Gone are the days of dessert as an afterthought. Three local business owners are elevating the culinary scene with dessert-centric destination spots — and sweetening the deal with fun yet modern cocktails. Between small-batch organic gelato, classic drinks and plated treats, these destinations are offering diners the sweetest escape.
BRIBERY BAKERY MUELLER
In the middle of the Mueller neighborhood in East Austin, across the street from the sun-drenched Lake Park and playground, sits the second location of Jodi Elliott’s Bribery Bakery, a shrine to all things pink, whimsical and confectionary. Setting up shop in the family-friendly community was a conscious decision for the mother and former co-owner of Foreign & Domestic, who says her second location of Bribery attracts “kids, adults, a little bit of everybody out and about, having a good time.”
During a recent visit, tables in front of the mouthwatering pastry case bulge with strollers while nearby another table is filled with ladies enjoying lunch. Later that afternoon, a young boy sitting in a chair upholstered in hot pink velvet places a pastel pink linen napkin in his lap before gleefully biting into a chocolate chunk cookie the size of his face. Between the turquoise bistro floor tiles, the pink Victorian wallpaper, the crystal chandeliers and the brass accents behind the counter, visitors can’t help but smile upon entering the bakery. “It’s so you, Jodi!” is the best compliment Elliott says she receives from customers who are familiar with the Wells Branch outpost of her bakery, where she makes most of the goodies for both locations.
Although the interior is bright and decidedly pink, Elliott is unafraid the bakery will deter anyone, especially those looking for a moment of indulgence. “Where the girls go, the boys will follow,” Elliott notes with her trademark spunk. And it’s true. Elliott’s incredible attention to detail also influences the experience she creates for diners. She explains that she created Bribery in part for people who’ve just had dinner, want to continue their evening at a cool spot but don’t “want to go to a place and feel awkward because [they’re] only ordering dessert.” Indeed, the ethos behind Bribery is to give people an opportunity to enjoy a cocktail and some ice cream (or her famous savory popovers) without being forced to battle downtown parking only to sit in a loud, crowded bar.
Whether you’re sipping on The Franny, a cocktail composed of vodka, bubbles and blood orange, or sharing a Billie’s Sundae (named after her daughter), Elliott loves incorporating an element of surprise with her offerings. For The Franny, Elliott uses rosemary, which she combines with sugar and salt on the rim. She also approaches the presentation of each dish with whimsy, and pays special attention to detail (like replacing salt shakers with sprinkle shakers at every table). Elliott’s menu strikes a perfect balance between creative and nostalgic and she says she’s proud to showcase her pastry skills while also exercising her formal training to cocktails. If fact, she says Bribery is a five-in-one concept, operating as a bakery, café, coffee shop, restaurant and bar. “To be able to do [all of] that here and to be able to show people another side of what pastry does is really exciting,” says the chef.
“This is not a circus. There is no bacon in our ice cream,” says Andy Sabola, owner of Gelateria Gemelli, a neighborhood spot housed in the Corazon building on East Sixth Street and offering a selection of seasonal, small-batch gelatos. After learning how to make authentic Italian gelato in Bologna, and eating his way through Florence and Rome, Sabola returned to Austin intent on reintroducing locals to products made with fresh, high-quality, organic ingredients.
But as luck (and Texas weather) would have it, Gemelli first opened its doors last spring to one of the rainiest seasons on record, not exactly gelato weather. “It was scary,” says Sabola. Eventually, the rain stopped, the clouds broke, and people started pouring in. What surprised many customers, though, is the liquor bar behind the counter, fully stocked with the city’s largest collection of Italian amaros. “It’s taken a while to teach people that they can drink in an ice cream parlor,” admits Sabola.
But customers needn’t be nervous about the unexpected combo. Sabola suggests ordering The Montenegro, which hails from Bologna and contains notes of orange and clove, and pairing it with a scoop of hazelnut and Valrhona chocolate. Bellisimo! If you’re looking for something even more refreshing, try the Paper Plane, a cocktail of bourbon, Meletti amaro, Aperol and a lemon twist and add a scoop of sorbetto. (The menu for Gelateria Gemelli changes seasonally, but when we stopped by, the pineapple/mint and orange/olive oil sorbets were phenomenal companions to the Paper Plane.) For beer drinkers, the shop offers brews from Austin Beerworks, and Sabola suggests trying the Beerfogato — a boozy take on the classic affogato.
The space itself is a testament to Sabola’s penchant for simple, unadulterated taste. Between the austerity of the shop’s concrete and marble, and the familiarity of the black bistro chairs and white penny tiles, Gemelli reinterprets your grandmother’s ice cream shoppe into an ultra-cool lounge. Nevertheless, Sabola says Gemelli is something “everyone can relate to.” While it sits just down the block from the bars and buzzing nightlife scene of East Sixth, Gemelli is ideal for people looking for a laidback neighborhood spot.
Sabola is not just giving customers a chance to try something different, he’s also empowering local chefs and other small business owners by giving them an opportunity to showcase their work. In early February, Gemelli hosted Chef Taylor Chambers of Justine’s Brasserie for a pop-up dinner event, and has also collaborated with Hannah Casparian of Hannah Bakery for her popular Saturday bake sales. Gemelli spreads the love even further by participating in events benefiting various community organizations like AIDS Services of Austin, the Hispanic Alliance and the Workers Defense Project. Gelato, Italian cocktails and a scoop of social justice? Sounds like a sweet deal.
Nightcap began as a “weird idea” that sprung from owner Christin Rowan-Adams’ mind while bartending at the now-defunct downtown sushi joint Kenichi. Sitting in the heart of the Design District, Nightcap opened in January after a three-year battle against the city’s complicated zoning and permitting processes. Housed in a converted bungalow Rowan-Adams had painted a deep shade of plum (her father’s favorite color), the dessert-forward restaurant is a collaboration between Rowan-Adams, Pastry Chef Annabelle Turner, Chef Drew Dunston and Assistant General Manager Jacob Andary who serve up playful desserts and cheeky cocktails to diners.
To create the space, Rowan-Adams, an architecture school graduate, approached one of her idols, Dick Clark of Dick Clark + Associates to create a full-service dessert lounge that’s both comfortable and chic. The interior of the restaurant is cavernous but cozy with more of the trademark purple on the walls, floral wallpaper on the ceiling and a rounded bar at the front of the house. Rowan-Adams confesses her wild nights of drinking are behind her, and she now prefers the slower pace that Nightcap offers. “You don’t have to have a rager,” she says.
Though desserts and cocktails are the star, Nightcap also offers a full savory menu, under Dunston’s direction, which includes dishes like roasted beets and the fennel pretzel. For those with a sweet tooth, try the olive oil cake with charred apricots or the whimsical spin on rocky road, which features a chocolate avocado mousse. Thirsty diners looking for, well, a nightcap should try The Honeymoon Sweet or, if you’re feeling adventurous, the Legs in the Air, which is made with gin and creme de violette.
After 17 years in the hospitality business, Rowan-Adams has learned not to take things so seriously. “When you have funny drink names on your menu, it kind of breaks the ice a little bit,” she says. She has also learned people don’t always want fussy drinks that require diners to “read up on pre- or post-prohibition cocktails.” But more importantly, she wants her guests to feel comfortable. “You’re in my space,” says Rowan-Adams. “Have a good time.”