During the pandemic, it’s been easy to miss dessert. As restaurants streamlined their menus for takeout and delivery, even those who once prided themselves on sweet dessert menus reduced them to a sad budino that would travel well in a deli container – the loneliest cup of pudding, therefore, to say. Don’t get me wrong, this writer ate a lot of them, as he sat cross-legged on the sofa, and they certainly helped ease some of the lockdown desperation.
But now that San Francisco is a full month away from fully reopening, restaurants have been working hard to hire staff and gradually expand their menus. And respectfully, diners may have a quick request: Could we see the full dessert menu, please?
State Bird Provisions brought back a full menu with four desserts, plus peanut milk, which tastes like memories of distilled peanut butter ice cream in a shot glass. Chef and owner Nicole Krasinski says that during the pandemic they had to lay off three pastry chefs, so there was only Krasinski and executive pastry chef Kat Kwuan in the kitchen, baking hand pies and take-out cookies. With outdoor dining, they brought back three desserts, and now with a full meal indoors, they’ve hired a sous pastry chef and are finally back to four.
“By the time we were able to have a plated dessert, with all the components, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is who we are, this is what we do,'” Krasinski says. “We were no longer detained. It’s an exciting time to order a dessert at State Bird because with the Progress still temporarily closed next door, they’ve stolen the ice cream machine for the summer: there’s a butter oil ice cream sandwich. olive, a cherry and apricot sorbet, a blueberry crostata stuffed with pie nostalgia, and a strawberry roll cake that bundles a fluffy sponge around super-concentrated slow-roasted strawberries.
The next Abacá, which is scheduled to open in August, also promises a serious dessert menu. Chef Francis Ang oscillates between both savory and sweet, and was a rising baking star at Gary Danko, Fifth Floor and Campton Place, before launching his own Pinoy Heritage pop-up. When Pinoy Heritage made a full seven-course tasting menu, three of them were desserts (“No one complained,” Ang says). During the pandemic, popping up at Pacific Cocktail Haven, Ang made up desserts, but never completely gave them up, serving carioca coconut rice fritters with passion fruit curd and peach pie- mango inspired by Jollibee, the Filipino fast food icon.
But now that the chef is opening his first traditional restaurant, he’s betting on dessert. Abacá is not only a restaurant, there is also an adjoining panaderia. The plan is for the dining room to have four plated desserts, including a litchi buko cream puff with raspberry compote and lychee gummies; a chocolate mousse bomb with banana cake and malted milk; and a creamy corn with blueberry, cheese ice cream and crispy corn hair, it’s a play on the flavors of Filipino ice cream (corn and cheese), but with the best Brentwood corn in the bay area. It will also be possible to order whatever your heart desires in the patisserie next door, which offers everything from Dutch pandesal crunch and ube ensaymada for breakfast to all kinds of desserts. “We are going crazy over the pastry case. I’m honestly very nervous,” Ang says of the ambitious dessert lineup, but diners are sure to be thrilled.
Mister Jiu’s in Chinatown has rehired a brand new pastry chef, who has refreshed the dessert menu. Longtime pastry chef Melissa Chou left at the start of the pandemic, after helping the restaurant earn its Michelin star with her egg tarts and black sesame cake. Mister Jiu released a few take-out cookies last year, but now for the reopening, rising star pastry chef Lauren Melhus is stepping in, hailing from Outerlands, Aster and State Bird and the Progress. While unemployed for most of the past year, Melhus had a short stint at a Craftsman and Wolves bakery, but is grateful to be returning to dessert. “I’ve always been interested in restaurants and plated desserts in particular…” says Melhus. “For me, personally, I find I can be really free and creative with plated desserts.”
Mister Jiu’s has a tight but solid dessert menu, with three plated desserts, plus a “grazing element” in case you’re stuffed with too much tea-smoked duck and just want a few sweet bites. These desserts have completely changed, and Melhus says she had full creative license. A dark sesame and milk chocolate Bavarian with plums, white tea powder and cocoa nibs is super creamy and crunchy. A raspberry sorbet with Sichuan pepper marshmallow sauce and toasted coconut is fresh and vibrant. A lemon verbena rice pudding is accompanied by drizzled cherries, rice milk granita and clusters of crispy almonds. And the little sesame balls are bursting with blueberry compote.
But other restaurants may stick to abbreviated dessert menus, as dedicated pastry chefs become an increasingly rare breed in San Francisco. “Even before the pandemic, the trend was not to have a pastry chef,” says Krasinski. “It was getting so expensive, and the chefs felt like they could come up with a menu themselves…and make it really simple…and that would be enough.” State Bird’s Nicole Krasinski, Rich Table’s Sarah Rich, and Marlena’s Serena Chow Fisher are notably all chef-owners and part of wife and husband duos, so they’re not going anywhere.
But some star pastry chefs have worked: Nick Muncy left Michael Mina to launch his Drool, his unusual pastry box, currently on hiatus (but which will return). Angela Pinkerton left Che Fico and launched Pie Society, her butter pie pop-up, which continues with weekly pickups. Not to mention the countless pastry chefs who lost their jobs and quietly left the city and/or the industry. Still missing is Lori Baker, who pre-pandemic was throwing more than half a dozen glorious desserts at the still dark Bluestem Brasserie. Do you remember what it was like to browse through a menu of eight desserts? More eight dessert cocktails? From overdone seasonal cake to espresso martini?
Still, it’s clear that you can find restaurants that bring back the full dessert menu and serve beautifully presented desserts that drop at the end of a great meal and make jaws drop on the table.