Dessert First: Two Sweet New Cafes Reinvent the Patisserie

The European pastry shop, with its gleaming glass display cases stocked with rows of intricately layered pastries and museum-worthy glazed tarts, has never quite caught on in the States. Americans generally prefer baked goods they can eat on the go.

But a pair of recently opened dessert cafés in the city are looking to take the art of pastry-making out of fancy restaurant kitchens and into a casual, leisurely environment.

Dogpatch's Chocolate Lab and Union Square's Tout Sweet Patisserie are miles apart in their design and approach, but at their core are after the same goal: Marrying classic European-style pastries with vibrant California flavors like yuzu, jasmine, and passion fruit, and in the process, encourage San Franciscans to sit down and savor dessert.

Chocolate Lab from Recchiuti Confections opened last month in a tiny storefront down the street from the chocolatier's retail outpost, Little Nib. Inside is all reclaimed California elm, local hand-blown glass, and custom tiles from Heath emblazoned with ferns. It feels like a Sunset magazine spread, but has enough playful details, like water in glass beakers, to show that it doesn't take itself too seriously.

The desserts show the same balance between creative freedom and restraint. The most fun is the ice cream sundae: three scoops of Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous burnt caramel ice cream topped with burnt hazelnuts, almonds, fluffy house-made marshmallows, and a molten and rich bittersweet chocolate sauce poured over the lot with a theatrical flourish. It makes you feel like the luckiest kid in the world. Other desserts are more grownup, but no less sophisticated in their flavors: the lemon-lime tartlette is puckeringly sour but nicely balanced with a sugary house-made marshmallow and strips of white chocolate. A slice of moist chocolate cake is topped with a generous layer of fluffy chocolate-orange mousse. Recchiuti truffles and thick, rich hot chocolate are also on the menu.

But Chocolate Lab also wants to be a neighborhood restaurant and gathering place, and has an interesting food menu. Elegantly composed tartines — cheese melted on bread with all sorts of delicious things in between — take up most of the list. The highlight is the goat cheese soufflé, a triangle of savory French cheesecake served warm with a side salad of pomegranate seeds, segmented oranges, toasted seeds, and bitter greens. It was lighter and tangier than quiche, but no less satisfying. For groups, there are bountiful cheese and charcuterie plates loaded with house-made pickled carrots, ginger-laced chocolate, fig bread, and Chocolate Lab's own honey.

If Chocolate Lab is all about downplaying its sensibilities, Tout Sweet Patisserie is all about broadcasting them to the world. The 4-month-old café is the first from Top Chef: Just Desserts winner Yigit Pura, and it's set on the Union Square side of Macy's. Décor here is bright and showy — the room is gleaming white with jewel-toned accents, and everything is packaged and branded within an inch of its life. Pastries come in large red-and-purple cardboard boxes with ribbon handles that look like presents, and you can buy macarons in cylindrical cardboard “clutches.”

Pura's built his pastry menu around himself, his favorite things and people and experiences, and it too often veers into preciousness. Most of his macarons are named after his friends; you try ordering a “Chloe” without feeling a little silly, especially after reading on the menu that it's a chocolate-chili macaron “named for a sexy, picante lady.” Unfortunately, his macarons are a little dry, and wondering about the stories behind them is often more interesting than eating them. Other items seem like they're showing off: the hard-to-eat breakfast sandwich is a take on the egg-in-a-hole with savory brioche instead of toast, stuffed with a 62-degree poached egg and braised fennel, both in dire need of salt.

But for all the showboating, Pura does have a genuine gift for concepts made into flavors. The most successful is the Tesla Tart, named after electrical genius and inventor Nikola Tesla, which gives you a jolt of Meyer lemon, yuzu, and passion fruit cream, topped with a fresh passion fruit marshmallow — like a classic lemon tart hooked up to a generator. The futuristic-looking 5th Element is inspired by the Bruce Willis movie: It's a white ball of vanilla genoise that reveals a raspberry cream center when you bite into it, a delicate flavor balance punched up by a daub of oolong-infused white chocolate mousse.

Both the Recchiutis and Pura cite the patisseries of Paris as one of their major influences, and it's easy to see the model translating to a city like San Francisco: Dogpatch residents ducking into Chocolate Lab for a drink and treat, or Union Square tourists stopping for a coffee and pick-me-up at Tout Sweet. Will dessert cafés become the next big thing? It's too early to say, but it's nice to see local restaurateurs putting dessert first.

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