At Bern's, it's in with the ooooh

The Tampa restaurant revamps its dessert menu to keep up with changing expectations.

By Laura Reiley, Times Food Critic
Published September 6, 2007


The Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern's Steak House
1208 S Howard Ave., Tampa, (813) 251-2421
Hours: 5 p.m.-1 a.m. daily
Details: V, MC, Amex; no reservations for dessert room; full bar
Prices: Desserts $5.50-$24

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Cherries Jubilee, the flaming confection invented for Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, has long been the gold standard of showoff desserts for fancy restaurants and brave dinner party hostesses.

Now it's history.

The august Harry Waugh Dessert Room at Bern's Steak House has modernized its menu, leaving the Cherries Jubilee, the chocolate pecan pie and other old-fashioned sweet treats by the wayside.

The new dessert menu, unveiled two weeks ago, says a lot about the changing tastes of the dining public and about the cutting-edge dialogue going on amongst 21st century pastry chefs in this country.

These contemporary desserts are a study in juxtapositions, each plate pairing something hot and something cold, something creamy with something crunchy, tart with sweet, light with dark. Pastry gurus are drawing on flavors from beyond the traditional dessert palette, pushing the envelope with savory elements and herbal high notes.

Yes, this new version of the fabled tomelike menu is about the Zeitgeist, but it is still about chocolate, moist genoises, pouffy souffles, intense chocolate sauces, paper-thin cookies, chocolates with perfect gooey centers, mousses, buttercream frostings and decadence.

I tasted nine of the new desserts. Some are stunning, a few merely good, only one not worth keeping. Ten were nixed from the old menu, several revamped and 10 new ones added along with new ice creams, sorbets and sauces (plus a laudable expanded sugar-free dessert list).

They are described here from most excellent (No. 1) to most skippable (No. 9), with a little technical insider information provided via telephone by Bern's pastry chef Jason Forman. 

1. Chocolate Peanut Butter Cream Pie ($10.95)
There’s so much going on here: A ring mold, made by Bern’s maintenance staff, is filled with Oreo cookie crumbs and baked off. Inside the crust go two kinds of mousse, a peanut butter and a dark chocolate. Then it’s topped with a texturally interesting peanut butter streusel and a drizzle of milk chocolate sauce. It’s garnished with a triangle of deep-fried crepe (like a pita wedge mated with a tuile cookie) flavored gently with banana and peanut. The overall effect: creamy, rich, intensely peanutty, but with good balance.

2. Strawberry Thai Basil Shortcake ($9.95)
Thai basil? Is Bern’s getting all world-beat on us? The truth is, the floral, almost aniselike flavor of Thai basil perfectly complements the sliced strawberries. A sweetened, Southern-style buttermilk biscuit is made with a big cavity in the middle (so there’s not too much biscuit), the bottom half filled with the berries infused with Thai basil syrup and a big dollop of real whipped cream . The plate gets a  swath of red coulis, a ball of sweet-tart rhubarb ice cream and a garnish of  red sugar “glass.”  It’s enough to make you reconsider all the times you reflexively headed for the chocolate desserts.

3. Black Bottom Toasted Coconut Macaroon ($9.95)
Again, it’s an Oreo crust, topped with a chewy coconut macaroon layer flavored with Coco Lopez. That gets a dark chocolate glace, then while it’s wet more grated coconut goes on top. Made in a big sheet, the dessert is cut into rectangles and plated with a ball of almond lassi (the Indian yogurt drink) ice cream. There’s a passion fruit caramel that gets lost in the shuffle. No matter, the overall contrast of creamy, crunchy and flaky is fabulous.

4. Vanilla Flight ($11.95)
This one is all drama and sophistication. And vanilla. One end of the plate has a ramekin of Mexican vanilla bean souffle (which I’m told by Bern’s pastry chef Jason Forman has a smokier flavor than Tahitian vanilla bean, a difference that was too subtle for me), surprisingly rich, not too eggy. The middle of the long white rectangular plate holds a shallow triangle of textbook creme brulee with the thin, brittle sugar mantle that seems so hard to do well. On the other end of the plate sits a round of dense vanilla lush cake upon which perches a ball of Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Hot, room temp and cold all together, a range of textures — all brilliantly vanilla.

5. After Dinner Praline Tasting ($10.95)
This used to be described as friandise and mignardise and petit fours, and maybe customers understood about a third of that. These days, this changing array of tiny bites could be candies, petit fours, maybe even saltwater taffy or lollipops. What I tasted was a plate of 10 chocolates, the best of which is a sinfully rich butterscotch milk chocolate, but the espresso truffle was a close second. This is for a large party that isn’t crazy hungry but needs a little sweet something to go with coffee.

6. Gianduja Framboise Macadamia Decadence ($10.95)
Now we’re getting into the merely good category. It’s a little rectangle of intense chocolate cake. There’s a hazelnut paste and a chocolate raspberry cream, but these seem overwhelmed by the chocolatiness. I didn’t really taste the hazelnut at all. The crust has a nice toasted macadamia crunchiness, but the accompanying scoop of dark chocolate ice cream added to the overall chocolate intensity of the whole thing. Little dots of raspberry sauce don’t lighten the deep chocolate mood.

7. Black Forest Cake ($9.95)
This one shows a lot of technical wizardry. A cylinder of acetate is painted with red and white cocoa butter and tempered chocolate in stripes to form a thin chocolate cylinder encircling a layer of devil’s food cake, a dark Valrhona chocolate pastry cream and another layer of cake. That gets topped with a layer of semisweet chocolate mousse infused with bing cherries and kirsch, then whipped cream, then dark chocolate shavings. It’s paired with a bing cherry foam (a cloudlike liquid achieved with gelatin and a nitrous canister). Oh, and there’s a ball of chocolate cherry gelato. It all sounds good, right? My only real issue with this dessert was the waxiness of the exterior chocolate cylinder. Cherry-phobes at my table also thought there were too many cherries (but now that the Jubilee is gone, why not go a little mad with the cherries here?). 

8. Mississippi Mud Pie ($9.95)
This one suffered by comparison to the more complex chocolate desserts. Very simple flavors with a dark chocolate cookie crust in a pie mold, filled with a rich dark chocolate pastry cream with an espresso kick. It’s essentially like a chocolate custard, topped with Valrhona hot fudge and dark chocolate shavings. Kids would like this one, nothing too froufrou about it.

9. Pistachio Orange Blossom Baklava ($9.95)
I wanted to like this — something different entirely, with the classic layers of butter-brushed phyllo and cinnamon sugar, topped with layers of a mixture of chopped pistachios and orange zest flavored with honey, cinnamon, light brown sugar and orange blossom syrup. Flaky pastry, delicious filling. But it all fell apart because it was topped with a big ball of intensely sweet buckwheat honey granita that immediately caused the whole thing to sludge up, pastry becoming paste. Put the granita (not so sweet, though, with such a sweet dessert) in a separate little cup, and we’re talking.