Should it be a cluster of cocoa-dusted truffles? A handful of bitty, chocolate buttons? A cupcake cutie (or two) with plenteous poufs of fudge frosting? No matter; if it’s little and chocolate, it charms.
Diminutive chocolate desserts are timeless. They were popular as mignardises long before the recent mini-dessert craze swept the country, and that craze only has boosted their appeal. Chocolate minis can punctuate a multi-course meal, add indulgence to a light repast and—with their small price tag and their versatility—are easy to embrace for every pocketbook and tastebud. Chocolate’s complexity also means beverage matches that run the gamut from Champagne to stout and fortified wine.
Most important, though, guests love them. “People love it when you set a little bite-sized dessert in front of them—even more so if it’s chocolate,” says chef Ryan Poli of Perennial in Chicago, a contemporary American restaurant that is part of the Boka Restaurant Group.
Rathbun’s in Atlanta also has had success with chocolate minis, which have been a mainstay since the modern American concept opened in 2004. “We offer nine $3.95 mini desserts a day,” says executive pastry chef Kirk Parks. “Those with chocolate in them—such as our Gooey Toffee Cake mini—sell best.”
Darden Restaurant’s Orlando-based Seasons 52 was one of the first chains in the country to do mini desserts, and it sees the same trend. “Chocolate? You bet!” says Cliff Pleau, director of culinary development. Among the nine Mini Indulgence desserts, $2.50 each, the Rocky Road and Chocolate Peanut Butter Mousse are guest favorites. Pleau says top-selling Rocky Road (nut free) pairs nicely with Warre’s Otima 10 Year Old Tawny Port, which they menu for $11 a glass.
More big operations that are hot on small chocolate desserts include P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Houlihan’s, Chili’s, Uno’s Chicago Grill, Claim Jumper and Green Mill. All do minis and say chocolate leads sales in their little-dessert pack. Scottsdale, Ariz.-based P.F. Chang’s started doing $2 mini desserts in three and a half-ounce shot glasses two years ago, and it has yet to see sales wane. In fact, says Robin Stotter, director of culinary research and development for the chain, “Mini sales are increasing every week to the point that they are rapidly taking over the bulk of our dessert sales.” Among Chang’s mini selections, those with chocolate—the Great Wall of Chocolate, Red Velvet cake and Tiramisu—are the top three sellers.
Of this group, Leawood, Kan.-based Houlihan’s has done the most to market spirited pairings. Displayed on the same menu panel as its five $2.95 mini desserts is Houlihan’s “Coffee Fabulosity,” which offers guests a cup of joe plus sidebar—Disaronno, Baileys, Chambord, Frangelico, Godiva, Kahlúa, or Starbucks Liqueur—for an additional $2.99.
Tiny, Fine and Fun
Smaller concepts also have put their own spin on chocolate minis. Chefs at Kevin Drawe’s two Atkins Park Taverns in Atlanta and Smyrna, Ga. started doing $2.50 mini desserts five months ago. The results have been “fantastic from the first night,” says Drawe. “We went from selling 10 desserts a night to 60.” The biggest seller is a mini chocolate and peanut butter biscuit pudding that Drawe says goes wonderfully with 10-year tawny Port, which menus at $7.50 a glass.
“It makes the whole after-dinner experience more of an event,” says Drawe. “More people are ordering dessert, after dinner drinks and coffee. People linger. Tickets are up, servers are happy.”
Tiny and fine also can be fun. David Carmichael, executive pastry chef at Gilt in the New York Palace Hotel, does a trio of mini chocolate cones filled with Mint Chocolate Chip, Strawberry and S’mores Swirl ice cream that come to the table in a chocolate stand and menu for $12. They go well with Rare Wine Co.’s Vinhos Barbeito New York Malmsey Special Reserve Madeira, $16 a glass, says wine director Patrick Cappiello, and Lustau “Tintilla de Rota” Sherry, menued at $12 a glass.
Also chilly—if more silly—is the glorified dubious city street-food favorite offered by chef Jeff Brantley at Mediterranean restaurant Tizi Melloul in Chicago—malted chocolate shakes ‘n’ french fries turned into an ice cream that stars in a mini sampler. French fries are pulverized with sugar and cream, blended with malted-milk powder before being churned into ice cream. Brantley likes the finished dessert, $6, with Fonseca 10-year or 20-year tawny Port, priced at $10 and $20, respectively.
Chef Poli at Perennial makes little Dove-bar-like mignardises by dipping small scoops of dark chocolate ice cream into milk chocolate and sprinkling with cocoa nibs. Chef Michael Ferraro makes mini cookies with massive chocolate chunks and sends them out with milk shooters at Delicatessen in New York City. And at C-House in Chicago, Pastry Chef Toni Robert’s nightly “Candy Bar”—a roving roster of house-made sweets—always includes at least four chocolate options, priced at $2 each or $9 for five pieces. This fall’s Pecan and Malt Crunch Milk Chocolate Bark is a sweet Roberts recommends with darker beers and brown liquors. And with her salted fudge brownie? “I particularly love brownies and Port,” she exclaims.
In many cases, the small size of chocolate desserts is more a function of restraint (“I’ll limit myself to a little bite”) than flavor intensity (“It’s so intense; a little bite is all I need”). As more consumers become chocolate connoisseurs, however, a growing interest in small, super-intensely flavored chocolate desserts will emerge, says Tim Fonseca, executive pastry chef for the Four Seasons Boston, part of the 83-location Toronto-based Four Seasons chain.
“People are in the same place today with chocolate that they were with coffee several years ago,” says Fonseca. “With coffee, you start with weak or mild coffee and then mature to having a taste for a double espresso. The same thing is happening with chocolate. At first, you only recognize the flavor as sweet or bitter. But as you go along, you become more aware of the acidity and complexity of the flavors.”
As an example, Fonseca notes his bittersweet chocolate truffle bar with caramelized banana that uses Valrhona 65 percent Manjari chocolate and pairs well with ruby Port, particularly the 2001 LBV that Four Seasons menus for $9 a glass. For a sweet with more mid-level intensity, he makes a chocolate mousseline that uses Valrhona 55 percent Equatorial chocolate. It often is paired with sparklking Banfi Brachetto.
Because two chocolates can taste radically different, offering sampler plates of tiny chocolate desserts often make sense. At Abacus in Dallas, for example, a globally themed contemporary restaurant that’s part of the Kent Rathbun portfolio, pastry chef Rick Griggs says “Chocolate anything” is the most popular dessert. “People like samplers,” he says. One of his recent samplers included a Scharffen Berger chocolate pudding, hazelnut “Kit Kat” crunch bar made with milk chocolate ganache, a malted milk chocolate ice cream sandwich and a tiramisushi roll (chocolate sponge cake with espresso powder mascarpone cream and rice crispies), $10. Abacus serves its chocolate samplers with a $19 glass of Veuve Clicquot.
Because chocolate minis vary so widely in complexity and the chocolate used, there’s no rule of thumb when pairing them with beverages. Jill Barron, chef at independent vegetarian restaurant MANA Food Bar in Chicago, says trial and error is the best way to determine chocolate beverage pairings. For her mini bitter chocolate cheese cakes on cocoa shortbread crusts, for instance, she’s found that a chilled shot of Patrón XO Café is the winner. “So yummy!” she enthuses.
Related story: A Plethora of Chocolate Pairings