When I was asked to write a literal take on the Sweet 16 - a roundup of 16 standout sweet treats from around town - timed with the beginning of the NCAA tournament, I thought "Why not?" I mean, let's face it, your Sweet 16 basketball bracket is all but guaranteed to let you down, so when it inevitably does, you can lift yourself back up by enjoying these wonderful confections.
When I was asked to write a literal take on the Sweet 16 - a roundup of 16 standout sweet treats from around town - timed with the beginning of the NCAA tournament, I thought "Why not?" I mean, let's face it, your Sweet 16 basketball bracket is all but guaranteed to let you down, so when it inevitably does, you can lift yourself back up by enjoying these wonderful confections. Bonus: While some of the following sweets are pretty fancy, and all are carefully handmade, not one is expensive.Warm Pear Tarte, $10
We live in an age when "casual" is all the rage, but elegant fine dining is alive and well at The Refectory - a special place where serious French cooking and amazing service are the norm. Check out this stunner, which kinda resembles a supernova, and is appropriately The Refectory's star dessert. At its core, it's just pie and ice cream: meticulously sliced, oven-intensified pears plus almond frangipane baked into a buttery, crisp and flaky pastry disc all topped with homemade pistachio ice cream, which gently plays up the frangipane's nuttiness. Gilding the lily is a gorgeous plate design "painted" with an alternately lush and fruity-bright trio of coulis.
The Refectory Restaurant & Bistro
1092 Bethel Rd., Northwest Side
* * *Sweet Corn, $10
Gallerie Bar and Bistro
Being invited to cook a special dinner at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City is the culinary equivalent of landing a starring role in a Broadway play. That's exactly what happened to Chef Bill Glover last September - and this dessert is a variation of the final course Glover served that night. The delicate construction, a study of contrasts that somewhat resembles a sailboat, counterposes uncommonly moist hunks of corn cake (studded with corn kernels) with lacy, brittle tuiles that jut upward and sport a mild nutty flavor. A custard sauce-like "mascarpone-honey sabayon" adds rich notes offset by the bright, concentrated flavor of roasted grapes.
Gallerie Bar and Bistro
401 N. High St., Downtown
* * *Chocolate Fudge Bar, $8
Wolf's Ridge Brewing
Gazing at this stylish and sophisticated-but-fun dessert made in this stylish and sophisticated-but-fun restaurant, I thought about the movies. Popcorn appears in two supporting roles: crisp kettle corn and a scoop of buttery and amusing popcorn-flavored ice cream. These join chocolate - another movie-time-approved snack - which appears in a striking spiral plate design made with dark chocolate syrup (and not that cheap stuff!) that reminded me of imagery tied to Hitchcock's "Vertigo." Dark chocolate also plays the starring role as a smooth and near-perfect cube that really does melt in your mouth and has a livening, salty edge to it. The rest of the blockbuster cast: graham cracker "dust," Chantilly cream so light I'm surprised it didn't float away and dry-hopped caramel blobs that reminded me I was still in a brewpub.
Wolf's Ridge Brewing
215 N 4th St., Downtown
* * *Something Else, $8
Angry Bear Kitchen
This starkly plated work of edible modern art is accurately named - and emblematic of Angry Bear's aesthetic. Created through a lotta heavy thought, it's a deconstructed, texturally dynamic riff on cheese and crackers and tea with lemon that won't weigh you down. The plate-mates are thick, sweet goat cheese frosting, addictive homemade tortas de aceite (golden-brown, anise-scented, puffy-yet-crisp olive oil crackers beloved both in Spain and my house), wiggly cylinders of green tea panna cotta and an intense lemon curd strewn with zest. Bonus: playing with your food is essential.
Angry Bear Kitchen
2653 N. High St., North Campus
* * *Trifle, $7
The Guild House
When I first tried the trifle at The Guild House - Cameron Mitchell's hippest restaurant - I was smitten by the sophisticated spins (pomegranate gelee, mango mousse) put on the classic, parfait-like English dessert made with cake, fruit and, usually, a custard or pudding. On a recent visit, I saw that Guild had again reinvented the trifle to suit the cooler seasons. Digging in from top to bottom, you get a perfect homemade ginger snap cookie balancing on a dollop of Chantilly cream. After puncturing the delicious "lid" of pumpkin creme brulee, you're treated to alternating layers of ginger snap sponge cake and a surprisingly light, even tangy caramel custard.
The Guild House
624 N. High St., Short North
* * *Chocolate Bombe, $6
Pistacia Vera's iconic Parisian macarons are among the best Columbus treats ever, so if you've never tried them, stop reading now and go buy a bunch. Since Pistacia's macarons have already been well-documented, though, I wanted to give some love to the sublime Chocolate Bombe. Let's get this outta the way: yes, it's "the bomb." It's also a meditation on chocolate textures - a snappy, tiny chocolate bar atop a chocolate dome dusted in red cocoa powder. Beneath this shell is smooth chocolate mousse spiked with a little hooch (Marsala wine) followed by layers of chocolate buttermilk cake rimmed with crispy cacao nibs.
541 S 3rd St., German Village
* * *Butterscotch Budino, $6
Harvest isn't just a terrific pizzeria, it's a terrific restaurant. And its roster of delightful desserts - especially this addictive budino - provides convincing reason to save a few slices for later so you can indulge your sweet tooth immediately. As Wikipedia will tell you, "budino is the Italian word for custard or pudding." As any instant fan who's eaten this will tell you, Harvest's budino is rich and silky butterscotch pudding topped off with flakes of Maldon sea salt, frothy creme fraiche, lotsa toasted hazelnuts and a killer homemade caramel sauce.
* * *Lemon Bar, $5.25
Toast Bar at Dan the Baker
Situated in a non-descript commercial complex in Grandview, Toast Bar is a tiny, bright and cheery place whose blue-and-yellow color scheme, bare wood and overall aesthetic make it seem like you've dropped through some kind of wormhole into Sweden. By now, Dan's hearty, artisanal breads are justifiably famous, but Dan also makes the best damn lemon bar ever. The little powerhouse has a thick, crisp and buttery shortbread base that audibly crunches when bitten into. But the crowning glory is a wildly rich and custardy tuft of intense lemon curd with a citrus-and-egg-yolk flavor that goes to 11.
Dan the Baker
1028 Ridge St., Grandview
* * *Bourbon Pecan Pie, $5
You don't get more zeitgeist-y than all-things-artisanal Dough Mama, a chic and spare cafe and bakery in Clintonville sporting an exterior painted the color of butter. Dough Mama's pie crusts are buttery, too - and golden-brown and pretty and stout-yet-flaky - which you'd expect from someone with the classical training of owner Perrie Wilkof. Dough Mama's heavy duty, stamp-your-foot-it's-so-good slab of pecan pie is a triple threat: big and crisp pecans, a stimulating belt of whiskey and the secret weapon of chocolate chips. This is one of those things with great ingredients that get even better when eaten together.
Dough Mama Cafe & Bakery
3335 N. High St., Clintonville
* * *Pineapple Upside Down Cake, $5
101 Beer Kitchen
Leave it to 101 Beer Kitchen to turn the concept of pineapple upside down cake, well, upside down. This is especially evident in the prominent use of cherries. The fruit arrives in a dark-red variety - not those cheap dayglo "maraschinos" that garnish wobbly cocktails - and atop a mound of vanilla ice cream lashed with tart-sweet cherry sauce. This forms the chilly cap of a warm, round, buttery, caramelized-pineapple-topped little brown sugar cake with a moist and soft interior and an attractively crusted exterior. Plate decorations of more cherries and creme anglaise sauce add to the yin-and-yang construction.
101 Beer Kitchen
* * *Signature Apple Pie, $4.50
A.J. Perry, whose pies have been featured in Food and Wine magazine, became one of the brightest stars in the Columbus dessert firmament by sparking interest in her home-baked wares at farmers markets. She's also become a bit of a role model as one of the first area artisanal food purveyors to eventually own a brick-and-mortar restaurant: terrific Sassafras Bakery. This stellar pie did much to establish Perry in those early days. Biting into its thick double crust is a visceral delight equaled by the high you get from the lively flavor of the baked apple filling, which is light years removed from the baby-food-like, sugary goo you get elsewhere.
657 High St., Worthington
* * *Vanilla Sticky Buns, $4
Lines often form in this hip and beloved Clintonville bakery to score this wildly popular Saturday morning special before it's gone (sometimes they're available on Sunday, too). Like everything at Pattycake, they're vegan, but that doesn't mean the vanilla-scented pastries strewn with crackly rivulets of sugared cinnamon and capped with a soothing layer of icing are modest little treats. Nope, expect something with the approximate shape, size and heft of a catcher's mitt - only soft and sweet, pillowy and comforting, and endowed with a preternatural ability to remain moist for days, though they rarely last more than a couple of seconds.
3009 N. High St., Clintonville
* * *Custard-Filled Donut, $3.50
Fox in the Snow Cafe
Fox in the Snow, part of the Italian Village renaissance, looks like the post-industrial-hip and tastefully reimagined garage that it is. Coffee is serious business here (the house cup is a pour-over), and so are the brilliant pastries. Take, for instance, this deceptively substantial, artisanal donut - which blows away most other donuts. Beneath a crackly sugared crust is a puffy-yet-sturdy, crazy-fresh roll that's a distinct pleasure to eat on its own - but it's also filled-to-spilling-out with a beautifully smooth and rich custard. Because custard is my jam, I am craving this hand-held masterpiece now.
Fox in the Snow Cafe
1031 N 4th St., Italian Village
* * *Tres Leches Cake, $3.50
"Si Senor!" should be your instant response if anyone asks if you wanna go to this bright and bouncy, Peruvian-leaning bastion of exceptional - and inexpensive - sandwiches (and more). If you've never tried easy-to-love tres leches cake, Si Senor's slice is one of the best, best-priced and biggest in the area. Like the biblical burning bush, it's a mystical apparition: a cake completely soaked in sweet dairy that never becomes soggy (the tres leches - three milks - are condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream). The insanely moist, homey and hulking wedge is also dense, slightly eggy, frosted in homemade whipped cream and sprinkled with cinnamon.
72 E. Lynn St., Downtown
* * *Mango Mousse, $2.85
It's no surprise that Belle's is always bustling. The loveable oddball is a Japanese-French bakery (take that in for a second) and quirky restaurant with inexpensive, comfort-bomb lunch plates. Belle's pastry case is a major draw - it glimmers with confections highlighted by this pretty mango mousse. That label is rather misleading, because this is a piece of cake - delicate sponge cake piled high with a luscious mango mousse so light it dissolves on contact with your mouth. Enhancing the tropical flavors is the "icing" on the cake: a shiny apricot glaze embedded with kiwi.
1168 Kenny Centre Mall, Northwest Side
* * *Lemon Madeleine, $1
In an immortalized passage of his revered, colossal novel "In Search of Lost Time," Marcel Proust described how nibbling on a petite madeleine (made with pound cake-like genoise) transports his narrator to a brainspace of memory and "all-powerful joy," where the narrator no longer feels "mediocre, contingent, mortal." Powerful stuff, right? Well, you too can bite into that same classic French treat at delightful Laughlin's Bakery - and it'll only cost you a buck. You'll get a (quoting Proust again) "squat, plump little" cake fancifully shaped like "a scallop shell." Never tried a madeleine? Make up for lost time with Laughlin's lemon-tingling, lightly glazed and uplifting snack.Laughlin's Bakery
15 E. 2nd Ave., Short North