Restaurant Review - Absolutely fabulous

Top chefs' new desserts are mostly chocolate and totally delectable

Times are tough. And, in such troubled times, tough guys get going — on steely nerve, sheer willpower, sugar-dusted chocolate donuts and full-fat ice cream. Today, the old-money dictum — that it is impossible to be either too thin or too rich — is only half-right. Sure, a narrow wedge of pie is still better than a punch in the jaw. But too rich? As in brandy-soaked, fondant-topped, macaroon-crusted, double-bittersweet chocolate mousse cake? Not in this lifetime.

Since early September, I've been trolling for metro Atlanta's best new desserts. It's tough work, but somebody's gotta do it. Though I surely clocked too many unremarkable brownies, flans, crumbles and cookies in the process, no such boring, routine fare will be mentioned here. Two mini-trends do deserve mention, however — the use of specialty chocolate and the increase in unusually flavored cremes anglaise.

In wartime, the best is never quite good enough. At Creative Loafing, we nonetheless do what we can. Here, then, are the city's latest exemplars of the fine art of pastry cookery. One caution only: Not every item cited is necessarily available every day. Some are dependent on a chef's caprice or the vagaries of suppliers' schedules. Call ahead to avoid disappointment.

Sharffen Berger double chocolate cake with thick whipped cream, Buckhead Diner, 3073 Piedmont Road, 404-262-3336. www.buckheadrestaurants.com.

Ostensibly a traditional layer cake, this outsized tower of power from budding superchef Kevin Rathbun is dark and rich in all the right ways. Solid yet yieldingly tender, with slightly dry crumb contrasting compact, unctuous icing, the cake competes with Scott Peacock's Very Good Chocolate Cake at Watershed as the best in town. Rathbun, who recently overhauled Buckhead Diner's stale menu, combines his Texas mom's ultra-smooth cocoa frosting with thick layers of scratch-made cake baked from pure dark chocolate, eggs, flour and sugar. An accompanying pillow of fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream, seemingly beside the point, transforms the cake's merely world-class deliciousness into high-drag, pig-out, purenteed bliss on a plate.

Sharffen Berger chocolate, by the way, made in San Francisco, is a 70-percent cacao product designed to compete with the French-made Valrhona. Bars for home cooking and snacking can be found at local markets.

Cuban chocolate tart with chocolate sorbet, the Dining Room, the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, 3434 Peachtree Road, 404-237-2700. www.ritzcarlton.com.

Chef Bruno Menard, the Dining Room's newest imported superstar, has a lighter, wittier hand than his predecessor, Joel Antunes, who left earlier this year to start an upscale bakery-brasserie. The range of textures, temperatures and chocolate flavors in Menard's modest-appearing, brown-on-brown summation is as complex, precisely calibrated and powerful as a finale by Shostakovich or Ravel. Each bite of crust and filling reveals some fresh take on crunchiness, clarity of flavor or understated, yet almost overwhelming, choco-licity.

Menard's brand of Cuban-grown chocolate beans are shipped to France for processing and packaging before arriving here. The vague sense of illegality associated with spending American dollars on Cuban luxuries perhaps contributes to the dark pleasure of consuming this little wonder. Cuban-Americans and others politically pure of heart and pocket may feel safer with another of the internationally trained Menard's spectacular novelties, cubed watermelon with vanilla-lemongrass sorbet and grenadine-fig syrup.

Hazelnut ice cream sandwich with pistachio sauce, Atlantic Star Brasserie, 105 Sycamore Place, Decatur, 404-377-8384.

Homemade hazelnut ice cream is sandwiched between rounds of glazed dacquoise, also called japonaise, a meringue cookie enriched with ground almonds. At serving time, pastry chef Paul Raiz sprinkles the frozen sandwich with powdered sugar and sets it afloat on a river of creme anglaise spiked with crushed pistachios and fresh berries. The Ice House brasserie's specialty could easily be taken for a dolce vita Italian treat — a nocciola something-or-other concocted in Harry's Bar or along Rome's Via Veneto. Ciao, bella! Stopping after one bite is virtually impossible.

Sweet potato cheesecake, Wildwood, Colony Square, 1197 Peachtree St., 404-888-1898. www.wildwoodatlanta.com.

Keeping up a two-decade tradition, desserts at the former Country Place are among the star attractions at the revamped operation managed by Peasant Restaurants veterans. Pastry chef Rachel Keller's Southern-influenced cheesecake is served with ginger-caramel sauce, glazed pecans and whipped cream. Feathery yet ultra-rich, agreeably earthy rather than delicate in taste, the cake is graced with the sort of pumpkin-spice notes that fit the holiday season. (Yes, whole cakes can be ordered ahead to take home.)

Maker's Mark bread pudding, Aqua Blue, 1564 Holcomb Bridge Road, Roswell, 770-643-8886.

Already a signature according to co-owner John Metz, the comparative lightness and creamy texture of this traditional pudding made from leftovers results from soaking Italian rustic bread overnight in what amounts to a creme brûlee base — eggs, milk, cream, sugar and vanilla. Baked in ramekins lined with creme caramel, the individual puddings are reheated in the oven to order, flipped onto a plate — so that the caramel sauce coats the top — and served with sweetened whipped cream and a relatively light, thin anglaise boldly flavored with Kentucky straight bourbon whisky. Although Metz remarked that some customers find pastry chef Emily Ghiz's Maker's Mark sauce a bit too heady, the consensus is that it perfectly matches the restaurant's assertive, all-over-the-globe cuisine.

Contact Elliott Mackle at elkcam1@hot mail.com or leave voice mail at 404-614-2514.??