On the list of questions commonly put to restaurant critics, "Is there any food you don't like?" must rank near the top. I love okra and tofu and mayonnaise and strange organ meats, so I always confidently respond that I'm only picky about olives on my pizza (which I'm sure we can all agree is a disgusting proposition).
But my smugness tends to vanish when my entrée plate is cleared. While I can tolerate chocolate and whipped cream, dessert is my least favorite part of a meal. There are a few sweets I might order if I wasn't working--most of them involve tart fruit and flaky crusts--but I'd much prefer to end dinner with cheese and a glass of Madeira.
Still, I make an effort to order at least one or two desserts at every restaurant I review, since I know dessert is an extraordinarily important component of many readers' meals. Yet I rarely dwell on dessert in my review, even when the restaurant devotes one-sixth of its menu to sundaes, cheesecake, and pudding, as is the case at Skillet Diner, the subject of this week's review.
If the dessert is a standout, such as the chili ice-cream sandwich at Revel, I'm happy to spend a portion of my allotted word count on its description. But all too often, desserts seem to distract from a restaurant's central narrative. I suspect that's because few restaurants employ a dedicated pastry chef, instead entrusting sugar and butter duties to their chefs.
I wondered whether my predilection for avoiding dessert was coloring my approach to the final course, so I revisited another critic's reviews. Frank Bruni, who served as The New York Times' dining critic from 2004-09, doesn't shirk from sweetness. According to his memoir Born Round, the chronicle of a lifelong struggle with food, Bruni was once in the habit of making late-night runs to a 7-Eleven for "a pint of Ben & Jerry's and a chocolate-covered ice cream bar and some Nutter Butter cookies to boot."
I checked out Bruni's last 10 three-star reviews, hypothesizing he might have had more to say about dessert. He didn't.
Dessert merited more than two sentences only twice. Even the desserts at Momofuku Ssam Bar, where "ascendant pastry whiz" Christina Tosi was busy revolutionizing pastry, earned just a two-sentence mention. More frequently, Bruni dismissed the dessert course with phrases such as " . . . its desserts, which didn't shine quite as brightly as they could have . . . " and "The desserts need slight improvement . . . " And these are three-star reviews, meaning the restaurants in question are among the very best places to eat in New York City.
Like Bruni, I don't think a botched dessert should sink a restaurant. It doesn't really matter if Skillet's apple pie is dry. But if you're at the terrific Capitol Hill restaurant and craving a sweet finish, I'd recommend the whipped bittersweet chocolate pudding, tabbed with cocoa nibs and sea salt.
For more on everything but dessert, you'll find the full review here.