Sweet creams

Saying goodnight to guests with desserts like cream puffs and profiteroles will have them dreaming about coming back every night. Despite the diet resolutions made  every January, most restaurant patrons still expect—and even order— decadent desserts. And what better item to embody lavishness than the traditional sweet French treat—cream puffs?

Cream puffs are hollow balls of choux pastry, filled with whipped cream or custard. The pastry is made by combining flour with butter and boiling liquid. Eggs are then blended in, which cause the pastry to puff during baking. Mini versions are called profiteroles.

Bistro 110, a restaurant bringing a slice of France to Chicago, sells about 20 orders of profiteroles per night, says chef Dominique Tounge. “They are a French classic and customers enjoy the authenticity,” he says.

The dessert ($6.95) is a sampler of three profiteroles, each filled with ice cream in either vanilla, Valrhona chocolate, or pistachio flavors, topped with chocolate and caramel sauce and crème anglaise. Tounge first prepares the choux pastry and bakes it until dry so it retains its shape. He then cuts the cooled puffs in half, adding the ice cream and sauces to the bottom. The remaining half is caramelized and placed on top. “It’s a simple, yet classic dessert that adults and kids alike respond to really well,” Tounge says.

Holly Dove, pastry chef at Della Femina, an East Hampton, NY, eatery, says she’s noticed cream puffs are making a comeback. “Dessert trends are going back to classics, things that people are familiar with but haven’t seen in awhile,” she says.

Personally, Dove says she’s a fan of cream puffs because of their versatility. “They give chefs leeway for creativity,” she says. “They’re easy to vary by changing the sauce or fillings, or adding flavors to the dough.”

In the fall, Dove offered coconut cream puffs with raspberry coulis and chocolate sauce ($9). She served them with toasted coconut sprinkles and mango mint salsa. During the holiday season, Dove went more traditional with croquembouche—coating the pastries with caramel and stacking them in a pyramid. The sauce creates a crunchy coating, explaining the literal translation of croquembouche, “crisp in mouth.”

Dove says the cream puffs are also relatively easy to prepare. She makes and bakes the dough, and as the puffs dry in the oven (which is turned off after baking so they don’t overbrown), she makes the cream. “You can assemble everything at the last minute,” she says.

Quick, easy assembly is the key to success at a new place that does cream puffs to go—Beard Papa’s. This Japanese chain, which is a $189 million dollar empire in Asia, debuted in New York last year, opening three units, with another 10 planned across the country in 2005.

The chain touts its signature cream puffs that are filled with whipped cream custard in front of the customer. The cream recipe is a secret, but the company will say it contains vanilla from Madagascar.

The puffs themselves, priced at $1.25- $1.50, are unique as they have two layers— the inner choux pastry and the outer pie crust shell for a crunchy texture. They come with a variety of fillings, including chocolate, green tea, and pumpkin.

But whether customers are taking home cream puffs from Beard Papa’s, or enjoying them after dinner out, perhaps Della Femina’s Dove sums it up best: “Who doesn’t like cream puffs?” 

Lowbrow Sandwiches Go Haute

Sliders, cheesesteaks, and pb&j seem more at home at a QSR than an upscale steak house. But at Barclay Prime in Philadelphia (avg. check $60), these downscale items are given a decadent spin—and equally decadent pricetags.

The Foie Gras PB&J ($16), for example, pairs pistachio butter with seasonal fruit jam and a slathering of foie gras. “It’s the introductory level for people who haven’t tried foie gras,” explains executive chef Todd Mark Miller. “Everyone can identify with PB&J.” The same is true of his Kobe Slider ($14)—the little burger that’s gone luxe with premium Kobe beef and toppings such as gruyere, caramelized onions, pickled shallots, and herb aïoli. Barclay Prime’s Cheese-steak layers shaved Kobe hanger steak, lobster, truffles, tallegio cheese, and heirloom tomatoes to justify its $100 tab. Despite its cost, the Philadelphia classic is selling well. “Many guests order the entree as an appetizer to share. What attracts them is the descriptive wording,” says Miller.

Repeat Bookings

Patrons at South Gate Cafe (avg. check $25) in Lake Forest, IL, can now get a side of literature with their meal. On Tuesday nights, English teacher Michael Verdeis, founder of Reading for Life, offers a six-part series on love and literature called “Eating Your Heart Out.”

The evenings begin with a three-course dinner ($38) featuring such entrees as Grilled Chicken Breast and Sesame Seed Crusted Salmon, followed by the program (a $30 donation to the Foundation for Alzheimer’s and Cultural Memory). Verdeis delves into works ranging from Plato’s Symposium to the June Carter and Johnny Cash story.

The first evening boasted a “fabulous” turnout with 40 guests, all of whom came back for the next one, reports Cheryl Smith, director of sales and marketing. Smith estimates that revenue has increased by 5% thanks to the series. Now South Gate is thinking of adding a repeat performance by Verdeis each month.

Rice Rules

A quartet of rices stars at Geechee Girl Rice Cafe (avg. check $20), a neighborhood restaurant in Philadelphia.

The heart of the menu is simply titled “With Rice.” Dishes like Mediterranean Roast Pork ($15), Chinese Five-Spice Roast Chicken (half, $14.50), and Low Country Shrimp ($12.95) are offered with a choice of four different rices: jasmine, brown, wild, and Carolina gold. The latter is an heirloom grain that the restaurant buys via mail-order. Despite an upcharge of 75¢, about a third of Geechee Girl’s guests go for the gold.

Geechee was a name for the West Africans who worked the rice plantations in the Carolinas. “I was looking for a concept that would be neither too broad, nor too narrow,” says owner Valerie Erwin, a Geechee girl “three times removed.” “It’s mostly Southern American dishes,” she adds, “but I’m not boxed in, because there are many other rice-eating cultures.” So dishes like Gumbo with chicken, shrimp, and sausage ($11.25) and Charleston Red Rice with Bacon (small plate, $5.50) share menu space with Asian-accented Crispy Rice Paper Spring Rolls ($5.50).

And for dessert? Rice pudding ($2.50), of course.                        




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