Look. We're not going to turn down a fresh-out-of-the-fryer doughnut sticky with chocolate glaze or cry uncle—even in a post-steak stupor—when we know there's berry pavlova waiting. But we love that not-so-sweet confections are showing up on menus, too, as some of the city's best pastry chefs cut back on the sugar to delicious effect.
We first fell for vegetal sweets when Katy Peetz, former pastry chef of Bushwick superstars Roberta's and Blanca, turned out dishes like cherry-hyssop semifreddo on the regular. The affair continued when Fabian van Hauske improbably (and blissfully) united blueberries and potatoes in a dessert at Contra on the Lower East Side. And as much as we look forward to the buttery apple crumbles fall brings, we dig that Ryan Tate at Blenheim in the West Village prefers that we end our meal with a corn crémeux surrounded by poached apricots, popcorn and apricot kernel ice cream.
"Desserts should be a little sweet, sure. But they should also be acidic, herbaceous, nutty, salty, bitter and sometimes filled with alcohol," says Jared Rubin, pastry chef at Williamsburg's Meadowsweet. "You shoot for balance, just like all the other courses." His decidedly autumnal white chocolate-shellacked pumpkin tartufo—in which roasted pumpkin and burnt marshmallow ice creams surround a cranberry center—hits those delightfully motley notes.
Meadowsweet pastry chef Jared Rubin and élan pastry chef Diana Valenzuela
Diana Valenzuela, pastry chef of David Waltuck's Flatiron newcomer, élan, agrees. Consider her blackberry-blueberry tart topped with corn ice cream and a basil reduction. "It's not a deliberate choice on my part to create something more savory or less sweet. It's about choosing flavors that I think will work together and then working to create something composed and delicious," she explains. "I love when people actually want to finish the dessert in front of them—that usually involves giving it a certain lightness."
For the recent annual tomato fest at West Village favorite Joseph Leonard, pastry chef Lindsey Prokscha made a strudel stuffed with a mess of green tomatoes, raisins, shredded apples and cinnamon sugar. "If I serve apple pie, most people expect warm spices. But if I serve a green tomato strudel, there's a little mystery, and since there are no expectations, I can play around with flavors," she says. "After a big meal, an overly sweet dessert can send you into a food coma. I like when it wakes you up." And with that, she's off to test a savory-sweet lemon and thyme-spiked fig tart that will soon take its place on the menu, a delicious reminder that sugar and spice aren't the only things nice.