Is "Organic Dessert" an Oxymoron?


Photo by threelayercake/FlickrCC

There is nothing so special as a pleasing, spot-on surprise. The other night I had just such a surprise. And it involved my favorite course: dessert.

We were out at Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C. In the 1990s, it was a path-breaking eatery, but in the years since I have found it humdrum. Its current claim to fame rests on the fact that it became the first certified organic restaurant in the United States.

I was dining with a few members of the Washington elite who happened to draw Nora--the owner--to our table to check on how we were doing. We had a lovely conversation, including interesting details about what it really takes to get organic certification for an entire eating establishment.

I guess if you happen to be the health-food, organic, crunchy type, dessert is a horrid invention.

Then I clearly committed the faux pas of the evening--I asked about the dessert chef and which dessert was best. Nora became really animated and went on about the fact that desserts were only carbohydrates with sugar, not very healthy. I guess if you happen to be the health-food, organic, crunchy type, dessert is a horrid invention.

And if you happen to be an organic restaurant proprietor, they are a necessity to be tolerated, not indulged. I retorted that if done properly they left the diner with a sweet and lasting memory, and that if psychology and behavioral economics are right, what humans remember are the high points and end points making dessert critical to the memory of a great meal.

Nora then told us that her dessert chef was a Vietnamese woman who had no formal training but had been doing the desserts for 25 years. My prejudices told me that this was inauspicious--Vietnamese! No formal training!

Nora departed, and we continued to examine the dessert menu. The waiter swooped back and promptly removed the menus from our hands--as if Nora were going to refuse us dessert. When challenged, the waiter said Nora was sending out something special.

And special it was. A pyramid tray with a sampling of every dessert made in the restaurant. There were two stupendous desserts and one very good one--worth the trip alone. Every restaurant seems to have a molten chocolate cake on its menu, but few do it well. In most places, the chocolate is not very good or the molten middle is too runny, or the cake is overcooked and there is no molten center.

Nora's was everything a molten chocolate cake should be--rich dark, slightly bitter chocolate forming a 1/2 to 3/4 inch rim around an oozing plasma chocolate center. Nora's may be the best chocolate dessert in D.C.

Another notable dessert was the blackberry crostada. The blackberries were only slightly tart and the crust was buttery--neither too chewy nor dry.

Then there was the ginger ice cream. It didn't seem promising to me. But how wonderful it was. An ever so slight ginger burn and sinus-opening feeling upon first taste. The ginger was balanced by the luscious sweet cream. Even better, the distinctive clarifying taste lingered and lingered. It was delightful and provided the perfect end to dinner. And the psychologists are right--it gave me very sweet memories of the meal.

How pleasantly surprised I was that Nora's had such great desserts--maybe the best in Washington, D.C.

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Ezekiel J. Emanuel is an oncologist, a bioethicist, and a vice provost of the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author or editor of 10 books, including Brothers Emanuel and Reinventing American Health Care.

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