Finale is the Lingering-With-Friends Alternative to Dark Bars

If Harvard Square were the North Pole, this would be Santa’s Workshop. Amongst all the restaurant and diners in Harvard Square, here is one devoted to dessert! Unlike “hole in the wall” ice cream shops with plastic bowls and sticky tables, Finale (“Tom Brady’s favorite dessert place”) takes the dessert concept and spins it into a classy night spot that also serves food and alcohol. Perhaps it’s such a good idea because it was dreamed up as a What If class project in 1996 by three Harvard MBA students. Then they decided to make their Candyland real.

The place seats 65 with comfortable spacing and has soft yellow and red colors that don’t feel corporate: it’s more like a spin-off of the Harvard faculty club. It’s upscale but not overly formal, and unlike a bar, it is well lit, with large windows covering an entire wall. The music, played on speakers, is too quiet to cover the conversation on the other side of the room as I sit down to talk with Marketing Manager Brandon Rigolini and Executive Pastry Chef Nicole Coady. Nearby, there’s a pastry prep station with a mirror overhead, so you can watch staff making cakes and platters. Finale is launching a new menu in May, and has three locations: Harvard Square, Coolidge Corner, and Park Plaza, with a “tasting” every month at the Brookline location.

Brandon assures me that alcohol is not their focus, but I’m skeptical at first, having seen the wine rack that spans one entire wall and bottles on display all around the room, including two oversized giants that practically shout “Driiiiiiink. Drink NOW”. The menu also tilts towards alcohol, with three pages of alcohol. The non-alcohol half of the menu, also 3 pages, contains desserts and appetizers that are each followed by a recommended wine.

But I take Brandon’s point. It’s too classy and bright to be bar where you come to get wasted, listen to loud music, and pick someone up. And unlike a bakery, it’s got table service and elegant meals, although you can get take-out in their front foyer. Unlike a sit-down restaurant, it’s okay to stay for a long conversation, and unlike a coffeehouse, the tables aren’t packed together with people using the space for free to type on their laptops. It’s something unique, a miraculous combination where it’s okay to linger with friends, while being served upscale food in an upscale atmosphere.

This is not an accident. Nicole, who joined Finale in 1998, has a vision for everything I see, surely a product of a singular, thematic vision from the restaurant’s founders. Her energy is bright and infectious. There are staff nearby but she hops up and refills my water herself. (Now that is a manager leading from the front!) She calls herself a “small town girl from Western Virginia”, but that’s humility speaking. In truth she’s a grill and saute chef from big name Johnson & Wales and a former biologist who understands the chemistry behind complex cooking.

Nicole introduces me first to the non-dessert items on their menu, which are real entrees. She tries to tie every entree to Finale’s “sweet” theme, and to keep the portions small so that guests have room for a dessert as well. (Yet the sandwiches come with a little square of fudge.)

The Apple Mango Sandwich ($6.50), “sliced apple, mango chutney, goat cheese, caramelized onions, arugula, and walnuts on multigrain” has a great smell to it. Soft and hearty, this is really good bread! It’s rare to find the bread delicious by itself in a sandwich. The combination is complex, interesting, but doesn’t fill you up. I would never have guessed that apples, goat cheese, and nuts would go so well together. Nicole tells me that it’s a customer favorite that’s inspired some to make it themselves at home.

The Turkey Club ($7.29), “smoked turkey, Gruyère cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato with mustard mayo on focaccia” also has excellent bread, a kind of french loaf that is wonderfully soft. The bacon and mayonnaise taste don’t dominate, but the deli meat, sliced thin and slick (as all deli meat is), is easily lost and doesn’t have a meat chew feeling to it. I always wonder why delis choose slices over chunks of turkey. Is it cheaper sliced thin from a “loaf” of meat? Am I in the minority to prefer turkey sliced thick, Thanksgiving Dinner style?

Lunch at Finale goes to 4pm and most sandwiches can be grilled into paninis. I next sample some non-dessert foods from their dinner menu.

The Meatloaf Sliders ($11), are “veal meatloaf with arugala and Gruyere cheese served with sweet potato wedges and jalapeno mango sauce”. In other words, tiny burgers of meatloaf on buns. They come with a warm, wake up smell and taste so good that I forget to take photos! The sauce comes on the side and it’s mind-blowing – not too citrusy, it’s like a very potent relish that Satan corrupted but Jesus saved. The sweet potatos fries aren’t greasy, because they’re baked, and they’re thick but need salt or some kind of spice. Like all meatloaf, the meat has a smooth texture, and it’s spicy and interesting.

I also forget to take photos of the Finale Short Ribs ($15), “boneless short ribs rubbed witih Valrhona cocoa and lily coffee, braised in dark beer and caramelized onions, served with roasted carrots and yellow potatoes,” being distracted by the extremely important business of eating them. This was the first WOW meal I tried at Finale, and this from a guy who neither drinks coffee nor beer. It’s served piping hot and is remarkably hearty. You feel like Olaf the Massive Viking chewing into it and it breaks apart in your mouth with no strings and only a few fatty bits. Although the potatoes are undercooked, leaving them slightly crunchy (Finale is such a fancy place that I make sure with Nicole that this was a real oversight, not an arty attempt to present the food differently), it is served in a gravy sauce that will open your eyes wide.

Everything is served with an impeccable presentation that could not be more creative. Not only is each dish colorful and laid out decoratively, each dish is different from every other dish. I tried a cookie plate that is made to share that comes with a blackberry float, a combination of sherbet and seltzer water which tasted as expected. Among the varieties of cookie, the sugar cookie, Nicole tells me, comes from her grandmother’s recipe. I look around to make sure the grandmother isn’t haunting me as I discover that it’s not soft enough for me. With the other cookies, served gloriously warm and soft, something is slightly off taste… too much butter? Needs vanilla? I can’t tell. It’s my job to know these things, but the complexity of every item I try at Finale sometimes stupifies.

The next item looks joyfully plucked from a Dr. Seuss book. Surely this is art, and I admire it for a while before digging in. Manjari Mousse (plated desserts are $7 to $12) is “bittersweet Valrhona chocolate mousse layered with chocolate buttermilk cake and French apricot puree, served with a Napoleon of blackberry cabernet sorbet and strudel dough.” This one’s just right, striking a balance between sweet and bitter, and between carbohydrate cake and dairy filling.

Although I was craving a chunk of homogenous apple pie, something basic like you’d find at a diner or bakery, you won’t find any such simplicity here. The Apple a La Mode (plated desserts are $7 to $12), is “warm and lightly spiced Macintosh apple and cranberry tart served with Tahitian vanilla gelato, lavender soaked hazelnut financier and honey caramel sauce.” Although not the diner style apple pie I am hoping for, it’s undeniably good, with unusual clusters of brown sugar, smooth and thoroughly cooked apples, with a peanut brittle wafer.

Like all the plated desserts (full size desserts served on a plate, not as a side), these last two are meant to be split between two people, and they have gluten free options on the menu, too. I notice that none of the desserts come with drizzled chocolate or butterscotch sauce. I ask Nicole and she says that’s on purpose, and I quite approve. Although decorative, drizzle is hard to eat and smears. (Also, as with my Midwest Grill review, one is tempted to life the plate and lick it, despite the glare of one’s date.) None of the dishes I try at Finale become too messy to eat on a first date.

I also try a number of pastry size desserts, which are $5 or $6 brought to your table, or you can get a gift box of several to go at $4.50 each.

The Boston Cream Cake was not what I was expecting at all. I so love Boston Cream Pie, and I see it on the menu, but no doubt it too is not served in the diner style that I’m used to. The cake is real cake, of course, dominated by a mint taste that was not for me.

The Chocolate Symphony is much better, “three tiers of Valrhona chocolate mousse (bittersweet, milk and white) with chocolate cake”. The cake itself is moist with chocolate that goes deep down to your bones. It’s complex and layered, so that every bite is different, yet it is not too sweet.

The Ultimate Chocolate is even better, “bittersweet chocolate mousse layered with chocolate buttermilk cake”, yet it is the only item I tried at Finale that was too sweet to finish. I definitely wouldn’t want the sugar rush from a larger portion.

The cheesecake is a lot softer than it appears and unlike anything else I try at Finale it’s pure, with one homogenous flavor. It’s not too sweet but slightly too rich for me, and lacks the crumb crust to offset that richness. (But they have a blueberry version that does come with a crust.) A lot of cheesecakes are too dry. Do you know what I mean? It sticks in your mouth like peanut butter and you need to take several gulps of water to wash it down. This cheesecake doesn’t have that problem, a trick I am not sure how they accomplished, but I am learning to expect miracles from Nicole.

The tiramisu is “coffee-soaked ladyfingers with rich mascapone mousse, topped with Valrhona cocoa powder”. Even looking at it, I don’t see anything resembling a finger, or a lady’s finger, but it’s a pure whipped mousse with cocoa that’s still finely powdered. I’m not a coffee drinker but it didn’t strike me as too ‘coffee’ in its taste. Instead it’s got an interesting combination from the infinitely smooth mousse and the fine particles of cocoa like eating direct from a can of powder. You’ll enjoy running your tongue through and through it before swallowing.

Also on the “What is this?” list is the creme brulee. I can’t even spell creme brulee without looking it up, but the “vanilla cream caramelized a la minute by our chefs, garnished with orange butter cookies and fresh fruits” is basically a custard, exceptionally smooth and with a crust of sugar on top.

The last thing I try is the Molten Chocolate ($11), “baked-to-order warm chocolate cake with a gooey center, served with coffee gelato, milk chocolate almonds and Valrhona chocolate sauce.” There is a delicious mouth feel to the viscous chocolate sauce, which mixes perfectly with the cake-like crust, and the nuts are soft and not crunchy (which would clash). It’s smell is to die for and again it’s not too sweet. I even liked the coffee “gelato”, though I generally dislike coffee and its ice cream variants.

Once I used to believe that all Chinese food was served street vendor style, because the only Chinese restaurants I knew sort of pushed it out. In the same way, the only desserts shops I know are holes-in-the-wall that sort of push their products out. Why assume that dessert must be simple? Ultimately, Finale is serving not just a menu category but a genuine cuisine, and one that you must be in the mood for.

I admit it, sometimes I’d rather go to IHOP for basic pancakes or buy an apple pie that only has 3 ingredients: apples, cinnamon, and crust. There is a certain relaxation in knowing that what you’re going to get is what you’re used to. But Finale is not your grandmother’s kitchen, and it’s not a bakery. You don’t come to Finale unless you want “an experience”. You come here wanting an adventure and great conversation with friends in a bar-like atmosphere that is yet classy and bright. Just like you choose your Chinese restaurants, sloppy or classy, here is the classy alternative to J.P. Licks and Rose’s Bakery. Although I did find hiccups in the occasional item at Finale (for example a bitter/sweet combo instead of pure sweetness), they were all because of cuisine I wasn’t perhaps in the mood for, not because of a lack of excellence.

So while you can’t make Finale a substitute for Ben & Jerry’s, when you’re in the mood for its complexity and atmosphere, it can’t be beaten. I sampled more than a dozen menu items and spent nearly an hour interviewing Nicole and Brandon. Looking for flaws, I found none. I am delighted to give Finale a perfect 5 out of 5 stars.

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