During the pandemic, it’s been easy to miss dessert. As restaurants streamlined their menus for takeout and delivery, even those that previously took pride in sweet dessert menus pared them down to one sad budino that would travel well in a deli container — the loneliest pudding cup, as it were. Don’t get me wrong, this writer ate many of them, while sitting cross-legged on the couch, and they certainly helped to soothe some of the despair out of lockdown.
But now that San Francisco is one full month into full reopening, restaurants have been working hard to hire back staff and gradually expanding their menus. And respectfully, diners may have one small request: Could we see the full dessert menu, please?
State Bird Provisions has brought back a full menu with four desserts, plus the peanut milk, which tastes like memories of peanut butter ice cream distilled into a shot glass. Chef and owner Nicole Krasinski says that during the pandemic, they had to lay off three pastry cooks, so it was just Krasinski and executive pastry chef Kat Kwuan in the kitchen, baking hand pies and cookies to go. With outdoor dining, they brought back three desserts, and now with full indoor dining, they hired back a pastry sous chef, and are finally back up to four.
“The moment we were able to have a plated dessert, with all of the components, it felt like, ‘Oh my God, this is who we are, this is what we do,’” Krasinski says. “We weren’t held back any more.” It’s an exciting time to order 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 an olive oil ice cream sandwich, a sweet-tart cherry-apricot sorbet, a blueberry crostata jammed with pie nostalgia, and a strawberry roll cake that bundles fluffy sponge around super-concentrated, slow-roasted strawberries.
The upcoming Abacá, slated to open in August, is also promising a serious dessert menu. Chef Francis Ang swings both savory and sweet, and was a rising star through pastry at Gary Danko, Fifth Floor, and Campton Place, before striking out with his own Pinoy Heritage pop-up. When Pinoy Heritage was doing a full tasting menu of seven courses, three of those were desserts (“No one complained,” Ang says). During the pandemic, popping up at Pacific Cocktail Haven, Ang dialed down desserts, but never abandoned them entirely, serving carioca coconut rice fritters with passion fruit curd and a peach-mango pie inspired by Jollibee, the Filipino fast-food icon.
But now that the chef is opening his first brick-and-mortar restaurant, he’s going all-in on dessert. Abacá isn’t just a restaurant, there’s also a panaderia attached. The plan is that the dining room will have four plated desserts, including a buko lychee cream puff with raspberry compote and lychee gummy; a chocolate mousse bombe with banana cake and malted milk; and a corn cremeux with huckleberry, cheese ice cream, and crispy corn hair, that’s a play on Filipino ice cream flavors (corn and cheese), but featuring the Bay Area’s finest Brentwood corn. It’ll also be possible to order anything your heart desires from the pastry case next door, which will have everything from Dutch crunch pandesal and ube ensaymada for breakfast to all kinds of desserts. “We’re going crazy on 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 hired back a brand new pastry chef, who’s refreshed the dessert menu. Longtime pastry chef Melissa Chou departed at the beginning of the pandemic, after helping the restaurant earn its Michelin star with her egg tarts and black sesame cake. Mister Jiu’s put out a few take-and-bake cookies this past year, but now for reopening, rising star pastry chef Lauren Melhus is stepping in, coming from Outerlands, Aster, and State Bird and the Progress. While she was unemployed for most of the past year, Melhus did a short stint at a Craftsman and Wolves bakery but is grateful to get back to dessert. “I’ve always been interested in restaurants and plated desserts specifically … ” Melhus says. “For me, personally, I find that I’m able to be really free and creative with plated desserts.”
Mister Jiu’s has a tight but strong dessert menu, with three plated desserts, plus one “grazing item,” in case you’re too stuffed with tea-smoked duck, and just want a few sweet bites. Those desserts have entirely changed, and Melhus says she had full creative license. A black sesame and milk chocolate bavarian with plums, white tea powder, and cocoa nibs is super creamy and crunchy. A raspberry sorbet with szechuan pepper marshmallow sauce and toasted coconut is fresh and vibrant. A lemon verbena rice pudding comes with boozy cherries, rice milk granita, and crispy almond clusters. And little sesame balls are bursting with blueberry compote.
But other restaurants may stick with abbreviated dessert menus, as dedicated pastry chefs become an increasingly rare breed in San Francisco. “Even before the pandemic, the trend was to not have pastry chef,” Krasinski says. “It was becoming so expensive, and chefs felt like they could come up with a menu themselves … and make it really simple … and that would be enough.” Nicole Krasinski of State Bird, Sarah Rich of Rich Table, and Serena Chow Fisher of Marlena are notably all chefs-owners, and part of wife-and-husband duos, so they’re not going anywhere.
But some star pastry chefs have walked: Nick Muncy left Michael Mina to launch his Drool, his unusual pastry box, which is currently on hiatus (but will be coming back). Angela Pinkerton left Che Fico and started Pie Society, her buttery pie pop-up, which continues with weekly pickups. Not to mention the countless pastry cooks who lost their jobs, and quietly left the city and/or industry. Still missing in action is Lori Baker, who, pre-pandemic, was throwing down upwards of half a dozen glorious desserts at Bluestem Brasserie, which still remains dark. Do you remember what it was like, to peruse a menu of eight desserts? Plus eight dessert cocktails? From the over-the-top seasonal cake to the espresso martini?
Still, clearly, you can find restaurants that are bringing back the full dessert menu and serving beautifully plated desserts that drop at the end of a lovely meal and make jaws hit the table.