Gross Confection Bar
172 Middle St., Portland
If you’ve ever watched a television cooking competition, you know about the dreaded “dessert round.” (If not, find yours truly on Chopped’s “Dollar Dishes” episode.) You see, there are chefs, and there are pastry chefs; rarely are they one in the same. Pastry chefs usually sneak in at the crack of dawn, when most kitchen crews are just going to bed, and quietly create sweet little masterpieces while avoiding the frenetic chaos that is “dinner service.”
But, thankfully, not Brant Dadaleares. This madman has elected to not only start baking at the first light of day, creating some of the best pastries in town, but then to continue selling and serving pastries late into the night at his “dessert restaurant and bar,” Gross. Located below street level on the corner of Exchange and Middle streets in Portland’s Old Port, Gross Confection Bar has been “grossing” folks out since it opened in 2019.
During the height of the pandemic, my family enjoyed the outdoor seating and takeout at the bakery, but we were anxious to get back into Gross’ beautiful, candle-lit, brick-walled space. We finally returned in March, and found it was well worth the wait.
After a dinner date, my girlfriend and I split a couple desserts: the Steamed Key Lime Pudding Cake ($16) and the Espresso Chai Latte Mousse ($12). Seldom do beautifully plated desserts taste as good as they look, but they do at Gross. Every component of the dish had a reason to be there, adding complexity and fun to the offerings.
The delicate crunch of the graham cracker atop the pillowy pudding cake, the tangy passion-fruit sorbet and cloud-like vanilla-coconut mousse, the chewy/crispy meringue and sticky-sweet apricot jam were all reminiscent of a tropical favorite, elevated to Portland’s highest standard. Every creamy bite of the chai mousse offered a different texture when paired with its accouterments of fudge-brownie bites, coffee gelée, chocolate-cinnamon crunch and toasty caramelia pearls. With chamomile tea and decaf espresso, we were able to sleep soundly and dream of our next opportunity to go “whole hog” with one of Gross’ tasting boards.
That opportunity arrived last month, after the restaurant took a short break and returned with an updated seasonal menu. This time we decided to have a “dessert first” night. After being ghosted by my teenager, my partner and I powered through and ordered the Entourage Board ($65), which normally feeds four to five people. Never underestimate the appetite of perimenopausal women!
Our four choices for the evening were the Chocolate Thyme “Flan-a-cotta,” another Steamed Key Lime Pudding Cake, Honey Vanilla Mousse, and the Dark Chocolate & Caramel Torte. Our favorite, the mousse, was set in a large rocks glass with a topping of passion-fruit gel, supremes of seasonal citrus, a wee sprinkle of almond crunch, and honeycomb candy. It was a masterpiece of texture and flavor, not overly sweet, and provided the perfect start to our tasting.
The steamed pudding cake was as tasty as we remembered, and was followed by the “Flan-a-cotta,” a play on flan and the Italian dessert staple panna cotta. It was perfectly jiggly and ever so slightly savory, with a touch of thyme and granola. Raspberry white-chocolate crumb and chocolate meringue set it off with some crunch and sweetness.
Though our sobriety didn’t allow us to overindulge in the bourbon sabayon of the chocolate-and-caramel torte, its smoky taste perfectly balanced the syrupy Amarena cherries and the bitterness of the chocolate. Add a little rye-hazelnut crunch and it was #noregrets for our extravagance. We took the opportunity to walk it off back to our home in the West End, not feeling gross at all, just happy.
Gross’ bakery is open Thursday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The dessert bar is open Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.