If you were ever tempted to begin your meal with dessert—or to skip the rest of the meal altogether—these are the restaurants and bakeries you need to know. Serving everything from Mexican cornhusk meringue to Russian sirniki, French macaroons to Middle Eastern kanafeh, they prove that sweets speak a universal language.
250 Park Avenue South (at 20th Street)
Barbounia specializes in Mediterranean cuisine, but you will not find the expected baklava or tiramisu on its menu. Instead you can indulge in a confection of tahini mousse, spiced-milk ice cream, and shredded halvah (a flaky candy made with sesame seeds) draped in silan, a honey-like syrup made of dates. Other desserts include an interpretation of the traditional Arab kanafeh, here made with shredded phyllo, sheep ricotta, rosewater syrup, and pistachio gelato, and a hazelnut babka served with a whiskey anglaise, Nutella, and sage-vanilla ice cream. Fortunately many of the entrees are healthy: a Moroccan tagine of sea bass, roasted peppers, zucchini, harissa, preserved lemons, and a saffron broth; free-range chicken roasted in a traditional taboon with baby carrots, sunchokes, mushrooms, and faro. Order one of those, and you’ll be able to savor your dessert guilt-free.
Three West 18th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
If you consider chocolate one of the basic food groups, the City Bakery’s hot chocolate is for you. Thick, creamy, and of course chocolaty, it comes with a huge house-made marshmallow that puts whipped cream as a topping to shame. Those who prefer their chocolate a bit less intense, or do not like chocolate at all, will find plenty more to choose from: cookies (including classic chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin), cakes, brownies, macaroons (the robust type made with coconut, not the dainty French nibbles), scones, muffins, croissants (including its famed pretzel croissant), tarts… Should you find yourself hungry even after consuming the hot chocolate and a cookie, there is a lunchtime salad bar offering seasonal selections ranging from grilled pineapple to pretzel-coated baked chicken. Mac-and-cheese, soups, sandwiches, and pizza are also available.
35 East 21st Street (between Park Avenue South and Fifth Avenue)
Mexican flavors meet local ingredients at Cosme. In terms of dessert, that means, above all else, a cornhusk meringue filled with corn mousse. The juxtaposition of crunchy and creamy, sweet and savory makes it one of the most raved-about desserts in the city. The strawberry raspado—the Mexican version of shaved ice— with almost-peppery hoja santa ice cream is a worthy alternative, as is the black sesame sorbet with yogurt ice cream. As for the rest of your meal, the duck carnitas served with warm tortillas are nearly as acclaimed as the cornhusk meringue. Seafood options include octopus aguachile, flavored with (among other ingredients) charred-habanero oil; vegetarians can opt for the fava bean tetela, among other dishes.
14 West 19th Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
If you know someone who insists he does not like doughnuts, take him to Dough. Its cake doughnuts—sour-cream flavor coated with Mexican cinnamon-sugar and lemon buttermilk—are sure to win him over. So might this bakery’s Doughkas, a cross between doughnuts and babkas that sell out fast. Ditto its classic yeast doughnuts, available in flavors both traditional and anything but, such as blood orange, hibiscus, and chocolate chipotle.
921 Broadway (at 21st Street)
As you stroll by this French bakery/café, the aroma wafting through its doors will immediately inform you that it bakes its breads, croissants, and brioches on the premises throughout the day. Its sandwiches and tartines (basically open-face sandwiches) are made with its own bread; you can also tuck into seasonal soups and salads, classic bistro fare such as quiche and croque-monsieur, and heartier entrees such as coq au vin. But be sure to leave room so that you can relish one of Maison Kayser’s chocolate or caramel éclairs, a white-chocolate-and-pistachio cookie, an Adagio (a dark-chocolate mousse cake filled with passion fruit), or a raspberry tart, to name just a few of the delicacies that await. Each gorgeous treat looks too good to eat—well, almost.
41 East 20th Street (between Park Avenue South and Fifth Avenue)
Mari Vanna is where you go for Russian food like your babushka used to make, with an extra helping of glamour. In addition to borscht, beef Stroganoff, potato vareniki, and chicken Kiev, the menu includes an extensive caviar selection and numerous varieties of house-infused vodka such as blackcurrant, pepper and honey, and pickle and garlic. Also on the menu are such traditional Russian desserts as sirniki, pancakes made with farmer cheese that offer just enough tang to complement the sweet jams and preserves they are served with; medovik, layers of honey cake bound together with cream; and Tatyana Larina, a whipped-cream extravaganza named after a character in “Eugene Onegin.”
20 West 23rd Street (between Fifth and Sixth Avenues)
Those who consider dessert a meal in and of itself should make a reservation for The Dessert Bar, the petite (16-seat) space beneath Patisserie Chanson. Two seatings each evening are dedicated to a six-course seasonal dessert tasting menu, with an optional drink pairing. These are not your usual “bite of something sweet after dinner” desserts. Offerings have included an olive-oil gelato accompanied by liquid nitrogen that imparts a complementary aroma of eucalyptus and a barley pudding served with local honey, bee pollen, kumquat, and a honeycomb cookie. On the other hand, if you do want a single, gorgeously presented baked treat, you will have plenty to choose from in the main patisserie. Mille-feuilles for two, in chocolate, pistachio, and coffee; carrot-and-coconut cake; a lemon-yuzu tart served with a matcha marshmallow; and French macaroons are just a few of the options.
101 East 19th Street (at Park Avenue South)
Union Square Cafe is justly acclaimed for helping to define seasonal New American cuisine. One could argue, though, that its desserts do not get the recognition they deserve. Take its S’more Pavlova, molten chocolate cake sandwiched between graham-cracker ice cream and a toasted marshmallow ganache: Just about everyone who experienced it subsequently waxed lyrical about it. Raspberry roulade served with sesame brittle and raspberry-and-yuzu sorbet is a tasty alternative for those who steer clear of chocolate.