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The dessert matrix

RECENTLY I HAD a call from a local restaurateur who had appreciative things to say about the appreciative things I'd had to say about his new restaurant. We made nicey-nice for a few moments, over the crackling of his cell phone, before he broke the spell by asking, in an ominous tone, whether I'd had dessert at the restaurant. As it happened, I had – several times, enjoyably – but I had not said so in my piece. I explained about space constraints, et cetera, and he murmured understandingly, but there remained in his voice an unmistakable note of opprobrium, as if to say, "You have wounded the pastry chef's feelings! You bad person!"

Of course, not wanting to be a bad person, or at any rate to be perceived as one, I was for a moment flooded with guilt about the poor pastry chef's neglected creations and damaged ego. And a moment later I found myself wondering when, exactly, dessert had become an entitlement, a part of the typical restaurant menu surpassed in importance only by the main courses and with its own – titled – chef. Restaurants don't have appetizer chefs, or soup and salad chefs. They have chefs ... and pastry chefs. Is this some kind of title creep?

I am not against dessert per se, since, if food is a kind of language, a meal is then a sentence, and sentences need punctuation. Hence, in your more elaborate French-style meals, the tiny amuse bouche at the outset (like a capitalized first letter saying, "Start here") and, between courses, the occasional intermezzo of lemon sorbet, like a comma or semicolon – a pause to refresh. And naturally, there must be something at the end, a ceremonial conclusion. Ideally this something would be, like the period itself, bright, sharp, and modest. A splash of good brandy in a snifter. A demitasse of espresso. A truffle – intensely rich but tiny, a pleasurable experience that marks the end of the larger experience. Dessert should not cloud the postprandial conversation that is, after all, one of the central purposes of eating with other people.

Yet nowadays too many restaurant meals end, like Beethoven symphonies and Fourth of July fireworks displays, in thrilling cataclysms: elaborations of ingredients, daring architecture, calories, cost. Actually, cost is down noticeably; five bucks now buys a pretty decent dessert in many a restaurant that would have charged $8 a year ago, and since your typical restaurant dessert is more than enough for two people, the only issue is agreeing on which one. Suggestion: have a brandy, think it over, let the confectioner's sugar settle, talk amongst yourselves. That's plenty.

Paul Reidinger paulr@sfbg.com