WITH THEIR INFINITE presentation possibilities and undeniable special occasion associations, desserts are as popular as ever at today's special events. And if you're thinking that decadence may be on a downward slide in today's fitness-minded market, think again. Catering experts across the board say that desserts are one menu area where the yum factor takes precedence over all.
With interactive elements on the rise in events, the dessert course offers many options to get guests walking and talking, the pros say.
“There has been a definite trend toward passed trays and samplings,” says Alexandra Livsey, private dining coordinator for McCormick & Kuleto's Seafood Restaurant in San Francisco. Citing circulated desserts as an “entertainment opportunity,” she notes, “Seated dinners can be stifling, especially if you are at a table with people you don't know.” Just the visual variety of the restaurant's dessert sampler — bittersweet chocolate truffles, seasonal-fruit-filled pastries and hand-dipped biscotti among its many treats — “can certainly start conversations between strangers at a dinner table,” she says.
Also part of the trend toward interactivity is the restaurant's sundae bar, named the “Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory” in honor of the venue's location in famed Ghirardelli Square. Featuring locally made ice cream, chocolate syrup and all the trimmings, the bar is particularly popular for children's events, Livsey notes.
At the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, specialty containers are adding visual excitement to dessert stations — one of the property's most popular dessert service options, according to senior catering manager Michele Polci. Martini glasses, coffee cups and confection “baskets” appear regularly on the hotel's buffet setups, bearing such decadent offerings as crème brûlée, tiramisu and fresh berries. Specialty glassware is particularly popular, Polci notes, “because you can see the layers involved in the dessert.”
And, just in case planners are looking for a little less movement during the dessert course — awards presentations and events with strict time limits figure in here — the Rio has adapted many of its sweets to be part of self-serve “dessert centerpieces.”
While diminutive bites are right for many events, the demand for beautifully plated desserts has not disappeared.
At McCormick & Kuleto's, flourless chocolate truffle cake served with raspberry sauce, a dollop of whipped cream and a mint leaf garnish is the hottest plated dessert for event groups, Livsey says. Coming in a sweet second is Granny Smith apple crisp with caramel sauce and vanilla bean ice cream, she adds.
With the South's reputation for formal elegance, it is no surprise that plated desserts are the strongest sellers at the Sheraton New Orleans. The property's catering sales manager, Sherie Bodenheimer, names such regional favorites as praline cheesecake with praline sauce, and a rich “chocolate decadence terrine” with raspberry coulis and crushed pecan pralines as two of the most requested desserts among event groups.
While the tradition of served desserts continues at her property, the presentations themselves are getting an update, Bodenheimer says. New twists include plates “painted” with colorful sauces, garnishes of seasonal local Ponchatoula strawberries, and “really dark chocolate ‘works of art’ that are edible.”
As planners know, dessert time doesn't necessarily signal an end to the evening's drink service. But just what guests are sipping with their sweets ranges considerably.
With such rich dessert items in demand at her banquets, Bodenheimer says that coffee — invariably blended New Orleans-style with a bit of aromatic chicory — is the main beverage accompanying the course.
Meanwhile, every banquet bar at McCormick & Kuleto's features port and after-dinner liqueurs, Livsey says.
At Rio events, dessert beverages are a specialty item of their own, Polci explains. Clients may choose to have a cappuccino cart available to serve espresso beverages to order. Also popular: a tableside “international coffee service” that allows guests to doll up coffee with chocolate shavings, grated orange peel, cinnamon sticks and whipped cream. With so much to choose from, it isn't hard to see why the nonalcoholic options are, as she notes, “more in demand than cordials or dessert wines.”
McCormick & Kuleto's Seafood Restaurant, 415/929-8374; Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, 702/777-7871; Sheraton New Orleans, 504/595-5586