Dessert First

Apple Pie and Butternut Squash Brulee at House at Secret Garden

It's that time of year: time to enjoy the Valley's great restaurant patios before the summer heat gets totally unbearable. One of the best places in town to sneak away for a quick retreat is The House at Secret Garden, featuring a lush garden seating area surrounded with trees. There's so much plant covering that you can forget you're in the desert for a couple of hours, and especially in the evening, the air feels cool and the atmosphere romantic. The restaurant will be closed for the first three weeks of July (when it's too hot to go anyway), so now's the time to go for a relaxing meal or dessert at sunset.

With four incredible-sounding desserts to choose from -- including Caribbean Sweet Potato Cake with dates and pistachios as well as Chocolate Cake with candied coconut and fleur de sel caramel -- it's nearly impossible to choose. Not to mention the descriptions alone will make your mouth water, so expectations start to run high. But what really stands out among the seasonal selection is Apple Pie with Butternut Squash Brulee. At first glance, it sounds like it should be served in the fall. But hey, apple pie is an American classic year-round, right? This one gets a dose of springtime from rhubarb compote and McClendon Farms orange blossom honey gastrique.

This is basically two desserts in one, so for $9, you really can't go wrong. Never would I order a normal slice of apple pie and run-of-the-mill crème brûlée side by side, but due to the other flavors introduced to the mix, it all works. Really, really well. Sometimes a dish is too good to sit and pick apart ruthlessly, and that's the case here. We simply ate it. And enjoyed every single bite. The flavors melded so well together that there was no reason to discern the individuals pieces of the puzzle. Instead, they became something new -- and that something is really tasty. Are the apple pie and squash crème brûlée good enough to eat on their own? Yeah, sure, for a simple way to finish a meal. But why not serve them on one plate, adding rhubarb compote, honey, and whipped cream, to make something special enough that it needs no precursory meal?

There are a lot of places in town to go for a sweet treat that's good enough to satisfy a craving, but few chefs can be trusted to deliver a dessert that's so familiar it's comforting and yet also brings to the table a new flavor combination. Butternut squash crème brûlée has been done before (and for good reason -- it's leaps and bounds better than the standard vanilla), and apple-rhubarb pie is certainly nothing new. But together with a seasonal spring twist, it's worth making a trip for. And since I recently had two disappointingly one-dimensional desserts at the famed Balthazar in NYC, that's not something to take for granted. And neither is that patio.

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Dominique Chatterjee