Dessert First

El Fuerte for Two at Distrito

See also: Peanut Butter and Chocolate Flan "Sandwich" at Province

In general, big-time culinary TV stars, mostly popularized by the Food Network, don't have restaurants in Phoenix. Maybe we're just too close to L.A. and Vegas, or for some reason Arizona draws quieter chefs less inclined to seek the spotlight and happier staying in the kitchen. Regardless, this made it a pretty big deal when Iron Chef Jose Garces brought two of his concepts to The Saguaro at the end of last year. For the most part, Old Town Whiskey and Distrito have lived up to the star chef's reputation. Yet, during Laura Hahnefeld's review in February, dessert at Distrito, specifically the frutas con crema and vanilla flan, didn't leave as good of an impression as the savory dishes.

Now, you can't go wrong satisfying a sweet tooth at Old Town Whiskey. That's because they serve rich creamy shakes, including the Irish Car Bomb milkshake with house-made sweet cream and chocolate ice creams, chocolate cake, chocolate sauce, Bailey's, Jameson, and stout beer. However, dessert is only served in thick liquid form there. For a full dessert menu, diners need to head to Distrito, the modern Mexican restaurant located across the hotel's main hallway. We skipped the flan and frutas, leaving three options: tres leches cornmeal cake, El Fuerte for Two, and churros with Valrhona chocolate sauce. But who wants to pay $7 for churros, no matter how good? Not us. Our group decided on the El Fuerte (actually for three), which proved to be the right decision.

The dessert's menu description -- flourless chocolate cake, spicy peanuts, XO caramel, and espresso ice cream -- doesn't really sum it up, nor does it do it justice. The chocolate cake, although listed first, isn't the star. With all of the components coming together to make one happy eating experience, there is no star. The rich and incredibly fudgy flourless chocolate cake rests at the bottom in a thin layer and acts as an ideal base flavor for everything on top.

There were no spicy peanuts to be found, and the only spice at the forefront is cinnamon, making the description a little misleading. The nutty flavor comes instead from a peanut butter mousse. The bulk of the dish, the mousse has a light flavor and texture, and it's surprising how it can be so peanut buttery without any of the heaviness or oiliness that one would expect. This mousse is quite a contrast to the Peanut Butter and Chocolate Flan "Sandwich" at Province, a dessert that features almost the exact same flavors, but in a super dense package that can easily become too much too fast.

Every time that the El Fuerte for Two starts to become heavy, wait a minute or so, and it'll start beckoning you back for more. That's in large part due to the Patron XO tequila caramel sauce, silky smooth and packed with buttery, salty flavor. Despite being a salt-sensitive non-tequila drinker, I couldn't get enough of this caramel. The sauce ties together the chocolate, peanut butter, and espresso flavors, which would otherwise seem disparate.

The little scoop of espresso ice cream on top is fairly icy and not very creamy, both tasting and feeling like frozen espresso mixed with a splash of cream. The texture is actually ok, though, since the dessert somehow benefits from having the half-sorbet half-ice cream combination. Altogether, the components strike an excellent balance between heavy and light, and the frozen espresso is a great example.

It's rare to find a dessert that's worth the trip on its own, but this one makes the cut. Plus it's perfect for sharing, especially as a destination dessert to end a date. Or, after a large dinner, four people could split this and get a few bites each. Just don't invite me -- the name says "for two," and I would be sure to draw a line down the middle and eat my entire half. Oh yeah, it's delicious enough to get greedy over.

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Dominique Chatterjee