Dishin' That: The dessert-ordering debate rages on

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Dessert is one of the few places where the average diner is torn, and the reasons for not indulging in “a little something” are as plentiful as the reasons for doing so.

Special occasions or otherwise, dessert is an opportune place to pad guest checks and winter-weary bottoms. Simply put, dessert is a decadence rarely unaccompanied by a side of guilt.

Fat, calories and high cholesterol, to name just a few, are anti-dessert considerations for diners having 1986 flashbacks of Nancy Reagan and her “Just Say No” mantra. Few other dining options have people making excuses while weighing the pros and cons of a creme brulee mini-trio over a seasonal fruit buckle.

Fancying myself as a museum docent describing every flavor and texture like a Matisse on display, I know I’m pushing crack of a different kind. Watching my guests struggling, I turn just so to keep my devil’s tail from plain view.

Long-time Freeport server Heather Martin, 35, agrees.

“People struggle when it comes to the dessert menu,” she said. “They play the ‘You pick something and I’ll have a tiny nibble game.’ Ninety percent of the time, the person who reaches for the list first chooses the item and takes the last bite. Sure, the other person wants dessert, too, but may have better self control and doesn’t want to be the diet bad guy.”

A small minority of diners have a different mindset and embrace dessert as a God-given right not to be taken lightly. Case in point was the wonderful birthday dinner for a former coworker, who to this day chairs my oft-referred to Restaurant Creative Consulting Team.

Ten of us went to Fore Street and ordered several bottles of something bubbly. We ate everything off the artisan cheese menu and literally all desserts being offered that day. That was dinner. No gently seasoned and wilted kale. No free-range chicken. Just cheese and dessert, and with this month being my dear friend’s birthday, I highly recommend it.

Although a baker in her own right, my mother, The Betty, also has a fine appreciation for dessert. As a child, we never went to a “nice” restaurant when she didn’t ask to see the dessert cart prior to ordering. At Johnny’s Eldorado on Route 1 in Fort Lauderdale, a pale-yellow key lime pie was her Achilles’ heel. If The Betty did order dessert, she would strategically downsize her other selections. (Regardless, an extra-cold martini always made the cut.)

Offering another take on dessert, Martin believes dessert is an up-selling opportunity in which people like what they know, and know what they like.

“Something has to catch their eye to make it worth it to them,” she said. “My boyfriend and I go to Silly’s on Washington Avenue (in Portland) just for this frozen Nutella-caramel shortbread thing. If they don’t have it, we don’t order dessert. I see the same thing with my regulars. They have to know it’s worth it.”

Dessert expert Kristy Jackson, 30-ish, is the pastry chef at Pier 77 and the Ramp in Kennebunkport. Nodding in agreement with Martin’s observations, Jackson said she struggles to be creative.

“I do small plates, but I’d really like to do some intricate, small bites, but sometimes those things don’t sell,” she said. “I’m not sure if it’s the servers who don’t push them or the customers who won’t think outside the box. And that makes it hard to convince the owners to let me change up the menu more often.”

To her credit, Jackson has recently started making gluten-free desserts for Ricetta’s in Falmouth. Neatly presented devil’s-food cupcakes with vanilla butter-cream frosting are displayed in the glass case where the hostess stands. Upon inquiry, the enthusiastic greeter told a guest the cupcakes were delicious and “you’d never guess they were gluten-free.”

Wavering for a just second, the guest asked for one to go while he waited for his take-out pizza.

Thinking Jackson would be pumped, it was sweet to see someone else sporting the same red tail and dessert-stabbing pitchfork I proudly carry.

Peas and Q’s

Q: I was looking forward to your thoughts on Restaurant Week this year. Everybody else talks about how great it is and you seem to find more and more reasons to ban it. What’s the deal? Are you a fan now? — Lanie Aarons, Westbrook

A: Lanie, few things make my skin crawl like “Restaurant Week.” I promise (no, actually I can’t wait) to revisit and dissect the annual event soon.

However, there is a relevant positive spoiler to the shenanigans. As part of all Restaurant Week prix fixe menus, dessert is a given. Use the small fork placed horizontally above your plate and join the Dark Side. — Natalie

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Natalie Ladd lives in Portland. When not pecking away, she can be found serving the masses at a busy eatery, or tirelessly conducting happy-hour field research. Hospitality questions or comments should be sent to nladd@theforecaster.net, and may be featured in a future column. Follow Natalie on Twitter: @natalieladd.

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