Portlanders are not big on dessert. It's not that we're health conscious, exactly—it's that we indulge elsewhere. Or so says Jeff McCarthy, the former pastry chef at closed-down Ten 01 and now with culinary think tank KitchenCru. "The main ingredient of Portland restaurants is pork and bacon—these rich, heavy foods that you see on everyone's menu," he says. "After a meal like that, people aren't going to want to get dessert."
Add the fact that Portlanders are notoriously finicky about atmosphere and price, and it's not a surprise that full-time pastry chefs making high-caliber desserts are a rarity here. McCarthy points out that in a scene obsessed with all things rustic and low-key, the white-tablecloth meals that bankroll such things are "few and far between."
Many of Portland's restaurants either half-ass dessert or skip it altogether, says Amelia Lane, pastry chef at Olympic Provisions. "It's almost an afterthought," she laments, "but it's the last thing people have before they leave. It's an entire part of the meal that just gets forgotten about."
Where to go for great dessert? We asked some of the city's best pastry chefs to name their favorite rivals.
ST. JACK (Alissa Rozos). Nearly everyone queried blurted the name of this petite pâtissier first. "Hands down," Lane gushes. "They're a perfect example of a restaurant that has gone above and beyond to make their pastry chef comfortable." McCarthy, Gerald Shorey at Market, Nora Antene at Little Bird, and Helena Root at Irving Street Kitchen all issued similarly glowing recommendations. Rozos is known for her madeleines and other small pastries, made fresh every morning and also available at the patisserie inside St. Jack.
AVIARY (Kat Whitehead). "My favorite place at the moment, both savory and sweet," McCarthy says. "Their desserts are right in tune with the food that's being done on the savory side. A really good look to flavors, first and foremost, and their presentation is very simple but very well-thought-out." And they're easy on the wallet to boot—desserts are $6 across the board.
OLYMPIC PROVISIONS (Amelia Lane). McCarthy says Olympic Provisions in Southeast does lovely plated desserts in the accessible style that Portlanders demand. "For a restaurant that does rustic food, her desserts pop; they're very interesting but not cerebral," he says. Lane's chocolate dessert salami, a recipe unearthed from an old Italian cookbook and made with French ganache, baking spices and nuts instead of meat, was featured in New York magazine's lineup of 101 "crazy-awesome new desserts" in America.
ANDINA (Megan Vargas). Helena Root at Irving Street Kitchen digs the rich Peruvian treats at this Pearl District hot spot. "[Vargas is] super creative, and everything she makes is beautiful," Root says. "Whatever ice cream she makes is outrageously awesome." Enjoy her helado de lúcuma con higos, fried ice cream made from a subtropical fruit native to Peru's Andean region, coated with quinoa and peanuts and then surrounded by chancaca-soaked figs and a goat cheese chantilly.
LITTLE BIRD (Nora Antene). "That goes without saying," Lane says. Adds Shorey: "[Antene is] young blood in the pastry world. I'll always get dessert when I go to Le Pigeon or Little Bird."