Almost 400 people sampled treats from 10 pastry chefs handpicked by Seven Days' food team. Fifty percent of the votes came from the judges: Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's; Gretel-Ann Fischer, runner-up on this year's season of TLC's pastry-competition show, "Next Great Baker"; and local drag legend Amber LeMay. The rest came from guests, each of whom were given three gold tokens with which to cast their votes. (Guests could buy more booty to stack the deck — the proceeds went to the Vermont Foodbank.)
(Click on dessert pics to enlarge.)
As guests entered, their first stop was often with Junior's Italian of Colchester, whose table was stacked with cups of chef Kristi Hinebaugh's "Lemon-misu." A fantasia of limoncello-soaked sponge cake, lemon curd and blueberries, the dessert tasted like a fresh spring day. It was perfect for the suddenly warm weather that gave way later that evening to April showers.
Lyndsey Hays of Burlington's New Moon Café brought along her top-selling mini cupcake, moist chocolate cake topped with buttercream and potent salted caramel.
Anatolian Grand Bazaar will open next month in Burlington, but Nazan Bozkurt and her son Efe Çimrin were at Sweet Start with her pistachio baklava. Judge Fischer said the exceptionally flaky, nutty and not-too-sweet version of the hard-to-perfect dessert was one of her faves.
Ryan Bunce of Burlington's Barrio Bakery (formerly Panadero Bakery) was brave enough to make an ice cream sandwich without access to a freezer. His chewy hazelnut-amaretti cookies made a messy but mouthwatering marriage with coconut-flavored pastry cream and caramel.
The New England Culinary Institute sent along chef Michelle Buswell along with baking and pastry department chair Kat Kessler. The "Green Mountain Mousse Parfait" featured chocolate mousse flavored with just enough beer from Trout River Brewing to give the dessert a subtle breath of hops. Paired with mascarpone mousse and chocolate cookie crumbles, the sweetness got a salty, nutty counterpoint from a topping of beer nuts.
David Glass of Colchester is a familiar name to many dessert aficionados. His former wholesale cake business brought chocolate-truffle cakes to many American homes for the first time. His new venture, Desserts by Vivie and David Glass, is a range of alcohol-filled chocolate truffles called Drunken Love Bites. Sweet Start guests felt the sting with a heavy dose of Maker's Mark in the soft center.
Trap Door Bakehouse & Café's owner Theodora Damaskos created a bite that was a favorite amongst the judges. "Bon Bon et Tarte" was an uncommon petit four of gluten-free almond cake, pomegranate-molasses buttercream and banana compôte. The adorable pink bite, rolled in crushed almonds, even had its own edible plate thanks to a flat platter of meringue. Judge Cohen said he planned a trip to Quechee soon to try more of what Damaskos had to offer.
Chef Jonathan Gilman of Jericho's Fields Restaurant aimed beyond the classic chocolate-mousse cakes and coconut-cream pies in his bakery case to make a warm white-chocolate bread pudding piled with a tart charred-strawberry mousse and shards of spicy, pink peppercorn brittle.
Mule Bar won't open in Winooski for a couple more weeks, but chef Jean-Luc Matecat came into the competition at the last minute with peanut butter cookie sandwich that offered a grown-up revisiting of grade-school flavors. No teacher would serve her charges a cookie covered in a thick coat of stout jam, but it was the perfect first salute from the gourmet beer bar.
Last but far from least, John Belding and Jen Toce of Birchgrove Baking served a chocolate-dulce-de-leche tart on a sleek wood plate. Topped with a torched, caramelized banana, the tart came with a cute miniature scoop of vanilla and local Dunc's Mill elderflower rum ice cream.
The combined vote was extremely close, but New Moon, Barrio and Birchgrove were the top three finalists. Junior's Italian was less than a tenth of a percentage point away from making the finals.
After some deliberation, the judges chose a winner. Ryan Bunce's "Barrio Bite" was named the Signature Sweet of Vermont Restaurant Week 2013. Kylie Webster, a representative from presenting sponsor Vermont Federal Credit Union, presented Bunce with his trophy: a giant fork emblazoned with the title. Barrio's dinner patrons will get a taste of the glory, too — the dessert is on its Restaurant Week menu.
Thanks to the sponsors, Higher Ground and the chefs, the crowd left Wednesday night with full stomachs. It was a sweet start, indeed.
Photos: Matthew Thorsen