You won't get a sugar rush from chef Guy Rawlings's desserts. At Brockton General, an enterprising restaurant on Toronto's trendy Dundas Street West, he garnishes honey cakes with buttercup-squash cream and catnip, an herb that he describes as tasting similar to mint and oregano. He pairs tarte tatin with fennel crème anglaise. And he tempers the sweetness of his smoked walnut nougatine with a touch of Maldon salt.
"Instead of doing sweet this, sweet that, you need balance," he says.
These days, sweets aren't entirely sweet. The savoury encroachment, which started modestly years ago when confectioners began finishing chocolates with a sprinkling of salt, is now blurring the line between dinner and dessert. Savoury touches, ranging from herbs to ham, are being incorporated into traditionally saccharine items - and nothing is off limits.
In Vancouver, maple ice-cream sandwiches filled with chunks of crispy bacon were an instant hit with customers at the Gastown sandwich shop Meat & Bread, when it opened last October. Co-owner Cord Jarvie says many people visit the shop specifically for the meaty dessert, and he's eager to try a bacon bourbon brownie next.
Occasionally, customers do balk at the combination of bacon and maple ice cream, he says. "But then they seem to enjoy it when they start eating it."
At the Chocolateria, a small storefront on Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto, owner Tim English can't make his chocolate-dipped potato chips fast enough to meet demand.
Mr. English says the creep of savoury elements into desserts is an extension of the age-old use of salt in confections to intensify the sweetness.
"You'll notice that most recipes - for cookies, for cakes, for candies, most of my confections - call for salt," he says. "Just the way it works on the palate, it brings out the flavour a little more."
Beyond his chocolate-dipped chips, Mr. English says, customers have been snapping up other salty-sweet items, such as bacon and maple truffles and his Cusibani sea salt and caramelized almond bark. He plans on experimenting pairing chocolate with cheese, such as dipping a wheel of brie in chocolate and encrusting it with walnuts.The savoury blitz has also extended beyond independent shops and restaurants into commercial foods, as large manufacturers pick up on the trend.
In early November, Seattle soft-drink maker Jones Soda Co. released a limited edition bacon-flavoured soda; the company sold out of the sweet, smoky and salty concoction within weeks. The same month, Dunkin' Donuts launched its sweet and savoury Pancake Bites, a breakfast snack consisting of bite-sized sausage links maple pancake batter. And as a novelty product for the summer, Fredericks, Britain's largest independent ice cream manufacturer, introduced a fish and chips sundae made of creamed cod ice cream dipped in vanilla and pepper batter, and served with potato ice-cream "chips."
International cuisines have long merged savoury and sweet elements into one dish. Italian olive oil and polenta cake, for example, often features fennel or rosemary, while Chinese moon cakes filled with sweet lotus or red bean paste can also include cured pork or salted egg. And as chefs and diners explore cuisines beyond their own, they're becoming more inclined to try new flavour combinations, Mr. Rawlings says.
At Lot 30 in Charlottetown, chef Gordon Bailey has noticed that more diners are selecting a cheese platter or another savoury dish instead of dessert. (Mr. Bailey, however, is quick to add: "Never proclaim that desserts are dead. Never. Because they never will be.")
Instead, he says, "I think they're wanting to follow the progression of the meal and have something more exciting at the end."
At independent restaurants, some of the innovations are the result of their small kitchen brigades, in which chefs often have to double as pastry chefs. So like Mr. Bailey, many are combining their expertise in preparing savoury foods with their knowledge of pastries to come up with new concepts.
Mr. Bailey says he almost always incorporates savoury elements into his desserts, creating items such as pistachio olive oil cake and a salted caramel ice cream cappuccino, composed of homemade vanilla ice cream, caramel seasoned with fleur de sel and a shot of espresso.
One of his desserts was made famouslast summer, when U.S. television stars Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa tried his maple vanilla ice cream with oysters. He poached the oysters in a light simple syrup, sprinkled sugar on top of them and brûléed them, then folded the oysters into the ice cream.
"Getting a little sea breeze in there was good … the salty brine mixing with the crunchy part of the oyster," he says. "It actually was delicious."
In Toronto, Mr. Rawlings says his own savoury-sweet desserts reflect his personal tastes.
"I certainly love pastries and sweets," he says. "But I can't really drink like a can of Coke or something. I think it's really disgusting. It's got an insane amount of sugar in it."
Mr. Rawlings, who has done a pastry stage under acclaimed pastry chef Alex Stupak at New York's wd~50 restaurant, says the goal with every dish (whether it's an appetizer or dessert) is to achieve a level of harmony. He doesn't categorize ingredients as savoury or sweet, but considers how each would complement the others. He wouldn't think twice, for instance, about putting apple, brown butter, sage and celery together, he says. "To me, those flavours just make sense with each other."
Besides, as Mr. English says, savoury and sweet combinations simply taste good together.
"That's the No. 1 thing," he says. "It works."