Andina’s Chocolate Cinnamon Torta with Lucuma Ice Cream and Toasted Corn Praline
A little over a year ago, I decided to do a whirlwind tour of Northwest restaurant desserts. Then about a minute after that decision was bathed in golden light, I decided to narrow the exploration to chocolate desserts. More golden light. And it was so much fun eating all those chocolate desserts, month after glorious month, that I then decided to launch the first annual February All Chocolate! All Month! Love Rules! celebration at LunaCafe, which gave me a perfect excuse to fill the OtherWorldly Kitchen with a wide variety of exquisite bar chocolates and premium cocoa powders, plus a heap of heart-shaped bakeware. So now it appears that chocolate has taken over my life, but hey, I’m not complaining.
As already mentioned on the Portland Chocolate Desserts page (under the Dining tab), there are several key chocolate dessert themes appearing across the Northwest restaurant landscape. Take the Molten Chocolate Cake, for instance. It just won’t go away. I wish it would, at least for awhile. After eating way too many of these incredibly rich cakes, I definitely need a break.
But the classic mousse seems to be reemerging, after a long hiatus, and that’s a good thing. And donuts, fritters, beignets, churros, and fried goodies of all sorts, which I can’t get enough of. Plus puddings, pot de crèmes, and panna cottas. All essentially comforting and harkening to a simpler time. There seems to be a retro movement going on in Northwest desserts, but thankfully with interesting twists.
The trend that has not taken hold to any significant degree in the Northwest is the deconstructed dessert. Pastry chefs play with a bit here and there but with a decidedly light, even whimsical hand. When I compare Northwest desserts to much of what I’ve experienced in Boston, for instance, the difference is notable. In Boston, the deconstructed dessert, often with molecular chemistry assists, is much more prevalent. It is also more theatrical and cerebral. In the Northwest, desserts still have a greater connection to the heart than to the head.
Although I think you will agree that the desserts that follow are indeed wonderful, I do note a bit of reticence on the part of many Northwest pastry chefs to push the envelope and gently propel eaters into new and exciting, yet still accessible, gustatory territory.
Taking a cue from the fascinating new book, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs, by Karen Page and Andrew Dorneburg, which lists four pages of chocolate flavor affinities. I would love to see further exploration and creativity this next year, which of course I will dutifully record, one delicious bite at a time.
Andina (Portland, Pearl district)
Chocolate Cinnamon Torta with Lucuma Ice Cream and Toasted Corn Praline
The presentation of this dessert is perfect and each element well considered in relation to the other elements. I love the surprising combination of caramelized corn and dark chocolate, cocoa nibs, and delicate tropical fruit-flavored ice cream. The photo at the top of this post is this same dessert staged recently for LunaCafe by executive chef, Jose Luis de Cossio.
Bluehour (Portland, Pearl district)
Dark Chocolate Caramel Tart with Caramel & Chocolate Sauces & Candied Hazelnuts
Bluehour’s pastry chef extraordinaire, Jenny Ramsey, makes a MEAN chocolate and caramel tart. Her pastry shell reminds me of Maury Rubin’s formulation, which is exceedingly rich, buttery, and melt-in-your-mouth. It’s in a class all by itself. The shell has a layer of caramel and then a layer of creamy chocolate filling. Combined with the toasted nuts and bittersweet chocolate and dark caramel sauces, the effect is divine. We shared this, but I could have eaten the entire dessert myself. And when a dessert is this amazing, why bother feeling guilty about the calories?
Brasa (Seattle, Belltown)
Chocolate Almond Cake with Candied Almonds, Chocolate Cream & Horchata
Brasa always feels good to me. In the heart of Belltown in Seattle, it’s a great place to land for an excellent selection of Happy Hour nibbles. Executive chef, Tamara Murphy, and her kitchen crew also make great desserts, however, and I was tempted by this one the last time we were in. The cake is dense, moist, and deeply flavored. Mexican Horchata (a sweetened nut- or grain-based liquid) is an interesting accompaniment—lighter than ice cream but still providing a necessary counterpoint to the richness of the cake.
Café Juanita (East of Seattle, Juanita)
Pralus Chocolate Truffle Cake with Ninety Farms Stracchiatelle Gelato & Cherry Vinegar Reduction
Pastry chef, Jason Patel, creates some of the most inventive and delectable desserts in the region, with a strong emphasis on premium, local, seasonal ingredients. This cake has almost the texture of a molten chocolate cake—very moist, dense, creamy, and rich. The gelato offers a needed refreshing counterpoint and the cherry vinegar reduction is a brilliant touch.
Clarklewis (Portland, NE river district)
Banana Cream Tart with Caramel, Crème Fraiche Chantilly & Cocoa Tuile
I know this dessert hardly qualifies as “chocolate,” but it is so delicious, I just have to include it. Pastry chef, Alissa Rozos, creates some of the most delectable and interesting desserts in the region. This dessert has a rich butter crust, creamy banana filling, whipped crème fraiche topping, and a crisp, deep chocolate spiral that is unlike any tuile cookie I have ever eaten. We ordered one to share and then had a fork fight over the last bite. I considered licking the plate, and can you blame me?
Clyde Common (Portland, Downtown)
Chocolate Mousse, Cream, Toasted Marshmallow & Graham Cracker
I love to stop in at Clyde Common to see what pastry chef, Danielle Pruett, is up to. Her creations are always interesting. In this staging of a traditional s’more, each of the elements is house-made, including the melt-in-your-mouth marshmallow. The texture and temperature contrasts between the various elements are especially satisfying.
Cardamom Cocoa Nib Crème Brûlée with Chocolate Crinkle Cookie
Here’s another one of Danielle Pruett’s creations, which like many of her desserts is an interesting riff on a comforting classic, in this case Crème Brûlée. I love her use of cardamom here. The cookie is similar to Nuvrei’s Flourless Chocolate Cookie, with its slightly crispy, super chewy texture and deep chocolate flavor.
Heathman (Portland, Downtown)
Black Forest Cake with Bing and Rainer Cherries, Chocolate Cake, Chantilly Cream & Chocolate Shavings
Although deconstructed desserts do not appear to have taken the Northwest by storm, this dessert qualifies, as the basic elements of a Black Forest Cake are pulled apart and presented separately. In this case, pastry chef, John Gayner, presents a very moist chocolate cake with a velvet ganache icing, succulent cherries, and chocolate shavings and whipped cream. The cherries and whipped cream are just the right accompaniments to an otherwise exceedingly rich cake. It is quite nice to eat your way through the various elements, in any order you like.
Holden’s (Portland, Pearl district)
Chocolate Pavlova with Hazelnut Chantilly Cream, Bing Cherries & Raspberries
We were walking by Holden’s one evening and decided to drop in for a glass of wine at the bar. As I was perusing the menu, I spotted this dessert and decided to make it dinner. It had been a long while since I saw a Pavlova on a menu. In case you are unfamiliar with this dessert, it consists of a chewy-crisp baked meringue “pillow” topped with whipped cream and macerated fruit. It’s named after the famous Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova. When I ordered the dessert, restaurant manager, Marcus Gonzales, graciously prepared it himself. He told me later that he had spent quite a bit of time perfecting the meringue, so that it is deliciously chewy, rather than dry. The Pavlova arrived looking like a Jackson Pollock painting and tasting like an exuberant bit of heaven.
Kells (Portland, Old Town)
Guinness Chocolate Cake
This is a rich, dense, intriguing chocolate cake with caramel undertones from the inclusion of the dark beer. I’ve noticed the combination of chocolate and beer in a couple of other kitchens over the past year. At the Northwest Chocolate Festival this past summer, there was actually a beer and chocolate tasting event.
La Rambla (Oregon, McMinnville)
Warm Bittersweet Chocolate Cake Infused with Tangerine and Cinnamon
We rarely drive through McMinnville without stopping by La Rambla. It’s a surprise to find desserts this good off the beaten track. What distinguishes this molten chocolate cake is the infusion of bright fruit flavor and a hint of cinnamon in the batter. The textual play between the ethereal mousse, dense cake, and creamy ice cream is nirvana.
Lucy’s Table (Portland, NW district)
Boca Negra: Moist, Warm Flourless Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cream and Florentine
What an excellent idea to pair a crisp cookie with a creamy molten chocolate cake. And to my palate, caramel sauce is always welcome with chocolate.
Nostrano (Portland, SE Buckman district)
I thought I was ordering a chocolate pudding, because that’s usually what budino means, but instead was presented with this dense, very moist dark chocolate cake, served simply with plenty of softly whipped cream. I didn’t miss the pudding at all.
Nuestra Cocina (Portland, SE Division)
Grilled Chocolate Chile Pound Cake with Cinamon Ice Cream & Chocolate & Caramel Sauces
How often do you order dessert in a Mexican restaurant? For whatever reason, Mexican restaurant desserts are often an afterthought or at least way too predictable. Not so at Nuestra Cocina.
Nuvrei (Portland, Pearl district)
Flourless Chocolate Cookie
This is the cookie that rocked my world and spawned its own post, Bittersweet Chocolate & Toasted Walnut Cookies Perfect Mundo!. I can’t walk within a block of Nuvrei without picking up a whiff of something incredible baking in their ovens, which causes me to detour on the spot. And then the next thing I know, I am eating this cookie. Here’s the thing: eat one and you will be addicted for life. You’ve been warned.
Oba! (Portland, Pearl district)
Baked Argentina: Chocolate Cake, Bananas, Caramel & Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Topped with Baked Meringue
The exact execution of this spectacular dessert seems to vary from visit to visit, but the way it is pictured here is our favorite rendition. The proportion of the elements is critical to utmost enjoyment. We like it best with a high proportion of ice cream, a moderate proportion of meringue, a low proportion of chocolate cake, and a generous accompaniment of diced pineapple in caramel sauce. There are bananas in there somewhere too. Oh yum! It’s huge; be sure to share.
Paley’s Place (Portland, NW district)
Warm Chocolate Soufflé Cake, Toasted Hazelnuts & Honey Vanilla Ice Cream
With so many excellent restaurants in Portland, it’s difficult to pick just one for an important event, such as our anniversary celebration. This past August, however, we picked Paley’s Place and the meal was perfection in every way. For dessert, I opted for the molten chocolate cake, even though I really should be getting bored with these warm, decadent, oozing little cakes someday soon. I love to try them everywhere we go. The accompaniments are key here. The cake is so rich, so unrelentingly dark chocolate that the ice cream and the toasted hazelnuts serve as necessary counterpoints. Pastry chef, Lauren Fortgang, is the creative force behind desserts at Paley’s Place these days.
Serafina (Seattle, Eastlake)
Chocolate Grappa Cake with Black Currant Sauce
What exactly is grappa, I asked the server after we took a table on Serafino’s patio one balmy summer evening in Seattle. After a hectic day running around downtown, Serafina felt like another world, far, far away from the kinetic energy of the city (yet of course it is on the main drag in the Eastlake neighborhood, just a few minutes from downtown). She answered by bringing me a sample. It turns out that grappa is an Italian brandy made from the pulpy mass of grape skins, seeds, and stalks that are left in the wine press after the juice is extracted. The sample I had was pretty rough and fiery. Grappa may be an acquired taste. Nevertheless, I wanted to try the cake, and we ordered it. The cake was moist and dense (yet also light), with only the barest hint of anything grapelike. I was hoping for more of a wine taste. The Black Currant Sauce was a smash, however, and a perfect pairing with the barely sweet, dark chocolate cake. Another pastry chef was at the helm the evening we sampled this dessert, but today the show belongs to pastry chef, Rachel Schreffler.
Wildwood (Portland, NW district)
Valrhona ‘Manjori’ Chocolate Hazelnut Torte with Stumptown Espresso Granita & Cocoa Whipped Cream
I have eaten many desserts at Wildwood over the past year and continue to be wowed by the solid technique, intriguing flavor/texture/temperature combinations, and general artistry of pastry chef, Michelle Vernier. This torte is a good example of what I’m talking about. There are four textures (six if you count the three textures in the cake), four temperatures, at least five key flavors, and it all works beautifully together. It’s impossible to be passive or bored while eating this dessert. No, you are AWAKE and PAYING ATTENTION to each bite. You start to vary the order in which you eat the various elements. Aha! That way is good too. Let’s try it another way. Still good. Until you finish the last bite and look around to see if you can get away with licking the plate.