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The first thing I ever stole was chocolate.
I was 2 or 3, my brother a couple of years older, and he didn’t yet know me well enough to know he needed to keep his eyes on his Easter basket when I was around. By the time they found me, all that was left of his chocolate bunny — my own was hours gone — was smeared across my smiling, thieving little cheeks.
I still get that thrill from dessert, whether it’s a handful of chocolate chips from a bag in the fridge or some award-winning, magazine-worthy work of calorie-laden art in a restaurant I can’t afford. I feel the need to suppress a mischievous giggle, to check out the next table in case someone’s got a wagging finger ready to point my way. It’s the food equivalent of sneaking off behind the bleachers with your boyfriend: the furtiveness adds to the flavor.
And while there are some strong-willed dullards out there who manage to resist the siren call of cobbler every summer and wouldn’t touch a Double-Stuf no matter how sure they were no one would see, dessert remains a welcome and lucrative presence on the menus at our readers’ favorite restaurants.
“We have a great percentage of dessert sales here,” said Genevieve Lucas, pastry chef at So Restaurant-Bar in Hillcrest, this year’s winner for best new restaurant. “So is one of those kinds of places that’s a little bit of a splurge no matter what it is on menu you decide to order. When people have already made the decision to go out to a nice dinner and have a couple of good cocktails, it’s easier to say yes to dessert at the end of the meal.”
Lucas is an artist by education, and she brings that to her dessert-making.
“Every piece of my art background goes into what I do, whether it’s the baking process or the plate design itself,” she said. “You eat with your eyes first.”
So’s regular dessert menu includes a Quattro Leches cake (pound cake soaked in four kinds of milk, as the name suggests) and a creme brulee cheesecake — cheesecake with a crunchy caramelized sugar layer. She also works in one or two specials.
But Lucas’ signature creation may be the most recognizable dessert in Little Rock: The Chocolate Sack, a gargantuan assemblage of all things sweet and tasty — an 8-year-old’s dream ice cream sundae, on steroids, hipped up for a chic night on the town.
Its base is an actual sack made of chocolate — Lucas and her assistants melt imported chocolate and paint it on the insides of small wax-paper bags, then freeze them and peel off the paper. Into the box go several scoops of homemade honey ice cream, marshmallow cream, chocolate sauce, mixed-berry compote, graham cracker crumbs and chopped pistachios, homemade vanilla bean whipped cream and cajita sauce (caramelized sweetened condensed milk). It’s garnished with fresh strawberries and a puddle of sauce on the side. The finished product would turn Martha Stewart green.
But the best part? Dainty and stylish as it looks, the only real way to eat it — to guarantee the proper blending of all those flavors — is to make a giant mess. Whack the crunchy frozen chocolate with a spoon until it cracks open, and then smoosh up all the innards into a big old mushy swimming pool of goo. You may be wearing $200 shoes, but you will feel like you’re 5 years old.
You can’t talk about dessert in Little Rock without talking about Trio’s, the perennial winner in this category.
“There are people who come and have dessert first — the pre-sert,” catering manager Stephanie Caruthers said.
Trio’s dessert menu is delightfully long — a variable assortment of between seven and 11 choices, with a few staples that, Caruthers said, “We always keep because if we didn’t, people would write us letters.”
Among the favorites: The raspberry cream cheese pie, which is very creamy, fluffier than cheesecake, with a delicious raspberry topping. (The only way it might be better is if the cream cheese was chocolate-flavored. There is no better flavor combination in the world than raspberry and chocolate.) Other year-round standards are the Banana Delight — a layered banana pudding concoction — and the flourless chocolate mousse cake, which is wonderfully moist and dense.
But one of Trio’s most popular desserts doesn’t show up until mid-spring: the strawberry shortcake, made with Arkansas berries and an old-fashioned shortbread crust.
“People start calling in the middle of April and asking, ‘When are you starting it? When are you starting it?’ ” Caruthers said.
Establishments outside the Little Rock city limits also charmed our readers’ sweet teeth this year: Among them, Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets in Keo, known for its pies, and Cafe 1217 in Hot Springs, which features pies, cakes and bar cookies.
The chocolate pie is aces at Charlotte’s — of the darker variety, with a skyscraper of meringue on top. Owner Charlotte Bowls, a former bookkeeper, learned to make pies from a veteran named Norma Morris, who signed on temporarily when Bowls opened her restaurant 13 years ago and stayed for six years.
“We all make the pies now,” Bowls said. “I’ve taught the girls to make the crust. We make everything from scratch.”
Bowls’ husband, Curtis, makes a few cakes every day as well, and the German chocolate I tried was fantastic. But the pies star, no question.
The pie list rotates every day, with standards like coconut cream and egg custard as well as more adventurous types. Summertime brings fresh strawberry pie on Fridays.
“We have certain people who come certain days” to get particular flavors, Bowls said.
One of them, perhaps worried that Bowls might be too modest as she talked to me, stopped by our table on his way out to offer his own opinion:
“Make sure you write that this is the best pie in the state.”