Used to be, you had to put in some serious effort to earn a slice of Tom Douglas' coconut-cream pie. You had to slog through succulent short ribs at the Palace Kitchen, or the signature crabcakes at the Dahlia Lounge, or a perfect fillet of salmon at Etta's, or - well, anyway, those were hard times.
Suffer no more, beleaguered dessert fans. At the Dahlia Bakery, which opened in April on the Fourth Avenue side of the Lounge, you can have the pie as an appetizer.
A lot of people go into the bakery with pie-colored glasses, but the rest of the dessert selections are equally compelling, and the whole place is sure to appeal equally to Douglas regulars and those who've never been to one of his restaurants.
The bakery is both a neighborhood and a destination spot, serving downtown workers for lunch and those who want to head home with a whole pie ($25 large, $10 small). There are no tables in the tiny but attractive space, which is done up in deep Dahlia red with easy-to-see selections.
Think of an upscale bakery and the word "French" comes to mind, but the Dahlia is resolutely American. All of the offerings are classic and all scrupulously fresh, having been made next door or in Douglas' main prep kitchen at the Palace. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the desserts are billed the way they might be on a menu at a fine restaurant. For example, three miniature confections advertise their respective chocolate makers (Callebaut, Scharffen Berger and Valrhona). At the same time, there are simple cookies like chocolate chunk and ginger snaps. The selection strikes a good balance overall between chocolate, fruit and the rest, which only makes it harder to decide. Will that be the Callebaut brownie, the rhubarb crisp or the butterscotch tart?
Then there's the bread. On one visit, the baker had made challah in the shape of a baguette, which looked kind of like one of Pippi Longstocking's pigtails but was nicely soft and eggy. Other loaves include the crusty Dahlia house bread and a potato olive-oil loaf. Most breads are available in two sizes, the smaller of which is perfect for two to share. The challah is available Fridays after noon.
If you must justify your dessert with lunch, the bakery has two daily sandwiches and soup. The sandwiches are made with house bread. Soup seems to coincide with one of the Lounge's daily selections. You can tell your friends that you got lunch at a Tom Douglas restaurant for under $10.
The bakery recently expanded its hours to 7:30 a.m. with breakfast pastries, and weekend hours are coming soon. Be forewarned, however, that many items don't appear until after noon and they may go fast. Luckily, your second or third choice won't feel like much of a concession.
Turkey sandwich: This simple sandwich with tender slices of turkey, mayo, a thin layer of greens and rhubarb chutney is great cold and even better heated briefly in the oven.
Goat-cheese sandwich: Unexpectedly heartier than the turkey sandwich, this one stacks a healthy portion of goat cheese with cucumber, tomato and greens on the same house bread.
Black-bean soup: A simple, peppery vegetarian soup. For a bean soup not to be boring, it has to either grab you on the first bite (this one didn't) or reveal its complexity slowly over the course of many spoonfuls (this one did). Comes with a slice of oat-crusted bread.
Coconut-cream pie: Lighter than air and topped with thin curls of white chocolate, the famous pie is loaded with coconut flavor. I hate to criticize this local icon, but the crust needs a little more personality. Otherwise, it's as good as you've heard.
Strawberry tart: For a while, it seemed like the nation was gripped in a soggy-pastry epidemic, but the cure is at hand in the form of this flaky, messy tart of sliced strawberries with ginger cream.
Itemized bill, meal for two
Turkey sandwich: $4.94
Goat-cheese sandwich: $4.94
Black-bean soup: $3.95
Slice of coconut-cream pie: $4
Strawberry tart: $3