Okay, roll of drums please. And a blare of trumpets. Time to acknowledge the efforts of three very talented pastry chefs who are turning out what the jury of one (me) believes are THE THREE BEST DESSERTS IN NAPA VALLEY.
As a preface, let’s first retire the crowned King of Napa Valley Desserts, the one that more food writers have praised, and that more home cooks have tried to emulate – the Mile High Lemon Meringue Pie at Mustards Grill, which still evokes a skipped heart beat when confronted at the end a meal at Mustards. Be still my heart! But, after two decades on the menu, it is time for this dowager of desserts to be inducted into the Dessert Hall of Fame… to make way for three new contenders to the throne.
In no particular order, the three best desserts served in Napa Valley today are:
Butterscotch Pudding at Market
Although it has been on the menu four years, since Day One, the butterscotch pudding continues to pull in the crowds as though it were a new confection.
“We serve up to 30 a day,” says pastry chef Eduardo Martinez, who explains that he uses REAL Scotch (Grant’s) to flavor the dessert “which helps to cut the sweetness.”
Call this the Jack Bauer/24 of Napa Valley desserts; it draws you back week after week like episodes featuring TV’s hottest hero. Dip a spoon into the velveteen pudding and you are hooked for life; the texture is silken, resembling just-melted, full-fat ice cream; the flavor has intense buttery-scotchy, toffee notes, which linger long after one’s last swallow. The velvety mixture is speckled with grains of vanilla, which bring brightness to the palate.
No flour is used, no cornstarch, either. Chef Martinez just blends cream, vanilla beans, butterscotch chips and egg yolk at 195 F degrees and, oh yes, don’t forget that essential tipple of Scotch. A Perfect Recipe for dessert addicts.
Roasted Banana-Rum Ice Cream Sandwich at Go Fish
Why NASA doesn’t ask Cindy Pawlcyn, owner of Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen and Go Fish, to pack meals for astronauts is beyond me. Her food is SO comforting that it would make astronauts on the International Space Station feel like they were down home on Earth. Her Roasted Banana-Rum Ice Cream Sandwich, brilliantly interpreted and executed by pastry chef Dan Carter, is no exception.
I LOVE the homemade banana bread, which sandwiches what may be the most flavorful, soul-satisfying, ice cream in Napa Valley. This bread is so good that I urge executive chef Victor Scargle to put it in baskets to be served at lunch, or brunch.
The ice cream, ever so subtly tickled with a splash of rum, tastes like one of those honest, old-fashioned ice creams that you used to get at Howard Johnson, when the Orange Roof stood for something.
The toffee bits strewn over the dessert are rich with almond and coconut flavors. On their own, the toffee bits could be $45 per pound brittle.
The butterscotch sauce puddled beneath the dessert “is made with real butter and real Scotch (Dewars),” says pastry chef Carter.
And the brullee’d coating on the half-banana looks as though it were applied with a Zamboni machine, that unit they wheel out at hockey games to give the rink a hard, flat, flawless, shiny surface.
The whole thing is crowned with a large oeuf of chantilly cream.
There are mornings after having this dessert at Go Fish that I wake up thinking about it, lapsing into reverie even before I get out of bed. It’s that good.
Profiteroles and Chocolate Sauce at Bouchon
Many restaurants in Napa Valley have attempted to duplicate this classic French dessert, but not one comes close to the oral symphony orchestrated by pastry chef Ethan Howard. For eight years, since the red doors swung open at Bouchon, this dessert has been the top-seller. And who's surprised?
Why this dish affords so much pleasure to the dining public is this: everything in it is homemade and carefully, precisely, measured out. Assuming there have been 25 portions served every day for eight years, since Bouchon opened, the pastry team here has plated 72,800 orders of profiteroles and knowing Thomas Keller’s demand for Perfection, I would bet that every one of those 72,800 customers has gone away with the identical warm fuzzies from this mostly cold confection.
There are three elements that make these Perfect Profiteroles:
+ The choux puffs are ethereally light, slightly crisp on the outside, soft and forgiving on the inside. They have flavor AND taste and are not hard like dinner rolls (other restaurants take note!)
+ The vanilla ice cream, also made in-house, is rich in eggs, a true French vanilla. I only realized how egg-y the ice cream is when I tasted this dish neat for this story, in the middle of an afternoon. Previously, I had only ever tasted it (maybe 30 times) after a full dinner and several bottles of wine. Tasted on its own with a clean palate, I was struck by the sensual pleasure that this dessert truly delivers and the egginess of the ice cream.
+ The third element of this dish that scores it 100 points (Perfection) is the dark Valrhona chocolate sauce. “We start with Valrhona 55% cacao couverture, add a bit of glucose syrup to give it sheen, and add cream to lighten it,” says pastry chef Howard. ‘Lighten it’ is a misnomer; this stuff is dark and delicious, the stuff that the Aztecs fought wars over. And once you taste Ethan's sauce on its own, you will understand why.
At the end of the day, each of these desserts is an example of Perfection. Much as the Wine Spectator urges visitors to Napa Valley to seek out Restaurants of Grande Excellence with respect to their wine lists… in similar fashion, think of this short crib sheet, featuring the three top desserts, as your Insider’s Guide to Gustatory Greatness. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.