This year has seen artisanal Italian gelato--ice cream’s denser, richer cousin--proliferate on menus like never before. Limited-service concepts are being built around this frozen treat. Also popular this year are Korean-inspired, tart frozen yogurts and ethnic-flavored soft-serves.

Today, menu offerings that meet and exceed consumers’ expectations of good value are vital. Guests want to know the meal they are enjoying--right down to dessert--is part of an experience that gives them the most for their money. Dessert is an indulgence, but when it offers uniqueness, a “better-for-you” halo, premium attributes, fun and, above all, great flavors, consumers see it as worth the splurge.

In restaurant kitchens and on the menu, classic desserts remain the cornerstone offerings, and customers prefer it that way. Yet, consumers remain curious about the unexpected, and trends around updated dessert classics abound. Imaginative new dessert preparations are pairing sweet flavor profiles with unexpected savory ingredients. Creative, drinkable desserts, from inventive new milkshakes to dessert cocktails, are being poured around the country. Artisan-crafted Italian gelato seems to be everywhere, either in its traditional form and flavors, or as a platform for wide-ranging applications. Finally, tiny dessert shots, bites and samplers prove that in 2010, the mini-food trend is one with staying power.

The Classics Revamped
Uniqueness can make a restaurant’s offerings stand out amidst competition from restaurants and other food sources. However, the classics must also be represented within the menu mix--particularly in a tough economic climate, in which many consumers find themselves gravitating toward food that is comforting, simple and reminiscent of a homestyle favorite. In fact, 74% of consumers surveyed for Technomic’s latest “Dessert Consumer Trend Report” said their definition of dessert is a traditional offering, such as cookies, cakes or pies.

While traditional desserts may win out with most consumers on most dining occasions, Technomic’s dessert study also revealed consumers take the uniqueness of a dessert item into account, when considering a purchase. Therefore, traditional desserts with a contemporary tweak, in terms of flavor or preparation, may be the most appealing to many, allowing them a low-risk way to try a favorite dessert with an interesting, slightly different twist.

Some recent dessert preparations that illustrate this trend to updated classics:
* Red velvet cake--Once solely a staple of Southern eateries, soul-food restaurants and barbecue concepts, this beautiful cake has moved from a regional specialty to nationwide acceptance--and not just in its original presentation. Red velvet cake is popping up on countless menus in the form of cupcakes, cake donuts, puddings, truffles and even as an ice cream flavor.
* Ice cream sandwiches--Beyond the familiar option of vanilla ice cream between chocolate wafers, this classic treat is now taking on artisanal qualities. House-made cookies and wafers feature a variety of flavors, while the ice cream filling--often made on-site--has expanded way beyond vanilla. One example is The Golf Club in Newcastle, Wash., which featured ice cream flavored with both vanilla and porter beer, sandwiched between two peanut butter wafer cookies.
* Frozen ice pops--The summertime favorite gets a makeover at niche concepts, like Popbar in New York City, where guests can customize their treat by choosing flavors, toppings and dips for frozen yogurt, sorbet or gelato bars on a stick. An ethnic twist on ice pops is found at Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, a NYC restaurant and food truck that offers house-made pops in Asian-inspired flavors, like mango lassi and Thai coffee.
* Ethnic frozen yogurt and soft-serve--Tart frozen yogurt, a Korean import, has solidified itself as a dessert or snack favorite with consumers, especially in big-city markets. Now, familiar soft-serve ice cream is also being adapted to the times with globally-inspired flavors and preparations. Baoguette in New York City offers soft-serve in Southeast Asian flavors, such as durian fruit and pandan leaf. In Los Angeles, chef Rick Bayless’ Red O offers soft-serve flavored with Mexican vanilla and topped with Mexican hot fudge and crushed malt balls.

Gelato Time
Artisan ice cream, in general, is one of the year’s major dessert trends. In particular, this year has seen artisanal Italian gelato--ice cream’s denser, richer cousin--proliferate on menus like never before. Limited-service concepts are being built around this frozen treat. In full service, gelato--in flavors like chocolate, tiramisu, mocha, espresso and white chocolate--is simply expected on the dessert menus of Italian restaurants. Now, upscale, non-Italian concepts are developing their own gelato offerings and innovating with unusual flavors. At Chicago’s Park Grill, gelato flavors include dulce de leche, cream cheese and oatmeal stout. Nobu 57 in New York City puts an Asian spin on gelato with flavors, such as green tea matcha, chai tea, ginger, purple yam and malaga.

Just a Bite
The mini-dessert trend first made its mark on menus a few years ago, as a subset of the “small plates” phenomenon. Mini-desserts are still going strong, because they meet so many consumer needs. Minis offer a bit of indulgence for a low price. They are a fun treat, representing little risk or expenditure in terms of either money or calories--a perfect fit for consumers who are re-evaluating either their portion sizes or their definition of restaurant value. When several members of a dining party are looking for an interesting, shareable sweet, dessert samplers are perfect, giving everyone a chance to try one, two or three sweet treats. They do this at a per-person cost that is less than the price of a dessert for each diner.

Some favorites for bite-sized sweets include brownies, bananas Foster, carrot cake, cheesecakes in multiple preparation styles (fried cheesecake bites, etc.), miniature tiramisu bites, donut holes and tiny bread puddings. Raspberry, white chocolate, hot fudge and strawberry sauces served on the side add more flavor complexity and sampling options. Up next: Look for a proliferation of Asian-inspired mini-sweets, such as dessert “bento boxes.” Also noted is a growing Mexican influence, in the form of traditional Mexican cookies and pastries, or chocolate sauces infused with chile peppers, such as chipotle.

Mini-desserts exemplifying these trends include Fried Cheesecake Bites (Bennigan’s); Mini Dessert Tasters sampler, including Warm Apple Bread Pudding (Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant); Brownie Bites, Carrot Cake Bites and a Trio Tinis sampler featuring bites and donut holes (Bar Louie); Mochi Ice Cream--bite-sized ice cream balls, covered in mochi, a Japanese-style, sticky rice (Bob Chinn’s Crab House); and Mini Mexican Donuts (Asia de Cuba.)

Flavors for the Adventurous: Savory Sweets Satisfy
More than three out of 10 consumers told Technomic they would be interested in purchasing a dessert that is “something new or unique that I have never tried before.” Unusual and unexpected flavor combinations can present customers with something absolutely different. More complex depth of flavor is being seen on the dessert menus of fine dining restaurants, where new culinary ideas often originate. Salty, peppery, herbal, smoky and even meaty accents are being seen on menus nationwide, gathered by Technomic for its MenuMonitor database. Rosemary and thyme are showing up in ice cream, frozen yogurt and gelato, while cilantro lends pungency to sorbet. Beyond the frozen dessert category, cardamom is paired with chocolate. Sea salt, which adds crunchy texture and an immediate flavor kick to caramel or chocolate, is likely to proliferate on dessert menus over the coming year.

Examples of desserts with savory or herbal notes include:
* Ligurian Lemon Cake with rosemary gelato (Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare).
* Creamy Chocolate Heart with chocolate and cardamom (The Bazaar by Jose Andres).
* Apple Tasting--Apple Tarte Tatin served with apple-rosemary ice cream (George’s Modern).
* Warm Brioche Bread Pudding with vanilla gelato and sea-salt caramel (Napa Valley Grille).
* Black Goma Sponge--Featuring a lime-cilantro sorbet (Nobu).
* Lemon Pound Cake with yogurt and thyme (The Publican).
* Fat Elvis--Warm chocolate, bacon and banana spring rolls (RM Seafood).
* Crushed White Chocolate and Yuzu Pavlova with Thai basil syrup (Spice Market).

Up next, look for olive oil, with a new Mediterranean accent for ice cream and gelato, or bacon as a complement to chocolate, sugary glazes and maple-flavored sauces. Also up-and-coming is goat cheese, which adds a subtle, rich flavor to desserts that include chocolate and hazelnut; and curry, for a pungent, ethnic note in ice cream. In addition, butternut squash adds a velvety backdrop for sage-infused seasonal cheesecakes, donuts and cupcakes.

Drinkable Desserts
Drinkable desserts, including cocktails and milkshakes, provide consumers with sweet flavors prepared and presented in a different way. These may be just as decadent as any traditional dessert, but they can seem less filling and easier to imagine ordering after a full meal. Half the consumers surveyed by Technomic said “feeling too full from my meal” keeps them from eating dessert; in fact, the “too full” feeling is the top reason why some consumers just do not order dessert at all. A dessert that can be sipped may be more appealing for these guests, turning them into dessert customers for the first time.

Some interesting examples have been seen on recent menus nationwide. Note the interpretations of nostalgic ingredients, such as childhood cereals and snacks, in a number of these drinks--another expression of the urge to revamp the classics. Some of the notable drinkable desserts include: a Campfire Marshmallow shake made with vanilla ice cream and roasted marshmallows and garnished with two roasted marshmallows, at BLT Burger; a BB Twinkie, a concoction made with Hostess Twinkies and vanilla ice cream (Burger Bar); and Cap’n Crunch--milk, ice cream and Cap’n Crunch brand cereal topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with Cap’n Crunch, at KGB at Harrah’s, Las Vegas. At the Blue Fin, Varhona Hot Chocolate is served with gingersnap Mallomars, while the 54th Street Grill & Bar menus the Peppermint Pattie--hazelnut liqueur, crème de menthe and chocolate. Finally, at Bar Louie, comes the S’mores martini, made with Absolut vodka, Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, Monin toasted marshmallow syrup, cream, mini marshmallows, chocolate syrup and a graham-cracker rim.

Daring to Be Different
Differentiation and variety are the keys to success with today’s dessert menus--classics tweaked to make them contemporary; premium frozen desserts that highlight value through artisanal quality; desserts that are sampled, shared or sipped; sweets with savory, spicy or herbal notes. Tiny portions, ethnic influences and ultra-rich ingredients are all  part of the flurry of trends driving the dessert category today. As more and more consumers re-evaluate the restaurant value equation, it is up to operators and suppliers to drive interest--with desserts that simply cannot be duplicated at home or anywhere else. pf