It’s been more than 200 years since Marie-Antoine Carême, the great French chef and father of the elaborate tasting menu, coined the term “à petit four” to describe the process of baking while the oven cools. Since that time, the meaning of the phrase has evolved. Now it describes any number of single-bite temptations, whether baked or glacé. Tiny, dainty, and barely more than a mouthful, these post-dessert desserts have tremendous charm, and restaurants have begun to harness the warm, return-inspiring feelings the treats evoke from unsuspecting customers. From New York City to Los Angeles, delivering a complimentary sweet with the check is all the rage. In fact, an impressive display of one-upmanship is emanating from the nation’s finest establishments as the treats become ever more elaborate.
Executive pastry chef Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin in New York City goes beyond the ordinary with a classic assortment of after-dessert sweets. He sends out an ever-changing array of five items that might include miniature roasted cherry-topped pistachio financiers, squares of chocolate nougat, and seasonal pate de fruit. “I try to make the selection approachable and maybe less challenging, though by no means dumbed down,” Laiskonis says.
VIPs at Le Bernardin are offered more complex and inventive pieces based on esoteric flavors. “I take into account repetition not only of flavors and ingredients used in items on the main dessert menu but also try to differentiate the petit fours further by varying their shapes, textures, and colors,” Laiskonis says. “We also take into account the season and reflect as much as possible those ingredients ‘of the moment’ within the selection.”
Because guests do not order the treats themselves, Laiskonis is careful to avoid ingredients to which guests may be sensitive, cautioning, “In deference to those with dietary restrictions or allergies, [we] offer [only] items with no nuts and no dairy.”
True to French tradition, Christophe Émé, chef/owner of the recently closed Ortolan in Los Angeles, caps his guests’ evenings with a small black pedestal of house-made treats. The assortment includes macaroons, nougat, marshmallows, and pate de fruit. To take it to the next level, chocoholics are treated to a collection of five different chocolate truffles, which are served with tongs from spherical tumblers.
Deden Putra, pastry chef at Jumeirah Essex House, NYC, fills all nine indentations of the checkered glass plate that arrives at meal’s end. A typical selection might include a square of salted caramel, a caramelized pear and chocolate lollipop, a vanilla marshmallow, a tile of mango gelée, a raspberry macaroon, a blueberry financier, a strawberry rhubarb popsicle, a milk chocolate truffle, and crunchy candied nuts. And if guests can’t finish them all off, a stylish to-go box is at the ready.
The most extravagant post-dessert treat of all is offered by Gramercy Tavern in New York City. Pastry Chef Nancy Olson sends customers out the door with a coffee cake topped with streusel and a brown sugar swirl. Guests are meant to enjoy it at breakfast the morning after and to recall the good memories of the night before.
Whether large or small, the bites express gratitude to customers and make a lasting final impression. “People always remember the last thing they eat at the end of a meal,” says Putra. In addition to sweetening guests’ memories of the evening, the tasty morsels are sure to soften the sting of an expensive night on the town and to add more amazement to the accolades.