It’s a sweet truth: dessert is great at the end of dinner. But it’s just as good at the beginning, or sometimes as an entire meal in itself. Thanks to these Sonoma restaurants, a satisfying, sugary treat is always within reach. Here are some places that make dessert a destination:
Fresh, Santa Rosa
You know these selections are indeed fresh, since this charming upscale grocery-deli-restaurant is also a bakery. The confections are baked on-site, and you can preview your temptations in the glass cases that line the coffee lounge next to the check out registers. Chef-owner Lisa Hemenway fashions delights like a gooey, chocolate Victorian layer cake, carrot cake that reminds you why this vegetable works so well as a dessert, and specialties like gluten-free cheesecake.
5755 Mountain Hawk, Santa Rosa, 707-595-1048, freshbylisahemenway.com.
Viola Pastry Boutique, Santa Rosa
Remember Whoopie Pies? Chef-owner Jennifer McMurry does, and she puts extra love into her recipes, crediting her grandmother for her passion around the baking ovens. This pretty Montgomery Village shop lures passers-by in with seductive aromas, straight to the display cases brimming with seductions like elaborate cupcakes, peanut butter and chocolate mousse spiked with crunchy goodness, and oven-fresh apple crisps.
709 Village Court, Santa Rosa, 707-544-8830, violapastryboutique.com.
Costeaux French Bakery, Healdsburg
People flock from all over, on a pilgrimage to this sumptuous little café and bakery. Since they first started collecting awards for their breads in 1981, the Seppi family has continually added more reasons to keep coming in, including an array of French specialty pastries, tarts, tortes, breakfast Danish and chocolates. This is probably Sonoma’s most extensive selection, ranging from cookies of the day, to wedding cakes that have graced the covers of prestigious magazines. A must: St. Honoré cake, in thin layers of white chiffon cake brushed with rum, filled with rum custard and whipped cream atop a layer of flakey puff pastry coated with rich chocolate butter cream, all frosted with whipped cream and rum custard bon bons then finished in Maraschino cherries and a festive red ribbon.
417 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 707-433-1913, costeaux.com.
John and Heidi Cowles call their concept “European Soul Food,” for their taste of Transylvania, Hungary and Germany in downtown Sonoma. But their Ella's Almond Cake means comfort in any culture. It’s pretty simple - eggs, almond paste, all purpose flour and sugar, but it’s formed into a dense cake that, served warm, is oooooh in the mouth. Get it topped with seasonal goodies like with rhubarb cooked down with a little honey and dolloped in fresh whipped cream.
22 Broadway, Sonoma, 707-938-7373, lokalsonoma.com.
Madrona Manor, Healdsburg
Pastry chef Robert Nieto looks to Sonoma’s farm-fresh ingredients for his seasonal masterpieces, like a deconstructed lemon meringue pie of toasted meringue, honey sponge candy, pomegranate gel, wild sorrel and lavender ice cream; or a sour dough financier tart with white chocolate mousse, olive oil caramel, estate Meyer lemon gel, bread tuile, and pine nut ice cream. But what gets the biggest buzz is the ice cream, made with liquid nitrogen. Your server brings the machine tableside, and blast cream with a shot of the fluid N2 at minus-320 degrees Fahrenheit. Clouds of icy fog roll forth, the cream freezes so quickly that virtually no ice crystals form, and each spoonful is pure silk.
1001 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, 800-258-4003, madronamanor.com.
Bliss Bakery, Santa Rosa
Gluten intolerance, be gone. Even the most allergic can find something to love with these gluten free cookies, cakes, breads and brownies, with most recipes also vegan, vegetarian and lactose-free. No flavor is sacrificed, in thrilling bites like chocolate cherry cookies, mixed berry oat bars, and chocolate cupcakes decorated like ladybugs. There are some expected recipes, including Scharffen Berger mocha cupcakes, and vanilla ginger cupcakes, yet then there are also the completely creative, like chai cupcakes, “chickpea confections,” or vegan ho ho’s! (chocolate cupcakes stuffed with rice-mallow and vanilla icing).
Bliss Bakery, 463 Sebastopol Ave., Santa Rosa, 707-542-6000, blissbakerygf.com.
Tip: For an extra treat, you can plan a romantic getaway with your own sweetie. Reserve a room at one of Sonoma or Napa’s best B&Bs, have dessert and sparkling wine waiting in the room, and ferry your beloved door-to-door in a Pure Luxury limo.