Even in Laguna Beach—a city as synonymous with good weather as anywhere in the United States—there is a “winter.” It might be the kind of winter that deserves quotation marks and feels like summer to visitors from Buffalo, but it’s a winter nonetheless. Local surfers opt for wetsuits, early morning canyon hikers bring sweatshirts (which they peel off after their first incline), and at night you might even spot an overcoat or two.
Still, even though Jack Frost typically gives Laguna a pass, the city’s chefs aren’t about to miss out on a chance to celebrate seasonality. In fall and winter, their menus feature late-ripening vegetables like butternut squash, and savory herbs like sage, rosemary, and thyme. For dessert, dates and carrots replace summer berries and citrus. The following favorites are creative takes on old-fashioned desserts that stick to your ribs and make you feel like snuggling. They’re rich and buttery—the sort of sweets you can’t help but crave on those mildly chilly Laguna Beach winter nights.
STICKY TOFFEE CAKE at DRIFTWOOD KITCHEN: Balance is very important to most desserts—a little saltiness or a hint of citrus counters all that sugar nicely and doesn’t leave you feeling like your teeth are stuck together. Sticky toffee pudding is the exception to this rule. It’s intended to be a sweet overload, and the sticky toffee cake at Driftwood Kitchen doesn’t shy away from the job. It’s lighter and airier than your typical, dense, sticky toffee pudding but every bit as decadent and absolutely delightful. www.DriftwoodKitchen.com
BOURBON BREAD PUDDING at THREE SEVENTY COMMON: The cardinal sin with bread pudding is letting it get dry—which is definitely not a problem in Chef Ryan Adams’s rendition of the classic. His bread pudding is soft, moist, even gooey in all the best ways while the addition of bourbon adds aroma, a nice flavor, and keeps the dish from being one note. It’s a dessert that has that special addictive quality, the sort that leaves someone at the table scraping the bowl. www.370common.com
AUTUMNAL PEAR CRÈME BRÛLÉE at STUDIO at MONTAGE: Crème brûlée is not typically a dish that requires any inventiveness or big ideas. As long as the brûlée atop the custard is firm enough to resist the tap of a spoon and the custard itself is smooth and fragrant with vanilla, everything should work out just fine. Studio pastry chef Lee Smith nails those prerequisites, but also features wafer-thin pears and spices his crème with licorice and cinnamon. Refined, complex, and delicious. www.MontageLagunaBeach.com
SWEET POTATO CHEESECAKE at SELANNE STEAK TAVERN: Sweet potatoes, that staple of Thanksgiving menus everywhere, get a reinterpretation on pastry chef Heather Fisher’s menu. Candied pistachios, a toasted orange marshmallow, and a gingersnap crust all come together on a plate assembled with all of the visual flair that Fisher is known for. It’s at once wildly inventive and soothingly familiar. www.SelanneSteakTavern.com
APPLE CRISP at SPLASHES at SURF & SAND RESORT: You can’t run a feature on winter desserts without a dish that stars apple. The unofficial fruit of fall pairs perfectly with cinnamon and fireball caramel in this crisp, and the crumble-to-apple ratio is just right. But the real star of this dish is the delectable brown butter ice cream. This silky concoction is like Santa’s laugh: rich, deep, and smooth. Eat it next to the fireplace at Splashes while listening to the surf crash on shore and you’ll leave ready to settle in for a long winter nap. www.SurfandSandResort.com
CARROT CAKE at…well…LOTS of PLACES!: Inventive pastry chefs are having a lot of fun with carrot cake this winter. At Driftwood Kitchen, they’re serving carrot ice cream and dehydrated carrot shavings with cardamom frosting. At Splashes, they’re plating a delicate round of cake beside blood orange gelato and carrot-orange gelée. Three Seventy Common has a more traditional approach plus the welcome addition of rum-soaked raisins and candied walnuts. If you like carrot cake, this is your season—as the treat also shows up under glass at coffee shops and bistros throughout town.