Cote are fantastic, and Sea Salt also has great ones (the mini pear pies that I had the last time I was there were delicious).

                1. re: Doodleboomer

                  I didn't say what I had there because I didn't want to harp on the negative. I ate a "crostata" made with apples that tasted of nothing, a crust that was tasty (except for the chunks of sugar I had to pull off the top) but the dessert was plated in a bowl and there was "sauce" in the bowl with the consistency of water so that that very crust turned into a bloated mess. The people plating the dessert put "pesto" on the beautiful ginger ice cream by accident (they took it off the bill b/c of their mistake) so that sort of ruined it.
                  We also had the lemon sorbet and basil ice milk.
                  A. basil is not in season. B. it tasted oxidized. C. the lemon sorbet was watery and almost flavorless, especially right next to the basil ice milk.
                  While I appreciate that Pizzaiolo has finally hired a pastry chef, I think someone needs to be hired to plate them correctly.

                  1. re: sailorbuoys

                    Sorry to hear you had such a poor experience. The desserts at Pizzaiolo, particularly the gelatos, have impressed me on several occasions. Sounds to me like it may have been an "off night."

                    Hot house basil is available this time of year. Certainly not a seasonal ideal, but the pickings are pretty slim right now (just look at your list of faves - mostly herb, dried fruit, chocolate, or nut based desserts). Since Pizzaiolo's pastry chef is new she had no opportunity to preserve fruits in the summer for winter use.

                    1. re: sailorbuoys

                      That's interesting -- I've had that apple crostata and completely loved it (twice, actually), so it's possible that it's just not to your taste.

                    2. re: Doodleboomer

                      Doodleboomer, This is such an interesting criticism! I would have to agree. I have only tasted a few things from Bi Rite Creamery but I have taken note of how powerful they are. Like Sketch and Ici, pastry chefs turned retail ice cream makers are still making restaurant-quality ice cream. This is a criticism that will give me much food for thought!

                      1. re: Doodleboomer

                        See, now I thought the Bi-Rite's robust flavor was a HUGE benefit - in 1/4-1/2 size serving I can get as much the flavor as a full serving of other ice creams and thus be satisfied. I would love it if everyone made their food like that.

                        1. re: larochelle

                          Agree with larochelle... after 5 years in Boston, with many, many visits to Toscanini's, Christina's and Herrell's under my belt, everything else tastes (and feels) like ice milk to me. The only ice cream that's ever made me cry uncle was Toscanini's Guinness ice cream (just a wee bit too bitter). Bi-Rite's the first ice cream I've had in years that has the intensity of flavor, mouthfeel, and density that I've been looking for.

                      2. I am super disappointed that you didn't enjoy Campton Place. I have been several times and eaten multiple desserts on each visit and been truly impressed. I don't care for strange combinations, or savory ones during dessert, simply for the sake of novelty, and everything I've tried has been well-executed, stimulating, often surprising and - most important - delicious. Plus, the menu changes seasonally.

                        Other than that, though, I'm thrilled to read your "reviews." Thanks for putting your tongue and belly through all that and sharing it with us.

                        1. Ouch, knocking the midwest, eh? Hmmm. We have some tasty desserts (and pretty platings) here in Chicago. Come visit! Maybe you'll change your mind (and start comparing the pineapple concoction to a dish from NYC or some other 'has been' culinary capital {wink}). Gale Gand and Mindy Segal would have a thing or two to say about that!

                          All in all, I'm a fan though....and a die hard sweet tooth who would probably have had to say mercy halfway through. I'm impressed!

                          1. For kicks and giggles, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Coi.