Dessert can be an afterthought at some restaurants. They’re usually easily identified by the presence of both bread pudding and creme brulee on a menu.
Earning a spot on CultureMap’s Top 100 restaurants requires that as much care is invested in the end of a meal as in its beginning. Consider these 10 establishments as examples of those that do it particularly well.
For the sake of variety, this list doesn’t repeat any of the restaurants included in our best burgers or best pastas lists, but that doesn’t mean restaurants that appeared in those earlier articles don’t also serve compelling desserts. Soft serve at La Lucha, parmesan cheesecake at Nancy’s Hustle, and iced shortbread cookies at Paulie’s are just three of the dishes that would rate a spot below if they hadn’t already been included in the prior coverage.
Leonard Botello IV’s blues-influenced, urban barbecue joint almost always has a line for its precisely smoked brisket, housemade sausages, and creative sides, which makes it tempting to justify the wait with a hefty order. But true Truth fanatics know to save room for a slice of one of Mama Truth’s sky-high layer cakes. Opinions vary on which is best — we’ll vote for banana caramel and coconut — but the cakes so perfectly achieve being sweet-but-not-too-sweet with a soft, fluffy texture that at least taking a slice to-go is mandatory.
Picking one of pastry chef Ruben Ortega’s dishes to stand for his repertoire borders on the silly. After all, ignoring the seminal churros at Hugo’s and the extensive house-roasted chocolates at Xochi is to deny some of the great pastry offerings in Houston. Still, our favorite remains the El Coco at Caracol, the Galleria-area restaurant seafood restaurant operated by Ortega’s brother Hugo and Hugo’s wife Tracy Vaught. That’s where diners will find El Coco: a chocolate globe filled with coconut cream, chocolate ganache, and coconut streusel. Accessing the inner dessert requires destroying the shell with a small mallet, which is almost as satisfying as consuming the sweets within.
Dry-aged steaks will always be Doris’ primary draw, but the desserts are compelling, too. Pastry chef Michal Michaeli’s creations utilize modernist techniques and elegant plating that make them as pleasant to look at as they are satisfying to eat. Consider the signature Oriental Rose, which pairs ricotta-filled kataifi with poached plums and a yogurt-lime sponge; the almost savory cheese balances out the fruit’s sweetness, and the whole confection has enough crunch to keep every bite interesting.
Chef-owner Anita Jaisinghani once worked in the pastry department at Cafe Annie, a legacy that’s reflected in the sweets produced by her Upper Kirby cafe. Head upstairs to Pondicheri’s Bake Lab for signature items like chai pie, chocolate oatmeal chili cookies, and bournvita ice cream sandwiches. The flavors are as bright and eclectic — not to mention vegan and vegetarian-friendly — as the savory dishes.
Just as going to Uchi without order machi cure and foie gras nigiri would feel incomplete, so too would departing without an order of its iconic fried milk dessert. At once both nostalgic and modern, the dish, as has been documented numerous times, features frozen pastry cream that’s dipped in cornflakes and quickly fried. The resulting mixture of creamy and crunchy textures — paired with a flavor that’s vaguely reminiscent of cereal milk — makes for a memorable, utterly irresistible confection.
The London-based restaurant with a location in the Galleria not only offers an elevated take on classic dim sum; it also features a full range of French-style sweets. The pastry department turns out delicate macarons that are among the city’s best. Plated desserts such as the raspberry delice (raspberry over a layer of chocolate mousse) and milk chocolate choux demonstrate that the kitchen devotes as much attention to sweets as it does to dumplings.
Brennan’s of Houston
This 50-year old Houston classic is known as much for its uncompromising service as it is for its carefully-prepared Creole cuisine. These two strains come together at dessert. Servers wheel a cart with a burner to the table to prepare the restaurant’s signature bananas Foster. The spectacle of watching the dessert be lit on fire is only matched by the classic combination of warm bananas, caramel, and vanilla ice cream.
At a restaurant that features a $90 chicken for two and a $180 Texas akaushi ribeye (for more than two), the desserts have to be decadent enough to stand up to the mains. Enter the signature chocolate souffle (also for two) that uses rich Valrhona “guanaja” chocolate to achieve a deeply satisfying chocolate flavor. Pair it with vanilla ice cream and a glass of Sherry to achieve maximum deliciousness.
Maison Pucha Bistro
Given its culinary heritage, a French restaurant is virtually required to serve great desserts. At Maison Pucha Bistro, Victor Pucha, one of three brothers who own the restaurant, turns out high-quality breads and a wide range of sweets: everything from macarons to mignardise and a daily fruit tart. Still, it’s the dishes that incorporate chocolate from the brothers’ native Ecuador — as in Pucha’s signature black and white chocolate souffle — that really shine.
The cafe-bakery with two locations (and at least three more on the way) would earn a spot on this list just for its massive, chocolate chip walnut cookies; they’re thick, gooey, and salty-in-a-good-way. Add in the macarons, viennoiserie, and baker Sarah Ono Jones’ wildly over-the-top decorated cakes to achieve the sort of pastry perfection other cafes can only aspire to.