I try not to let this column slide into hyperbole, so please take this as my god-honest opinion: Everything I've ordered at Alder Pastry and Dessert—if you ignore the coffee—is the best version of that particular thing I've had in Portland.
Now listen. Settle down. I've been preparing myself to make that statement since about my third visit (of embarrassingly too many), and as such, I've been revisiting Portland's best-of-the-best bakeries and patisseries and gelato shops, crossing my t's and dotting my i's. Saint Jack comes close occasionally, as does Pix; Saint Honoré is no slouch; Via Delizia scoops a fantastic little cup. A handful of our best restaurants overlap a bit, and surely compete, but it's rare to find an item you'd put in a head-to-head matchup... fair? Still, so far, I take Alder in every category.
As far as morning visits go, my highlight—and the item that's been hardest to resist ordering again while I gradually made my way through their glass case—was the kougin aman. This may be an unwise place to start my argument, as I've never tried this particular pastry before, they spell it differently than anyone else on Google, and I didn't actually order it (the woman helping me either misheard or just knew what was best for me). The dough is similar to a croissant, thin layers of buttery puff pastry, but the outside is glazed and caramelized with sugar and sea salt—lots and lots of sea salt. The first bite was jolting; I expected sugar to be the dominant flavor on the dark, caramel crust, but it was the salt that was so intense.
The cannele, as well, is a pastry to be reckoned with. Shaped like a striated Pac-Man ghost, Alder's canneles are almost black on their caramelized exterior, and just slightly bitter—but inside, the vanilla-rum custard is gooey and rich. My guess is that these are cooked in the traditional Bordeaux fashion, with a beeswax oil. There's a strong floral element that complicates the flavor even further.
I don't have the column inches to break down each pastry in detail, but my notes are filled with the phrases "Christ!" "Shitballs!" and "Best in town!?!" Croissant? Check. Brioche? Check. Rhubarb Danish? Check. Ham and cheese croissant? Check. Pastries run from $1.50 to $4, so you don't have to feel too bad about ordering more than one.
To stage right is a case of desserts ($5.50 each) that looks like some abstract expressionist rendition of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Bright colors, odd shapes—they'd be tempting to place on a credenza and stare at it if they weren't so easy to devour. I'd like to work my way through the layered mousse cakes, but so far I've had the chocolate caramel and the chocolate vanilla (the latter reminded me of someone's hat from the royal wedding). Each has a flourless chocolate sponge cake as its base, with thick, creamy mousse layers, and a chocolate syrup and vanilla cream respectively. The lemon curd tart, a dessert I wouldn't normally go for, managed a hugely bright flavor with a smooth, deep texture. I'm converted.
The house-made gelato (starting at $2 for a single scoop) is almost an act of alchemy. How they manage to distill these flavors into this dense, smooth cream is beyond me. The pistachio flavor embodies every note and nuance of the actual nut without sacrificing sweetness; the Earl Grey likewise. The mint chocolate might be the most impressive—it manages somehow to taste more like mint than an actual mint leaf. Mind-bogglingly good. I prefer the creamier varieties to the sorbets, but that's just a personal preference—the rhubarb flavor is immaculate.
If Alder doesn't become the most popular dessert spot in town, you can blame the supporting cast (I don't mean the staff, by the way... they're wonderful and seem genuinely excited to describe every item, which I've made them do). The space is nice enough, but devoid of any real charm. When I think of the kind of late-night places I would take a (purely hypothetical) date, I would think of something cozy and intimate. Alder comes off a bit sterile and cold. I was raised to believe that any dessert served after 8 pm should be accompanied by some sort of adult beverage. The only thing that could have possibly made my chocolate caramel tart any more enjoyable would be a snifter of good cognac, but even a small wine list and a few Belgian ales would open the place up to a certain type of patron. But hey, Alder is young, and if I keep spending all of my discretionary income on their goods, they should be able to pay for a liquor license in no time.