MK restaurant strawberry dessert

After a long, dreary winter, nothing says spring like the arrival of fresh berries and rhubarb. Although the worst of winter 2016 has yet to come, chefs across the country are already planning to celebrate spring with desserts made with these and other first-of-the-season ingredients.

“It’s your first look at sunshine,” said chef Aaron Meneghelli. “Blueberries, blackberries …[you can] start to taste the sweet.”

This spring, at Farm Restaurant at The Carneros Inn in Napa Valley, Calif., Meneghelli plans to serve Lemon Posset, a hot drink he makes with fennel steeped in cream and mixed with a blackberry coulis. Meneghelli tops it with fresh blackberries, a drizzle of tarragon oil and fennel pollen. He describes it as a lighter version of panna cotta, but without gelatin.

Meneghelli also likes that the fennel pollen has a sweet, anise flavor that goes well with blackberries, and that both ingredients are abundant in the Napa Valley during the spring.

Mirabelle berry tartlets

Lisa Bonjour, pastry chef of MK in Chicago, is planning an actual panna cotta with spring produce. She plans to cook up a vanilla-lavender panna cotta with strawberry-rhubarb compote, toasted pine nuts, brown sugar crumble and strawberry sorbet. She describes the dessert as a take on a simple strawberries and cream, but with added textures.

“I like to make things approachable, but add something the average diner wouldn’t have access to,” Bonjour said. “Lavender really complements the fruit.”

The dish will go on the menu as soon as the restaurant can obtain “good quality rhubarb and strawberries,” Bonjour said. In the meantime, she is working on ways to incorporate into a dessert another of her spring favorites: lemon verbena.

The Bristol Basque cake

At Tulio in Seattle, Daniela Fernandez Reynoso will serve strawberry rhubarb cobbler with a crumble made of brown sugar, butter, oats and ginger, and topped with mascarpone gelato and a drizzle of honey.

“I like these two ingredients because they are sweet and refreshing,” Fernandez Reynoso said. “Also, I like to use seasonal ingredients because at this time it's when the flavor is at its best.”

A Basque cake made with strawberry rhubarb jam, candied almonds, and crème fraîche ice cream has been on the menu at The Bristol in Chicago since 2010. Chef Sean Pharr’s dessert has been so popular with diners, including Alinea chef Grant Achatz, a regular at The Bristol who once told Epicurious.com that the cake was “to die for,” that it will likely remain on the menu indefinitely.

Mini Rhubarb Upside Down Cakes served with housemade strawberry cream cheese ice cream have been bestsellers at Atwood Restaurant in Chicago. While chef Brian Millman isn’t sure yet if he’s bringing this dessert back, given the success of it, he is confident that the tart, pink vegetable will be featured somewhere on his spring dessert menu.

Spring berries will also show up on the menu at Aperitif Bistro in Bayside, N.Y., which will serve its version of a berry sabayon, and at Mirabelle and Mirabelle Tavern of the Three Village Inn in Stony Brook, N.Y., which will offer the fruits in a trio of spring tartlets.

A number of chains are also planning to menu these spring fruits.

Fayetteville, Ark.-based Slim Chickens plans to roll out a special spring edition of its Mason jar desserts incorporating fresh seasonal berries.  Set to debut in March is a strawberry version, made in house with layers of New York-style cheesecake, strawberries and blueberries, and sweet whipped cream.  

And beginning Feb. 15, Glendale, Calif.-based IHOP will offer the dessert-like Blackberry and Vanilla Double Dipped French Toast for a limited time.