New York is home to many great restaurants, but how many of them offer truly great desserts? I'm not talking about serving one signature item that's been on the menu for years. I'm talking about kitchens where the pastry chef has as much creativity and free rein as the chef de cuisine. I mean destinations that dish up ever-changing but reliably breathtaking sweets worth a trip just for dessert.
Answering this question has basically been my life's work, and there are countless ways to do so. So before we dig in, let me share some personal thoughts and parameters on what makes a dessert special.
Presentation: I love seeing artful and unique presentations on the plate. There's only so many ways you can plate roast chicken, but cake can be formed into so many different shapes, so let's see some creativity! The more expensive a restaurant is, the greater my expectations for that presentation. That several-hundred-dollar tasting menu better end with a dessert that could be displayed in a museum.
Thoughtful Construction: Years ago I visited a fine dining restaurant and ordered a chocolate tart with a molten chocolate filling. When it arrived it looked great. But the shell was made of thick, dense, dark chocolate, and I couldn't figure out how to eat it. I didn't want to cut it for fear of half the shell shooting across the table, spraying chocolate sauce everywhere. So I finally asked for a steak knife and prayed for the best. Since then I've paid keen attention to whether a chef has thought about how guests will eat their desserts.
Whimsy: The dessert course at a restaurant should be fun. It should make you feel like a kid, if only a little. And the more formal the restaurant is, the more playful the dessert can be. There's a reason the Four Seasons still sends out pink cotton candy at the end of a meal—even white-haired businessmen were children once.
Sweetness: Most desserts are meant to be sweet. But when sweetness or sugar becomes the defining characteristic of a dish, that dessert is dead to me! The best desserts let ingredients shine through with a minimum of sweetness, or balance out sugar with salty, sour, or bitter components.
Seasonal Ingredients: The best restaurant desserts make using seasonal ingredients look easy.
There are many great restaurants in New York with stellar desserts, but with the above criteria in mind, here are eight Serious Eats-approved spots—all wonderful destinations on the savory side—that earn stripes for their must-try sweets.
This pleasant, wood-lined restaurant on East 60th Street feels a world away from the chaos of midtown. And once you're done with the expertly prepared Mediterranean food you'll want to try a few of pastry chef Anna Markow's seasonal desserts. Markow specializes in traditional preparations made with unusual or savory ingredients.
Chocolate lovers should head straight for the Dark Chocolate Cake Doughnuts ($11) with cafe latte gelato. The cake doughnuts get their bitter dark chocolate flavor and black color profile from Dutch process cocoa powder that's been roasted for two hours. They're then dusted with a smoky black cardamom sugar to balance some of the bitterness. The latte gelato has an equally strong coffee flavor, but it's lighter than expected due to its eggless base. A thick, dark chocolate sauce completes the dish. Now this is how to do coffee and doughnuts!
Earlier this year I really enjoyed Amali's bitter and complex Dark Chocolate Beet Cake ($11), in with beets were added to Dutch process cocoa enhancing chocolate's dark, fruity qualities. During fall and winter, try the pumpkin seed gelato. And if there's an affogato on the menu, get it—it usually comes with mini doughnuts.
Lafayette's large, bustling dining room with its cavernous ceilings and huge windows feels like a grand place to eat. The pasta and small plates are excellent, but the real draw is recently crowned Dessert Professional Top 10 US pastry chef Jennifer Yee and her desserts. I've written about Yee's creations from Lafayette's pastry case many times, but here's what to order when you dine in.
Although Yee's creativity is slightly restrained by Lafayette's menu, she still manages to add ingenious touches to traditional French desserts. Her chocolate tarts are sure to please—she's been perfecting them for years. And her Mille Feuille "Puff-nini" ($12) is an exquisitely executed classic mille feuille, except the puff pastry has been grilled briefly on a panini press. The result is not only aesthetically pleasing but also adds a satisfying crunch to the pastry layers. The glistening chocolate cremeux has a texture halfway between a ganache and mousse and is piped with laser-guided precision.
I also recommend the Crème Brûlée Tropique ($11) with coconut, fresh pineapple, and passion fruit seeds. The coconut adds another dimension to the creamy, eggy interior, while acidic pineapple jolted with passion fruit reminds me of a pina colada. A touch of basil and basil oil balance some of the sweetness of this updated French classic.
Cafe Boulud is a pricy and elegant fine dining restaurant that bests most of its Upper East Side neighbors. For me that makes it special occasion fare, though I'm always looking for reasons to sample pastry chef Ashley Brauze's desserts more than once or twice a year. Her work is always spectacular to look at and full seasonal ingredients treated with advanced techniques.
Her Apple Vacherin ($14) features a striking color combination of sculpted frozen elements. The frozen dish features contrasting tart and sweet flavors made from moss-hued green apple and opaque white coconut sorbets. A tart yuzu curd helps to cut some of the dessert's sweetness, while baked meringue bits add some texture. Dots of coconut foam fill negative space on the slate used to serve the dish.
North End Grill
At the very south end of Manhattan, North End Grill isn't the most convenient restaurant to visit. But if you want to try some of New York's most fun and whimsical desserts in a comfortable, airy setting, it's well worth a trip. Pastry chef Tracy Obolsky has a passion for turning humdrum Americana on its head. Fairground funnel cake at one point was transformed into a chai-spiced fritter ringed with orange-spiked caramel and topped with tea ice cream.
Those with even passing interest in ice cream should go for one of Obolsky's ice cream sundaes. I was enamored with her Caramel Popcorn Sundae ($10), which started with popcorn-flavored ice cream and added chunky financiers made with ground caramel popcorn flour, salty butterscotch, and black pepper whipped cream. Her newest, a Sticky Bun version ($10), features sticky buns cooked directly into the ice cream base, then has mini sticky buns, candied pecans, vanilla-bourbon whipped cream, and a salty sauce that tastes like a distillation of the sticky bun experience.
If ice cream isn't your thing, go for one of the beautifully presented seasonal tarts. The delicious Maple Pumpkin Tart ($10) with cranberry and pumpkin seed brittle is highly recommended. The pumpkin is smooth but not sweet and the tart shell is soft and buttery. Swirls of torched meringue add some sweetness while peanut brittle brings crunch and a salty sweet element.
Union Square Cafe
Union Square Cafe has been offering great food and service to New Yorkers for nearly three decades. However, its pastry chef Sunny Raymond has flown under the radar for the last four years despite her diverse repertoire of desserts.
On the seasonal side, try the immensely satisfying Pumpkin Cheesecake ($9.50) with toasted pumpkin seeds. It's light, airy, and the texture is more like a smooth mousse than a cheesecake. On top, a thin nest of crisped carrots add a pleasant crunch, and the whipped cream is flavored with toasted coconut. The cake's beautiful colors and mild sweetness make it easy to love.
Another crowd pleaser is the Banana Tart ($9.50). Imagine a banana tarte tatin, except with a crunchy brûléed crust and a well-baked butter cookie base. It's proof this tart isn't just for apples.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Raymond's crème brûlée scones, which remind me of a less sweet Macao-style Portuguese egg custard tart. They're available all day and in the brunch pastry basket.
One of the best casual places for Italian food—especially fresh pasta—is Osteria Morini. And its highly regarded pastry chef, Robert Truitt, doesn't slouch at this restaurant on the more casual end of the Michael White empire. Truitt may best be known for his gelato and sorbet, some of the city's best, but you'll also want to try his chocolate and seasonal tarts.
His Cioccolato e Mandorle ($11) is an intense bitter and nutty chocolate tart made with marcona almonds. Cherries provide a little acid for balance, and vanilla gelato is a calming way of making the whole thing settle down. If chocolate's not your bag, pick any of the fruit tarts. This summer, the Torta Di Semolina ($10) featured copious tangy-sweet roasted plums that sat on top of a soft, lightly sweetened yellow cake.
One of the best casual restaurants in the West Village for large groups, Otto has been drawing locals and tourists alike for years for their great pasta and vegetables. But ice cream aficionados know that Otto has a secret weapon in pastry chef Meredith Kurtzman, who delivers consistently mouthwatering sorbet and gelato.
The must-order is the Olive Oil Copetta ($11), which starts with a buttery, grassy olive oil ice cream and heaps on accompaniments that change with the seasons. Tart citrus curd and granita, fresh fruit, and herbs bring out all the fruity, pungent, and grassy flavors of olive oil for a sundae that shows the full range of this taken-for-granted ingredient.
Kurtzman's affogato is a surefire winner. More elaborate is her tartufo, which also changes with the seasons. A banana-based version is fruity and tropical with a crackly coating of caramelized white chocolate; her current offering swaps roasty peanut gelato for the banana and milk chocolate for the white. Brownie crumbles and a salty bourbon sauce make for a dessert with big flavors that don't overwhelm. They're subtle in a way these flavors rarely are.
Cookshop, located conveniently right next to the High Line, is one of New York's most beloved brunch spots. Less known is its superb comfort-meets-refined plated desserts from pastry chef Amanda Cook.
There are two must-order items on the dessert menu. The first is a textural masterpiece called the Bourbon Pecan Pie Sundae ($9). A deeply flavorful bourbon caramel ice cream is paired with crunchy candied pecans and pieces of pecan pie crust. Instead of chocolate or butterscotch sauce, a more subtle sweet brown sugar honey is drizzled into the glass. You'll need the extra long spoon they provide to make certain you get each component in every bite.
The aptly named Chocolate Deliciousness ($9) is more special than the kitschy name implies. It delivers chocolate four ways: a moist fudge strip, a milk chocolate ganache, a dark chocolate ganache, and an airy malted milk chocolate mousse. Crunchy dark chocolate pearls and whipped cream round out the dish. If it wasn't served in slice form, this dessert, with its high quality chocolate flavors and perfect execution, could easily be served in a three-star restaurant.
Recommended Dessert Tastings
Dessert tasting menus are becoming more and more common—three to five courses of dessert and only dessert, all aimed at creating a greater experience for dessert obsessives. Here are three we love.
Contra exploded onto the New York restaurant scene earlier this year, but its peerless $20 three-course dessert tasting gets little press. Like the savory side of the kitchen, the dessert offerings change nightly, but co-owner and pastry chef Fabian Von Huske always uses seasonal ingredients in clever ways.
He is best at light desserts that bring a multitude of flavors and textures. The Roasted Sunchoke Mousse at first seems like a simple plate, but fresh apples are used five different ways. Underneath a fluffy whipped mouse sits a thin layer of caramel made with reduced apple juice syrup. The result is a sweet and acidic apple caramel. Pickled apples balance the sweet of the caramel and dried apple bits add some crunch. A subtly flavored apple granita finishes things off in cool, refreshing fashion.
I had a similarly clever Popcorn Parfait with a delicious concentrated (then aerated) concord grape juice and salty-sweet popcorn powder. Rice Pudding featured peanut butter custard with coconut snow and peanut brittle. For the lightness, flavor, creativity, and price point, this tasting is like nothing else in New York.
Note: If you want a full meal at Contra, they offer a five-course, $55 full tasting menu. Two of the five courses in that tasting are desserts.
Chikalicious Dessert Bar
11 years ago, Chika Tillman and husband Don opened New York's first dessert-only restaurant. And despite opening two more shops in New York—and expanding internationally—they still work their own New York kitchens. Their new West Side Dessert Club offers seven different seasonal plated desserts that can be put together into a three-course tasting with drinks for $32.
I recommend the Steamed Apple Pudding Cake with warm vanilla anglaise and shredded apple. The wonderfully moist apple cake sits in—and soaks up—the fragrant, lightly sweetened vanilla custard. Together the spicy cake and sweet vanilla form a satisfying texture, similar to tres leches cake.
A Mocha Hazelnut Trifle is a slightly heartier dessert that features a memorable white coffee ice cream. A square of light chocolate cake that's been soaked in coffee syrup sits in Frangelico pastry cream, whose smooth texture is contrasted with crunchy toasted hazelnuts. A generous scoop of white coffee ice cream, with a high-octane coffee flavor, sits on top.
This Michelin-starred Upper West Side fine dining mainstay is known for its excellent French food and in-house cheese cave. They also offer an excellent three-course dessert tasting ($35) that includes petit fours, chocolates, and a "prelude" course that can be enjoyed at the bar without all the fuss of a reservation.
Pastry chef Daniel Kleinhandler excels in balancing sweet, tart, and savory elements through cohesive desserts. Fittingly, the tasting is composed almost entirely of seasonal items, like an ultra-refined Sweet Potato Pie cut into perfect cubes and accompanied by torched meringue and a delicious, shot-like maple bourbon ice cream.
Speaking of excellent ice cream, the porcini flavored ice cream that's paired with the Manjari Chocolate Cremeux dessert is a must-try. It starts sweet on the tongue, but before long you hit a salty, nutty, mushroom flavor that's surprisingly satisfying. The delicate but beautifully piped cremeux is rich in dark chocolate flavor. More mushrooms with our chocolate, please!