Sometimes I sit and wonder if there's more to life than a blueberry muffin and a nonfat, grande, half-caff latte even if I do decide to splurge and make it a caramel macchiato instead. Sometimes I want a little more color in my day and a little more butterfat in my veins to make everything seem just that much rosier. I deserve a treat once in a while. Don't you?
The French have dedicated centuries to the creation of just the sorts of treats I like best: rich and flaky, soft and crumbly, oozy and decadent. At the same time, French pastry is more than just a sum of butter, sugar and flour. Wild extrusions of spun sugar and needle-thin lashings of chocolate elevate a humble morsel into high art, and rolled fondant icing and bright colors can transform a simple cake into a basket studded with spring flowers and butterflies, or snowmen gamboling along a traditional bûche de no‰l.
Tucked away in Brandermill is a little shop with just these sorts of spectacular pastries. Part upscale bakery, part laid-back coffee shop and part extravagant ice-cream store, the Desserterie wants to be all things to all people and very nearly succeeds in doing so. A large case of elaborately swirled gelato in flavors such as tiramisu, coconut, chocolate hazelnut and caramel fronts a much longer case filled with gemlike fruit tarts, precisely layered cakes and French cookies.
With dark hardwood floors and burgundy and brown walls, the atmosphere is at once understated and inviting. Board games are stacked underneath a table near albums containing photos of spectacular wedding cakes, along with newspapers and magazines. Coffee, in all its usual guises, is available along with exotic gelato-based milkshakes and dairy-free fruit smoothies.
Carrot cake comes in long rectangles, with four layers of cake sandwiched between thick, Grand Marnier-laced cream-cheese icing. The beautifully swirled raspberry-lemon cheesecake melds tart lemon bursts with bright berry flavor, while the subtle lemongrass version, with its transparent lime-green topping and coconut crust, takes a dessert standard to Asia and back with impressive results.
The gorgeously shiny strawberry tart looks like a little fruit basket upended over a pot of pastry cream, and slices of poached pear are arranged precisely over almond filling and dusted along the edges with a drift of powdered sugar for a wedge of tart perfect with an after-dinner cup of espresso.
The ultra-moist coconut cake is lightened with chunks of pineapple and a fluffy frosting, but surprisingly, the best thing in the pastry case is the chocolate éclair. Surprising, because it is one of the simplest of French pastries, and because instead of the usual vanilla-based cream filling, this éclair is full of a rich, deep, almost ganachelike chocolate cream.
"We'd like to create a place where couples and families can come and enjoy quality time a place to come and just 'be,'" says owner and pastry chef Pierre Tocco. Tocco, formerly of The Jefferson Hotel and A Sharper Palate, along with his partner, Brian Bumball, are from New York. With a few booths, tables and outdoor patio, they've found a distinctive niche among all the other coffee shops in the city and its environs.
Although bigger cities have shops exclusively dedicated to desserts, no one in Richmond had embraced the trend until the opening of The Desserterie. Instead of leaden scones, they offer airy little cakes, and whether you're looking for free Wi-Fi and a latte or stopping in after an evening out to have a bite of chocolate Disaronno cake with coffee, the imaginative concoctions jamming the pastry case are flights of visual fancy that pack a wallop of flavor.
Live a little! That's my philosophy, and fortunately for you and me, we're exactly the kind of people who'll find a spiritual home in this little shop across the river. S
6161 Harbourside Centre Loop
Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday, noon-8 p.m.