Deceptively pretty mass-produced desserts have done a great job raising diners' expectations — but they've also corroded their sugar-coated instincts.
In the late 1980s, a certain ubiquitous restaurant-supply company started hawking fully loaded cheesecakes and candy-stuccoed tortes. Remember Snickers Pie? It looked great under glass: Every mathematically pre-sliced piece was exactly the same size as the last. And, thanks to pork lard and heaps of preservatives, it stayed "fresh" forever. The artful fondant swirls and buttercream rosettes never melted.
Such fancy-dessert wholesalers gradually expanded and updated their repertoire, so chain and indie eateries alike can today pass off these ersatz confections as house specialties. But factory-prepared goodies, no matter how pretty, are also pretty tasteless. It takes only one bite of an authentic dessert to reorient one's taste buds to the real thing.
Enter Roz Taubman, owner of The Black Bird Restaurant, an upscale farm-to-table-style tavern in Black Mountain. Taubman's been running restaurants for 30 years, but her background as a pastry chef continues to flavor her establishments. Her creations have been featured in Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines, and although The Black Bird has only been open about two months, she's already experienced large parties making return visits just for dessert.
The Black Bird's Southern Custard Coconut Cake is positively gothic, golden-flavored and rich enough to make one cast about for a fainting couch. Lighter appetites will favor the wholesome hat trick dubbed Apple, Pear and Sour Cherry Crisp, which tastes as fresh and seasonal as it sounds.
But profoundly afflicted sweet tooths like mine can only go for Taubman's award-winning Triple Mocha Mousse Torte, which unfolds like a good story in masterfully plotted layers of density, with a lushly impenetrable deep-chocolate-pastry-crust finale.
Taubman admits her situation is unique. Because she's the owner, she's willing to come in at 6 a.m. and work her magic until the rest of the Black Bird crew, including executive chef Bobby Buggia, arrives to start prepping lunch.
"I couldn't pay someone to do what I do," she points out. "It's labor-intensive, and it costs a lot of money, which is why so many restaurants rely on frozen desserts. Also, most executive chefs don't like making pastry. But I think it's a sad state. The exceptional restaurant should emphasize pastry as much as entrées."
Chef Vincent Donatelli, a 27-year veteran of resort-level dining, including a stint at Orlando's Universal Studios, heads the Baking and Pastry portion of A-B Tech's award-winning culinary program. Via e-mail between classes, the local instructor shares his own thoughts on the vagaries of the industry.
"Over the last 10 to 15 years, quite a few smaller operations have not required the services of pastry chefs because of the cost factor," he agrees. "There have been quite a few companies that have produced and made available frozen desserts and breads."
Chef Donatelli even says that "some of these products are very good."
However, so many eateries have relied on these services that he now believes restaurants "are getting tired of the same items being sold by purveyors with very little variety to make their [place] different." Shifts in upscale eating now have foodies favoring "lighter, airy, unique and different flavors, [desserts that] incorporate culinary food and herb ingredients, along with utilizing local ingredients."
Another major trend is the natural-foods supermarket, where the push for fresh/local/sophisticated competes with the inherent complexities of retail. In Asheville, Greenlife Grocery and both Earth Fares display a handsome array of desserts in their respective pastry cases. But the Raspberry Pots de Creme and Ginger Florentine cookies aren't designed as a last course to be savored after a leisurely dinner. They're made to move — the top items in a stack of carryout containers toted by savvy gourmands on the run.
The results are sometimes right-on, sometimes a little off. (Blandness was the most common fault in the six desserts I sampled.) Standouts include Greenlife's ether-light Chocolate Mint Mousse Cake, which also happens to be gluten-free, and a particularly memorable Orange Truffle torte made at the West Asheville Earth Fare. Pat Burns, who works at the latter venue, reveals that a few of the store's desserts come from regional wholesalers. But such products must adhere to the grocery store's healthy-food ethics, which means they're free of preservatives or artificial ingredients.
Even the pressures of volume output won't alter certain standards, he says, explaining: "We never sell anything that isn't absolutely part of our ideology." And starting this fall, adds Burns, just about everything — including seasonal fruit pies — will be made in-house.
Another challenge is answering the needs of the healthy shopper while still keeping desserts, well, desserty. Put another way: Does spelt carrot cake really belong in the same case as tiramisu?
"We like to think we maintain a good compromise," says Burns. And Donatelli tips the debate with a light touch: "Something simple and fresh, done right, will always catch my eye and palate."
According to Taubman, "Good food should go through every course. It's always proven a success story for me."
The Black Bird Restaurant: A New American Tavern
Upscale-casual/regional. 10 East Market St., Black Mountain; open Tue.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (Bar open late.) Sunday brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m. 669-5556. www.theblackbirdrestaurant.com
Earth Fare Market & Café
Natural-foods supermarket. 66 Westgate Pkwy., Asheville, open daily 7 a.m.-10 p.m., (828) 253-7656; 1856 Hendersonville Road, Fletcher, open Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sun. 8 a.m.-9 p.m. 210-0100. www.earthfare.com
Natural-foods supermarket. 70 Merrimon Ave., Asheville; open daily 7 a.m.-10 p.m. 254-5440. www.greenlifegrocery.com
[Melanie McGee Bianchi writes for a number of regional and national outlets. She has always wanted to be a pastry chef, but is unable to compute fractions in her head.]