Where Dessert Is Much More Than an Afterthought

LOS ANGELES — Birdie G’s has been open for just a few weeks in Santa Monica, but already, with the outsize confidence of every dollar-slice shop in New York City, the menu refers to its rose-petal pie as “world famous.”

The slice appears to be modeled on the great, jiggly cathedral window cakes that dominate a particular branch of Pinterest, built with substantial amounts of gelatin and food coloring.

Here, bouncy fragments of deep pink rose-petal, strawberry and hibiscus jellies are suspended in an opaque raspberry and rose mousse, the jellies shining like stained glass. The raspberry crumble glows a neon pink. The crystallized rose petals sparkle.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve visited a handful of new restaurants and been startled by the last course. Each put forward the sort of proper, go-getting, surprising plated desserts that I rarely see — the kind that do what dessert is meant to do and reward you, in meaningful ways, for saving a little room.

At Birdie G’s, this fat, enchanting rose-petal pie was a real beast of a slice, wobbling exuberantly, but it wasn’t nearly as sugary, or as voluptuously floral, as it first appeared. It was architecturally sound, built on a salty, roughly textured crust. And it had a restrained, mellow flavor, carefully tempered with acidity.

Los Angeles restaurants have a history of turning out extraordinary plated desserts. Nancy Silverton raised the bar at Campanile. And Sherry Yard, the pastry chef for Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant group for nearly two decades, set a gold standard at Spago. Countless talented cooks passed through her kitchen and went on to command dessert stations of their own (including Dahlia Narvaez, who later blessed Ms. Silverton’s Pizzeria Mozza with its rightfully famous butterscotch budino).

But anyone paying attention to dessert menus — not just in Los Angeles — has seen them shrink. Even at restaurants where the savory dishes are ambitious and expensive, indicating a certain level of aptitude and expertise, you often feel lucky to find a good scoop of ice cream.

Since the Great Recession, many kitchens have cut back on what they considered superfluous luxuries, obliterating pastry departments. Some farmed the role out to consultants; others diminished it and passed it along to line cooks. In the process, diners’ expectations for what can happen at the end of the meal have plunged.

Deanie Hickox used to work at Ubuntu alongside Jeremy Fox, Birdie G’s chef as well as her ex-husband. As consulting pastry chef, she designed the extravagant rose petal pie based on Mr. Fox’s idea, provided the kitchen with recipes and tutorials, and left the day-to-day baking to the chef de cuisine, Brittany Cassidy, who now makes all the desserts. My suggestion: Order them.

ImageThe delicate strawberry tartine at Auburn comes with strawberry-whey granita and a froth of geranium-infused cream.
CreditElizabeth Lippman for The New York Times
CreditElizabeth Lippman for The New York Times

At Auburn, Eric Bost’s new restaurant on Melrose Avenue, the pastry chef Dyan Ng is on staff. Her work tends to appear spare and lean, but it is consistently satisfying. The strawberry tartine on the dessert menu at the bar, which is more congenial than the abstract sweets menu of the restaurant, is a standout.

The sweet Albion strawberries are cut into narrow darts and layered, low and tight, completely obscuring the thin crust. The fruit sometimes moves from less-ripe to ripe — from green to red — with the effect of a sharp, freshly ombréd bob. But the tiny tart is delicate and yielding.

It comes with a bowl of strawberry and whey granita, clarified so the ice looks like cloudy diamonds, and soft cream, infused with geranium, so you can compose bites as you go.

Though outsiders often describe Los Angeles as not having seasons, right here, fitting on a rectangle of deeply browned pastry, is the precise, juicy flavor of midsummer. (Ms. Ng will soon replace the meticulous strawberry tartine with another fruit dessert, made from pichuberries.)

CreditElizabeth Lippman for The New York Times

Some of the most technically exact new sweets I’ve seen recently are at Bon Temps, which the chef Lincoln Carson opened in June in the arts district. The chocolate soufflé is impossibly airy and smooth, and when it’s pierced at the table, the scent of hot chocolate rushes out.

Mr. Carson, who used to oversee sweets for the Michael Mina group, invested in the pastry kitchen — it shows. The passion-fruit posset is embroidered with all sorts of frilly, billowing garnishes, including ribbons of Campari jelly and tiny pieces of citrus. But the real draw is the posset itself, a remarkably glossy cream, with the rich texture and buttered acidity of just-made lemon curd.

CreditElizabeth Lippman for The New York Times
CreditElizabeth Lippman for The New York Times

The St. Honoré, named for the French patron saint of bakers, isn’t a replica of the classic choux pastry construction you’d find at a patisserie, though the dessert contains most of its vital elements: the tiny puffs of choux with see-through halos of crisp, deep caramel, and the fine pastry underneath in dark, greaseless layers. It’s presented as a gleaming entremet, a glossy, miniature cake, garnished with whipped cream and candied pecans. It could easily feed a table of four.

As I ate my way through many of the new sweets in town, I learned that Max Boonthanakit, one of the best-known young pastry chefs working in Los Angeles, was scheduled to leave his post at Nightshade, which opened in the arts district in January, for a new job in Bangkok.

I did what any reasonable person would have done: I went in for a round of his desserts.

One looked like an unremarkable marble bowl with a marble lid, heavy, cold and monochromatic. But with the most delicate tap of a spoon, the lid broke apart — it was an illusion, made from a thin sheet of chocolate tinted with charcoal.

It’s rare, and charming, to see chocolate work with purpose, and the cream cheese and guava sorbet underneath was a delicious surprise. More than that, Mr. Boonthanakit’s work was a reminder of what dessert can do.

The last course can reorient the meal, and the day. It can send you out the door with a feeling that lasts long after you’ve signed the check — in this case, the feeling that if you pay closer attention to what’s all around, to what might seem perfectly ordinary, it’ll crack wide open and reveal its sweetness.

Auburn, 6703 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles; auburnla.com

Birdie G’s, 2421 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica, Calif.; birdiegsla.com

Bon Temps, 712 South Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles; bontempsla.com

Nightshade, 923 East Third Street #109, Los Angeles; nightshadela.com

Girl AAT

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