Toward the end of Lent, one faithful observer emailed me with a plaintive request:
I am a native Houston who has been displaced to Texas A&M in College Station (read: total dearth of anything approaching the kind of food I've become accustomed to), and read the Houston Press as my main means of staying connected to civilization.
For lent I gave up desserts, and have done remarkably well - save one lapse (Empire Cafe Chocolate Amaretto cake...can you blame me?) after some heavy persuasion by the fairer sex. I am dying here...no chocolate? No sugar? No icing, ice cream?!
So, I was wondering if you could at some point do a "Top 5" list on best dessert menus. A lot of people give up sweets or dessert for lent, so I think this could be a great piece that a lot of readers will appreciate.
First of all, dear reader, I feel you on the college town exile. I was similarly positioned in Waco, and it was no smorgasbord. Hell, we didn't even have Fat Ho burgers back then.
Now to your question, and quick: Here are my favorite restaurant dessert menus in Houston. Dive in.
Although it's difficult to select good dessert menus in the days when pastry chefs are being eliminated left and right from kitchens, these restaurants still put forth an exceptionally strong showing with desserts that are as thoughtful as the entrees. It's no longer the wild and wooly heyday of immense talents like Plinio Sandalio, but Houston still has its share of great pastry chefs.
While pastry chef Audrey Sam is no longer with Voice, her mark still remains on the clever dessert menu that matches Chef Greg Lowry's in modern ambition. Witness a dark chocolate souffle with avocado truffle and blood orange Chantilly, or the warm compressed spiced figs with dehydrated chocolate mousse and goat cheese ice cream. Both are $8 and both taste like they should cost a lot more, with rich depths of flavor and playfulness rarely seen in your standard molten-lava-chocolate-cake-laden dessert menus.
Did you know that Hugo Ortega has a brother, Ruben? And that Ruben is as talented a chef as Hugo, especially when it comes to desserts? His skill in executing old standards with a modern flair is most on display in treats like the churros stuffed with dulce de leche served alongside the house-made Mexican hot chocolate and chocolate ice cream. Ruben also makes the only flourless chocolate cake I've ever liked: the pirámide de chocolate that's livened up with dulce de leche cream and wild prickly pear sauce.
I admitted to a friend over a recent lunch that I still hadn't tried the world-famous sticky toffee pudding at BWT and her eyes went wide: "Why?!" she demanded. I had never been able to tear myself away from the light, simple, straightforward cheesecake with blueberry compote. But that sticky toffee pudding was a revelation, and the house-made pistachio ice cream on top -- of which Chef David Grossman is especially proud -- is the perfect balance to the dense cake underneath.
Rebecca Masson consulted on the original menu when Stella first opened in late 2009, and many of her creations were so good, they remain to this day. The caramel turtle affogato, served with salted caramel gelato, candied pecans and a dark chocolate sauce made with espresso is decadent and deep without being overpowering. And although Masson's pistachio pound cake with mascarpone and sour cherries is also an old favorite, I'm hooked these days on the tart lemon pie served in a squat glass jar.
Samba gets points for knowing its genre and staying within it -- no random bread puddings or lemon icebox pie -- while at the same time elevating old classics, like the pitch-perfect tres leches or the apple-stuffed empanadas with a wonderfully buttery, flaky crust. And if dessert wine is more your speed, Samba's list is impressive and comprehensive. You can even do a $90 Port flight if you're feeling cheeky.
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Honorable mention: Mark's American Cuisine
Although I have [still] never eaten at Mark's, every person I know assures me that the dessert menu there is unrivaled. No surprise, I suppose, as the fabulously talented Katie Leggett left a great legacy behind her as pastry chef. She's now at Michael's Cookie Jar, whipping up all-butter cookies and other goodies.