Thursday night, The Independent in Sand City hosted a unique pop-up dinner, one that didn’t include bites of bacon or selections of seafood, but rather an entire menu that highlighted sweet desserts. It was every kid’s dream—dessert for dinner.
Dessert dinners are becoming increasingly popular in major cities as an opportunity to showcase the talent of pastry chefs—talent that’s tragically ignored by many diners. Too often, pastry chefs lose the spotlight to their savory counterparts, an artifact of serving the sweet course after the diner is already stuffed with savory food.
Some diners think a moist chocolate cake or a dense crème brulee will suffice as a palate cleanser after dinner. But I much more appreciate a carefully crafted dessert that complements the flavors of the savory dinner rather than provide a sugar bomb.
Desserts-only dinners give pastry chefs an opportunity to showcase the depth of their skill. Around here, dessert dinners are still relatively rare—a notable exception was the delicious dessert dinner showcasing Kendra Baker at The Penny Ice Creamery (Santa Cruz) last year.
The Dessert First! pop-up dinner last Thursday sought to change that, bringing together four of the superstar pastry chefs on the Central Coast: Yulanda Santos (Sierra Mar at Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur), Ron Mendoza (Aubergine at L’Auberge, Carmel), Stephanie Prida (Manresa, Los Gatos) and Ben Spungin (Marinus at Bernardus Lodge, Carmel Valley).
The evening start with passed savory canapés and no-host cocktails.
The cocktail menu for the evening was quite creative, incorporating fall flavors like persimmon, pomegranate and cranberry.
I started with the Elyxer of the Harvest—persimmon, apple, cardamom, cinnamon and gin ($12). The texture was a little thicker than I normally prefer—a bit like a melted smoothie—but the flavors were superb. The spices were perfect for the transition between Thanksgiving and Christmas. (And I loved the generous pour of booze!)
I also snuck more than a few sips from my friend’s Golden Crush—ginger beer, cranberry, kumquat syrup and rye whiskey ($12). This drink had a nice tart bite to it, from the ginger, cranberry and kumquat.
Dinner was family-style—diners sat along large banquet tables, so it was a great chance to chat with fellow diners. (To the relief of many, we didn’t have to share desserts—I’d imagine otherwise our friendly chatter might have turned sour in an effort to gobble up the sweet treats on the table.) Wine pairings arrived with each course, with bottles spread out throughout the tables for pouring our own.
Our first course came from Yulanda Santos—an homage to the Meyer lemon tree. The plate was beautiful—cubes of Meyer lemon curd with crumbled white chocolate, dollops of ricotta, smoked bark, candied leaves and a playful “twig” on top. It was a playful plate—Santos brought the lemon tree right to our plates.
The flavors were clean and light, the perfect way to ease into the dinner ahead. (Just like a savory dinner, a good dessert dinner should build from lighter bites to heavier fare.)
Santos’ dessert was paired with a light Adelsheim 2011 Déglacé Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir. Made with frozen post-harvest pinot noir grapes and juice, this sweet wine had many fruity notes to complement the lemon.
Next came “Grapefruit, Pear and Pine” from Ron Mendoza. His dessert was inspired by Ann Getsinger’s piece by the same name. Mendoza’s plate was a work of art in and of itself—pink (grapefruit sorbet), chartreuse (thinly sliced pears) and white (meringue).
But looks aren’t everything—how did it taste? I’m happy to report the flavors were sublime. And I loved the tickle on the tongue, like eating Pop Rocks as a kid.
The wine pairing—a bubbly Marenco Pineto Brachetto D’Acqui—had lots of rich berry notes, but wasn’t too heavy to overpower the delicate dessert. Its low alcohol content made this a very sippable—and borderline swiggable—wine.
Our next course was a bit bolder. Stephanie Prida served the first chocolate course of the evening, incorporating rich Maralumi chocolate with quintessential wintertime flavors like clove and peppermint.
I loved the complexity of flavors—first the earthy chocolate, then the cooling peppermint and finally the spicy clove. But the chocolate was the star—a chocolate orb with rich chocolate cream inside.
The accompanying FRV100 de Jean-Paul Brun—a dry, sparkling Gamay—was my favorite wine pairing. The fruit notes were very light, making a nice accent to the chocolate, peppermint and Tonka bean in the dessert.
The final course was the richest—torn chocolate cake, black truffle ice cream, chanterelle mushroom mousse and hazelnuts from Ben Spungin.
The chanterelle mushroom mousse was an absolute winner. I’d happily eat an entire plate of it! It was buttery with hints of caramel.
It’s increasingly common to see mushrooms in desserts—chanterelles and candy caps have sweet notes that work well in desserts—but truffles in dessert was a new one for me.
I was a little curious how such an earthy variety would pair with the sweet ice cream. The results were delicious—the shavings of truffle made a nice accent on top of the rich ice cream. And the chocolate helped bring all the diverse flavors together on the plate.
To close out dinner, all chefs contributed to the migardnise—petit dessert bites served on large wooden “boats” in the center of the banquet tables. Prida’s “Dark and Stormy” macarons were perfectly crispy outside and gooey within. Mendoza’s yuzu-shiso rhinestones burst with sweet citrus. I loved the playfulness of Santos’ homemade “Ding-Dong.” And Spungin’s chocolate glasses and moustaches provided great entertainment for all.
As if we weren’t stuffed enough, the chefs also sent us home with more treats to enjoy later—tasty cookies and caramel corn.
Thursday’s dessert dinner was a sublime experience. It was nice to see our local pastry chefs stepping out of the shadows of their savory counterparts and enjoying time in the spotlight to showcase creative sweet treats.