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Worried about your weight? Have some banana cream pie

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Vong's Thai Kitchen in Chicago serves a mini-dessert known as "fruishi." (Courtesy of Vong's Thai Kitchen)

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"Mini Indulgences" cost $1.95 each at the restaurant chain Seasons 52, which has locations in Florida and Georgia. (Courtesy of Seasons 52)

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Vong's Thai Kitchen in Chicago began offering "The World's Smallest Dessert Menu" at lunch in March of 2003. (Courtesy of Vong's Thai Kitchen)

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Desserts at Landmarc bistro in New York City include tiramisu, blueberry crumble, chocolate mousse, Nutella eclair, creme brulee and lemon tart. (Quentin Bacon/Courtesy of Landmarc)

Dieters beware: The year’s hottest health fad is a dessert.

A mini-dessert, to be exact.

Petite portions of traditional desserts--from quarter-sized servings of creme brulee to tiny slices of cake--are popping up on menus all over the country. More than 1,000 chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association identified bite-size desserts as the hottest trend of 2007.

These tiny temptations are being marketed as a way for diners to consume fewer calories while still satisfying their sweet tooth.

But can we truly have our cake and eat it too?

Some customers at Houlihan's seem to think so. One recent afternoon at the chain’s outlet in the Atlantic Terminal shopping center in Brooklyn, N.Y., pastry chef Nathaniel Sebro proudly displayed a rectangular white tray topped with three 2.5-ounce mounds of sweetness: a round strawberry cheesecake that would easily fit in the palm of Sebro’s hand; a hockey puck-size devil’s food cake drizzled with cappuccino icing; and a half-scoop of Snickers Crunch ice cream perched atop an Oreo and peanut crust.

Priced at $2.99 each, $7.99 for three or $12.99 for five, the “mini-yums” have been a huge seller for the Brooklyn Houlihan’s, said Shabber Chowdhury, the manager.

“This is perfect for one person,” said Latisha Green, 27, of Brooklyn, scarfing down devil’s food cake while her mother, Jacqueline, stole a taste. “It doesn’t need to be any bigger.”

Restaurateurs have found that many diners are looking for “just a little something sweet” at the end of a meal, said Marc Murphy, the chef and owner of Landmarc, a New York City bistro. Since it opened in March 2004, Landmarc has served tiny tureens of tiramisu, slivers of lemon tart and a mini-eclair filled with the hazelnut spread Nutella. The desserts are $3 each or six for $15.

“With one bite of each, the customer’s a lot happier,” Murphy said.

Restaurants serving these tiny sweets report that their patrons are much more likely to order dessert, thereby increasing average check prices.

That’s what happened at Vong’s Thai Kitchen, the Chicago outpost of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant empire, after it introduced “the world’s smallest dessert menu” at lunch in 2003.

Once diners got a taste of the tiny passion fruit souffles and shots of creme brulee, priced at $1.00 each, dessert sales leaped. Seventy percent of diners now order dessert, said Geoff Alexander, a partner in the restaurant and vice president of operations. That's up from 30 percent in the days before the tiny treats.

“It became an unbelievable hit,” Alexander said. “You get this great, sweet sensation, but you don’t feel that you’re breaking your diet.”

Bite-size desserts reflect a growing trend toward smaller portion sizes in restaurants, experts said, as Americans become more focused on their health.

“This is a population that’s becoming much more aware of eating well,” said Deborah Robison, director of public relations for Seasons 52, a chain of fresh grill and wine bars in Florida and Georgia known for its lighter approach to dining.

For dessert, Seasons 52 serves nine “mini indulgences,” ranging from a 40-calorie sorbet with mixed fresh berries to a mini-pecan pie that weighs in at 325 calories.

The dining landscape has changed significantly in the past 20 years, Robison said, as links between diet and health have become more clearly established. At the same time, Americans don’t want to sacrifice taste and flavor. The mini indulgences, which are “enormously popular,” she said, seem to provide a perfect compromise, a way to “feel satisfied, but not overindulged.”

They also offer variety.

“Say someone gives you a big piece of cake,” said Don Tillman, the owner and general manager of Chikalicious, a dessert bar in New York City that serves three courses of small sweets, including tiny amuse bouches and petit fours. “How long before you’re tired of eating that? About two spoonfuls?”

Part of the fascination with smaller desserts is that Americans now have more sophisticated palettes, thanks in part to the fact that baby boomers eat out more often than previous generations, according to Hudson Raile, head of research for the National Restaurant Association.

Forty-eight percent of the nation’s dining dollars now go to restaurants, Raile said, compared with just 25 percent in 1955. The restaurant industry is expected to have record sales this year of $537 billion.

Mini-desserts are popular with nutritionists, too.

“I think it’s a brilliant idea,” said Stacey Schulman, a registered dietitian in Manhattan. Schulman said eating small portions of sugary foods was healthier than avoiding them altogether, which only strengthens cravings. “I’d rather have someone enjoy dessert than obsess about it,” she said.

Diners should use caution when ordering these minis, though: Their small sizes can lure people who otherwise would consider themselves too full for dessert.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, it’s a little nothing,’ ” Schulman said. She recommends that diners refrain from ordering dessert if they’re not truly craving a sweet. “I definitely teach clients to only eat if they’re hungry--and to stop when they’re full.”

E-mail: cet2111@columbia.edu