The 5 Best Dessert Menus

Categories: Sweets, Top Five

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Photo by Gary R. Wise
Tres leches done the right way at Samba Grille.
Toward the end of Lent, one faithful observer emailed me with a plaintive request:

I am a native Houston who has been displaced to Texas A&M in College Station (read: total dearth of anything approaching the kind of food I've become accustomed to), and read the Houston Press as my main means of staying connected to civilization.

For lent I gave up desserts, and have done remarkably well - save one lapse (Empire Cafe Chocolate Amaretto cake...can you blame me?) after some heavy persuasion by the fairer sex. I am dying here...no chocolate? No sugar? No icing, ice cream?!

So, I was wondering if you could at some point do a "Top 5" list on best dessert menus. A lot of people give up sweets or dessert for lent, so I think this could be a great piece that a lot of readers will appreciate.

First of all, dear reader, I feel you on the college town exile. I was similarly positioned in Waco, and it was no smorgasbord. Hell, we didn't even have Fat Ho burgers back then.

Now to your question, and quick: Here are my favorite restaurant dessert menus in Houston. Dive in.

Although it's difficult to select good dessert menus in the days when pastry chefs are being eliminated left and right from kitchens, these restaurants still put forth an exceptionally strong showing with desserts that are as thoughtful as the entrees. It's no longer the wild and wooly heyday of immense talents like Plinio Sandalio, but Houston still has its share of great pastry chefs.

Voice

While pastry chef Audrey Sam is no longer with Voice, her mark still remains on the clever dessert menu that matches Chef Greg Lowry's in modern ambition. Witness a dark chocolate souffle with avocado truffle and blood orange Chantilly, or the warm compressed spiced figs with dehydrated chocolate mousse and goat cheese ice cream. Both are $8 and both taste like they should cost a lot more, with rich depths of flavor and playfulness rarely seen in your standard molten-lava-chocolate-cake-laden dessert menus.

Hugo's

Did you know that Hugo Ortega has a brother, Ruben? And that Ruben is as talented a chef as Hugo, especially when it comes to desserts? His skill in executing old standards with a modern flair is most on display in treats like the churros stuffed with dulce de leche served alongside the house-made Mexican hot chocolate and chocolate ice cream. Ruben also makes the only flourless chocolate cake I've ever liked: the pirámide de chocolate that's livened up with dulce de leche cream and wild prickly pear sauce.

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Photo by Kimberley Park | Courtesy of Branch Water Tavern
Sticky toffee pudding like you've never tasted before.
Branch Water Tavern

I admitted to a friend over a recent lunch that I still hadn't tried the world-famous sticky toffee pudding at BWT and her eyes went wide: "Why?!" she demanded. I had never been able to tear myself away from the light, simple, straightforward cheesecake with blueberry compote. But that sticky toffee pudding was a revelation, and the house-made pistachio ice cream on top -- of which Chef David Grossman is especially proud -- is the perfect balance to the dense cake underneath.

Stella Sola

Rebecca Masson consulted on the original menu when Stella first opened in late 2009, and many of her creations were so good, they remain to this day. The caramel turtle affogato, served with salted caramel gelato, candied pecans and a dark chocolate sauce made with espresso is decadent and deep without being overpowering. And although Masson's pistachio pound cake with mascarpone and sour cherries is also an old favorite, I'm hooked these days on the tart lemon pie served in a squat glass jar.

Samba Grille

Samba gets points for knowing its genre and staying within it -- no random bread puddings or lemon icebox pie -- while at the same time elevating old classics, like the pitch-perfect tres leches or the apple-stuffed empanadas with a wonderfully buttery, flaky crust. And if dessert wine is more your speed, Samba's list is impressive and comprehensive. You can even do a $90 Port flight if you're feeling cheeky.

Honorable mention: Mark's American Cuisine

Although I have [still] never eaten at Mark's, every person I know assures me that the dessert menu there is unrivaled. No surprise, I suppose, as the fabulously talented Katie Leggett left a great legacy behind her as pastry chef. She's now at Michael's Cookie Jar, whipping up all-butter cookies and other goodies.



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Location Info

Venue

Map

Hugo's

1600 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Stella Sola - CLOSED

1001 Studewood, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Samba Grille - CLOSED

530 Texas Ave., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Mark's American Cuisine

1658 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

My Voice Nation Help
20 comments
Acriswell
Acriswell

Had a very special dessert today at Queen Vic on Richmond -- warm carrot cake accompanied with real whipped cream and a blackberry. Unusual presentation and worth every calorie.

Yaddayadda
Yaddayadda

ONE blackberry? Go nuts, Acriswell.

Yadda yadda
Yadda yadda

I'm surprised and a little delighted that Ruggles did not make the cut. Ruggles is to dessert as Olive Garden is to salad and breadsticks: it's all that's ever mentioned when the name comes up.

Jennifer Groves
Jennifer Groves

The sticky toffee pudding at Branch Water IS superb. I also had a really amazing desert at Stella Sola - it was served with some sort of spicy chili chocolate ice cream. Mmmm.

CL91
CL91

Katharine,

Thanks so much for doing this article! It's really cool to see reader suggestions (in this case, my own) turn into HP articles. You've made some great suggestions, and with school letting out two weeks from today, I can't wait to try all six of them.

Good work.Colin

Erin
Erin

Forgive me for the shameless self-promotion but Houston Classic Desserts-Recipes from Favorite Restaurants (Pelican Publishing) includes 40 wonderful recipes - including Stella Sola's Caramel Turtle Affogato, Feast's Sticky Toffee Pudding and Katie Leggett's Blueberry Tart!

Xylocaine1
Xylocaine1

Whatever happened to that cute lil fella who used to do those crazy desserts for big-man Tycer over at Textile?

Megan
Megan

Plinio Sandalio? I believe he moved to Austin, but don't quote me on that.

Derick Fan
Derick Fan

hes at the congress restaurant now

Cathiwalsh
Cathiwalsh

You will be amazed chez Philippe, Katharine!

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

My one meal at Philippe was so wonderful, we were too full for much dessert. I had the jasmine creme brulee with banana ice cream and I do agree that it was amazing. :)

Kyle Nielsen
Kyle Nielsen

Thanks for including Stella Sola. Virtually every dessert is exciting and a little out of the ordinary. And salted caramel affogato is epic.

Greg Burland
Greg Burland

Nice to see Ruben getting some love, he's an amazing talent and one of the nicest guys you're likely to meet in the industry. One of these days I'll have to make it over to Hugo's on a Sunday to try his Tres Leches.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Chef Jose Hernandez at Philippe Restaurant + Lounge is doing amazing things with dessert. Ah-ma-zing. His tarte tatin is a thing of beauty. His chocolate mousse oh-so-wonderful. His grand marnier souffle crepe, magnifique! His desserts are refined, simplistic, yet elegant at the same time - my favorite dessert menu in the city right now.

Chris Leung at Bootsie's Heritage Cafe in Tomball is another amazingly talented pastry/dessert chef. His all-dessert tasting dinners are becoming legend. He does them every couple of months or so. Last time I visited Bootsie's he brought out these chips. "What are they?" I asked "Key lime pie," he deadpanned. Chips that tasted just like key lime pie - so futuristic. So creative. That's just the tip of the iceberg for him.

Chuck
Chuck

Chris' chips don't just taste like key lime pie—they are a whole key lime pie, dehydrated and reconstituted. If he sold them in bulk, I'd buy them by the case.

Mai Pham
Mai Pham

Chuck, I told him the same thing! Those things would sell like hotcakes!

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

I am remiss for not mentioning Chris Leung in the honorable mention section alongside Mark's. I've had his desserts before, just not at Bootsie's. You're right; he is a phenom.

Lucrece Borrego
Lucrece Borrego

Spot on. Chris's desserts were the savior of the dismal dessert scene here when he started out at Yelapa and they continue to do so from up in Tomball. We have such a fantastic food scene here otherwise but all love for Houston aside, the pastry palates of the region can often bring me to tears. The fascination for tres leches alone is enough to make me tear my hair out. Having trailed at some of the pastry kitchens for a few of the finer dining establishments (some listed here), I say this from the heart. The list above is indicative of the complete, utter lack of creativity and over-sweetened throwbacks to pastry trends that the rest of the world was happy to evolve from back in the mid-90's, leaving me always wondering....why? I'd love to be able to order dessert after a fabulous dinner, but have learned to have it waiting for me at home or opt for a glass of port to spare the inevitable disappointment.

Katharine Shilcutt
Katharine Shilcutt

To each their own, of course, and I can't say that I'm ever excited to see bread pudding on a menu (my own personal "tres leches battle," as it were). Some people really look forward to sweet, gooey, chocolatey cakes and the like at the end of a meal, and these places at least take that type of dessert and elevate it to something more refined and elegant.

But of the entire list, I certainly wouldn't call anything that Voice is doing a throwback at all. Give them a shot and see what you think.

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