Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Passion for Pastry a Few Local Restaurants Have Dessert Chefs, and They Pay Great Attention to Their Craft

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Passion for Pastry a Few Local Restaurants Have Dessert Chefs, and They Pay Great Attention to Their Craft

Article excerpt

Back in the days of white tablecloth dining, the position of an in-house pastry chef was a sign of a serious restaurant. As eateries pare costs and tend to diners' casual tastes, they're cutting back or eliminating pastry chef positions.

Eleven in the Strip District, Habitat in the Fairmont Hotel Downtown, Legume in Oakland and Spoon in East Liberty stand among the few local restaurants that still have pastry chefs. Luxury resorts also maintain a pastry staff, such as the 11 who make desserts for Lautrec and the Tavern at Nemacolin Woodland Resort in Farmington, Fayette County.

"I have watched the field diminish over the past decade," said James Wroblewski, pastry chef at Habitat.

"Pastries are the last memory of a good restaurant," he said. "Do you really want to skimp on that?"

Mr. Wroblewski honed his skills as a caterer, at Big Burrito restaurants, at The Omni Homestead Resort Hotel in Hot Springs, Va., as well as in Las Vegas, when he worked with Chris Hamner, winner of Season 2 "Top Chef Just Desserts."

He says he makes desserts in a classic French style. He does not embrace modernist techniques or trends and he does not believe in savory desserts.

"I try to stay away from bacon as much as I can."

Like the few pastry chefs left in town, Mr. Wroblewski adheres to seasonality on the dessert menu, with a winter limoncello cake flanked by a quenelle of whipped cream or an Apple Brown Betty, a traditional American dessert much like a cobbler or a crisp served with ice cream infused with Apple Jacks cereal.

Cereal-infused desserts and other novelties offer pop-culture nostalgia, attractive to those who might forgo sweets. Ushered in by New York's Momofuku Milk Bar a couple of years ago, such desserts can also be found at the newly opened Grit & Grace, Downtown, which offers a coffee and dessert with lemongrass creme anglaise, chocolate truffle, coffee mochi and a Fruity Pebble crust.

While whimsy may appeal to diners who otherwise try to cut calories or costs, dessert aficionados are drawn by two more general categories: chocolate and fruit.

Fruit is more refreshing and naturally sweet, while dark chocolate lends a chalkiness that pairs well with big red wines and milk chocolate offers a velvet creaminess that can be addictive.

"People like chocolate desserts or a simple creme brulee," said Sheena Husar, assistant pastry chef at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.

But the most popular dessert, especially for Valentine's Day, combines the two in chocolate-dipped strawberries. "If we were to put them on a banquet table in crowded room," she said, "They'd be gone in minutes."

Nemacolin's fleet of pastry chefs is a defiance to the nationwide trend, with dessert a luxury item in a luxury resort, where people are more likely to splurge.

In less lavish settings, some pastry chefs are breaking off to create dessert destinations away from the confines of the dining room. …

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