The Spice of Life is in your Dessert
From salted meats and chili peppers to red beans and avocados, pastry chefs take the savory route
By Al Mancini
It goes without saying that people expect desserts to be sweet. Whether it’s an over-the-top death-by-chocolate creation, or the delicate natural sweetness of seasonal fruits, most of us finish our meals with some form of sugar. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that assumption. But some of Las Vegas’ top pastry chefs are adventurously combining non-traditional savory flavors into their desserts. They range from salted meats and chili peppers to beans and vegetables, and according to the chefs who love them, they often help bring out flavors hidden in their sweet counterparts.
“[These flavors] are fun to play around with,” says Tammy Alana of Andre’s located in the Monte Carlo. “Sometimes herbs bring in a nice complement or a little bit of salt and pepper just to cut the sweets and bring out a little more richness.”
Megan Romano, who recently opened Chocolate & Spice Bakery just outside of Summerlin, agrees. “Savory foods — like say salt or lime zest — sometimes awaken other ingredients that might fall flat on the palate. They’ll be a little bit creamier. Chocolates will be more intense. So it kind of does something to waken it up a little sometimes.”
Chef Reed Osterholt of Taqueria Canonita in The Venetian agrees — to a point. “In my opinion, there’s a very fine line,” he explains. “You don’t want the savory to take over. If you start adding sage and thyme and things like that, sometimes it can go over the top. You have to be careful.”
Certain savory ingredients do, however, seem to be growing in popularity with Las Vegas chefs. So Luxury decided to take on the delicious task of touring some of the city’s best local restaurants, and seeing exactly what is going on. The savory desserts we found fell into several main categories, although each chef added his or her own unusual spin.
SALT OF THE EARTH
The idea of a salty dessert may not sound natural, but anyone who’s ever eaten a chocolate-covered pretzel or a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby knows that salty and sweet tastes accent each other perfectly. For the most pure example of that harmony, head over to Scott Conant’s D.O.C.G. in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. More casual than Conant’s other local restaurant Scarpetta, this place is best known for its excellent Neopolitan pizza and accompanying wines. The real standout, however, is the Caramel Budino. The caramel flavored Italian pudding comes topped with fresh whipped cream and a sea-salt/caramel sauce. To further accent the beautifully contrasting flavors, it’s accompanied by pretzel toffee.
In the meantime, at Andre’s Chef Alana is using both salt and pepper in her Salt & Pepper Chocolate Cake. She starts with a black pepper icebox cake. That’s topped with marzipan and apricot mousse, finished with a dusting of red peppercorns and a salty caramel sauce poured tableside. While the finished product isn’t more than a few bites, it’s packed with more flavors than most dishes twice its size.
Since salt works so well in desserts, it’s no surprise many chefs have also turned to salted meats to accent their sweets. At least two places in The Venetian are incorporating bacon into their chocolate cake. At I Love Burgers it’s a Chocolate and Bacon Lava Cake made with Applewood Smoked Bacon, while at Public House they start by infusing their cake batter with Lost Coast 8Ball Stout, then brush the finished cake with more stout, top it with bacon-infused rice crispies and chocolate sauce and serve it with a side of malted milk ice cream.
Public House Executive Chef Thomas King feels the variety of flavors in the dessert allows customers to pair it with a wide variety of beers from the more than 200 the restaurant offers.
“You can pair it with something similar [to the stout used in the recipe] where they just complement each other, it clears the palate and it’s really beautiful,” he says, suggesting a Russian stout or a porter. “But sometimes we like to twist it up a little bit. We have in the past actually paired it with an I.P.A., which kind of sounds weird, but because they contrast each other so much…but the I.P.A. with the bacon crispies really kind of wakes it up.”
Having tried that particular pairing, we have to agree!
SPICE IT UP
At Chocolate & Spice, Romano is also combining salty and sweet elements, but she’s added another unusual flavor profile that’s gaining popularity with dessert chefs: spice. Her Mexican Spice Chocolate Chip Cookie not only includes rendered bacon, but also cinnamon, cayenne pepper, fleur de sel and orange zest.
At Taqueria Canonita, you’ll find ancho peppers rather than cayenne in their desserts. The warm ancho chocolate brownie is served with two house-made ice creams and crème anglaise. The spicy ground pepper powder helps cut the sweetness of the dish without providing too much of a kick.
Other dessert chefs in town also seem excited about adding chilis to their sweets. At The Stratosphere, Executive Chef Rick Giffen and his staff are preparing a menu for a new steakhouse set to open in August. The menu is still being finalized, but two desserts have already been approved: a chipotle brownie sundae and jalapeno-banana cotton candy.
Peppers, however, aren’t the only unusual ingredients being used to add a little spice to desserts. At Michael Mina in the Bellagio, baker Marie Yonge has taken a traditional dessert that already had a savory kick, root beer, and found away to cut the sugar even further. Her root beer float is made by infusing their vanilla ice cream with sassafras extract and creating a separate sassafras sorbet to add to the soda. The result amplifies the kick off the root beer while muting the vanilla flavor. Customers can still get their sugar buzz, however, in the form of the signature pecan and chocolate chip cookies that accompany the float.
“This is not a very sweet root beer float,” the chef admits. “But with the sassafras ice cream, it actually balances out the sweetness of the cookies. It’s a good combination.”
BEANS, FRUITS AND VEGGIES
One last way some chefs have found to add savory touches to their dishes comes from using unusual items from the garden. One example is the so-called Iceberg dessert offered at Aria’s Lemongrass. Known in Thailand as romit, the frozen dish is commonly sold as a street food to help locals beat the heat. At first glance, it looks like little more than shaved ice. But the Thai people are big fans of spice, and below the surface layer you’ll find a mixture of corn, jackfruit, cubes of black jelly made from the mint-like herb Mesona chinensis, and a clear jelly made of fermented coconut. The latter, made by adding yeast and flour to the fruit and letting it age, has a thick, fibrous texture and a unique savory kick.
Another Asian tradition comes from using red beans in various desserts and pastries, particularly in China and Japan. Americans are probably most familiar with red bean ice cream, which is common in Japanese restaurants in this country. In that dish, whole beans are sprinkled throughout a serving of vanilla ice cream. The Luxor’s pan-Asian Rice & Company, takes it to a new level by putting an Italian spin on it. They serve red bean gelato in which the beans are crushed before being mixed into the dessert. The result is a richer, more intense bean flavor.
One final unusual item from the garden that has recently begun appearing in desserts is avocado. At Caesars Palace’s signature Restaurant Guy Savoy, they recently introduced a dish called Exotic as part of their 13-course, $348 Innovation-Inspiration Menu. Served just before the chocolate course, it is prepared tableside as a mixture of avocado puree, pineapple tapioca, mango sorbet, passion fruit foam, pineapple sabayon, and fresh passion fruit seeds.
Not all of the local avocado sweets require that level of culinary commitment, however, although they’re all fairly exotic in their own right. At The Palazzo’s SushiSamba, they offer an avocado panna cotta served with strawberry coulis, fresh lime, pineapple and white chocolate feuilletine. Chocolate & Spice, on the other hand, offers avocado sorbet, combined with a polenta crème fraiche poundcake and carpaccio of strawberries, watermelon and avocado.
“That would be an ingredient that if I heard about it, [I’d think] ‘That’s crossed the line, I’m not so sure I want to be having avocado with that much sugar.” Romano admits of this particular choice. “But it’s such a creamy, buttery ingredient, and it just really emulsifies the simple syrup, with a little bit of tequila. The sorbet is just amazingly creamy. You would think it has some kind of dairy in it, but it doesn’t.”
Clearly today’s innovative pastry chefs have discovered ways to make desserts far more exciting using non-traditional ingredients. Romano, however, believes they need to temper their experimental tendencies with common sense and good taste, promising to use such products “only to create more interest, and if it adds something [to a dish]. I wouldn’t do it just for a fad.”