Talk about your upside-down cake: Instead of ordering one dessert with two spoons, USA TODAY food writer Jerry Shriver wielded just one utensil (and occasionally his fingers) to sample 85 treats during a two-week tour of 30 eateries where the end of the meal is the best part. Here are some of his findings on this most creative and soulful slice of the culinary world.
Poet Carl Sandburg probably never dreamed that the city he dubbed "hog butcher for the world" would someday evolve into the thinking person's dessert mecca.
But it's a safe bet his intellectual curiosity would lead him to places such as North Pond to figure out how arugula can taste so good when baked into a sponge cake. Or HotChocolate to ponder Mindy Segal's familiar yet highly original "A Study in Chocolate Cake." Or Grant Achatz's Alinea to marvel at how art, science and emotion intersect with raspberries, rose petals and yogurt.
For two decades, the area has been a hotbed of progressive and sometimes revolutionary American cuisine, led by restaurants such as Charlie Trotter's and Trio. Today, many of the dessert makers who have passed through those kitchens have either struck out on their own or landed in one of the many new cutting-edge eateries where they often create high-concept dishes for multicourse tasting menus. Their handiwork can be cerebral, arty, experimental, silly, thrilling and/or unmistakably sinful. And the dishes, often inspired by fleetingly available ingredients, may stay on the menu only briefly.
But they all carry an original point of view as well as a shared mission, expressed succinctly by pastry chef Meg Galus of Tru: "I love bringing smiles to people at the end of the meal."
To sample sweets of the moment and that spring from a distinct philosophy, consider these institutions:
Alinea (312-867-0110; alinea-restaurant.com) Pastry guru:Grant AchatzNougat of wisdom:"We play with texture and emotions, and create false expectations to show people you can push certain ingredients into sweeter realms than would be expected. Sometimes we focus on ingredients that we don't commonly experience in the land of pastry — pushing and pulling ingredients to try to get them to fit into a progression and elicit those (emotional) triggers." Recent creations:Transparency (a fragile pane of candied raspberry and rose-petal essences with yogurt powder, set in a metal sculpture); Dry Shot (powders and crumbs of dehydrated pineapple, coconut, lime, rum, chiles and cilantro, served in a paper cup); Oxalis Pod (a test tube filled with layers of foie-gras mousse, coffee gel, taragon tapioca and fig/port reduction, served with a shot glass of essences of rhubarb, basil and ginger).
Boka (312-337-6070; bokachicago.com) Pastry guru:Elizabeth Dahl Nougat of wisdom:"There's a lot more creativity and attention to detail in pastry than in savory (cooking), which is what I like, because I was originally going to go into art. But I decided I like cooking more." Recent creations:Sweet pea and ricotta ravioli with pine nut-mint pesto and strawberry sorbet; milk chocolate crémeux with picholine olives, toasted almonds and lemon-gin fizz.