Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Makes a Great Restaurant Dessert?

In Baking and Pastry class, our chef instructor Stephen Durfee asked us to consider what makes a great restaurant dessert. He should know a thing or two about it- he was the Pastry Chef at The French Laundry for years before coming to CIA-Greystone.

Thrilled at the chance to get esoteric and wax philosophical (can you tell I'm my father's daughter), I wrote the following essay.

What Makes A Great Restaurant Dessert?

Why do we order dessert even when we’re already full? What is it that makes a dessert desirable? For starters, dessert tastes good, or at least it should. Durian ice cream, peanut crumble and fish sauce caramel could be a dessert, but it’s unlikely, because it won’t taste good to most diners. Chocolate, strawberry ice cream, chantilly: these ingredients appear and reappear in our dessert language because they taste so darn good. Yet, when we start to ponder what really makes a dessert  memorable, we yearn for more than just sweetness.

Let us consider the physical particulars of a dessert. It should be interesting to the mouth. A great dessert has smooth elements, crunchy, crispy, crackly elements. Some ingredients are hot and vivid, while others are chilled and stoic. I remember with pleasure a simple dessert at Kokkari in San Francisco: Baklava ice cream. Well-made vanilla ice cream, not too much fat masking the taste on my tongue; with crispy, caramelized edges of baklava folded in. Neither the baklava nor the vanilla was a taste revelation, but the two textures together were a home run. That dish represents one definition of a great restaurant dessert: simple, well-executed, delicious, and texturally interesting.

A great restaurant dessert should also be visually pleasing. Depending on the type of restaurant, a dessert’s appearance can vary widely; however, it should be sexy. It does something for you. It sizzles, it smokes, it makes your mouth feel things it’s never felt. A slice of mile high apple pie, though lovely at Aunt Bess’ house, does not qualify as a great restaurant dessert because it’s not sexy. It’s squat, it’s cloying, it’s not elegant.

In contrast, a great restaurant dessert is seductive. A great restaurant dessert is a striking lady across the bar who makes you want to order one more drink to go talk to her. It doesn’t lay it all out there on the table, much like an intriguing person isn’t the man who speaks the loudest or the gal in the shortest dress. Rather, a great restaurant dessert tempts with a few words on the menu, free of technical jargon and superfluous prepositions. Then, it surprises with compositions not previously imagined, just in the way a provocative conversation flows in unforeseen directions. Consider a dessert from Alinea that promises “chocolate ganache,” but fascinates with the addition of gelatin that makes it moldable. Have you had chocolate ganache before? Sure! But not chocolate ganache like this.

I never ate at El Bulli, but I’m enthralled by their avant-dessert Natura, which featured fruit treated in multiple ways: pickled, candied, freeze-dried, fresh. It’s as if the El Bulli kitchen was in love with the multiple personalities of fruit, unable to pick just one to highlight. The dish is a culinary version of Picasso’s Cubist portraits: a simultaneous depiction of one object from multiple vantage points. Sexy, intriguing, even confusing, a great restaurant dessert is a challenge.

In conclusion, a great restaurant dessert captivates with taste, visual appeal, textural interest and often cultural reference. Call it a beautiful lady, a technical wonder, a Cubist painting, or just call it delicious. We may be full, but we’ll order it anyway.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

More from the Greystone Garden

A little over a year ago, I wrote about our student garden. At the time, I was just falling in love with gardening and growing our own food. Fast forward one year: our two acre plot on the Napa River is bursting with produce, thanks to the hard work of a core group of students who love cooking and working under the California sun.

Easter Egg Radishes

Summer Squash Zucchini with blossoms

Jack weighs a boatload of Padron peppers in our school purchasing department

Yours truly, with a snakeskin shedding from our garden snakes, Frank and Gina.

Today's ridiculous late-summer haul, with over 150 pounds of tomatoes, 30 pounds of pears, 20 pounds of figs and zucchini, apples and basil to boot.

Our garden manager Dianne, with Lucas and pup Bruce.

Left: Harvesting San Marzano tomatoes as the sun comes up over Saint Helena.

Last year's blog post about my love for the garden included more words, more reflection, more poetic waxing. Those emotions run deep for me, and I still love the garden even as it takes up more and more of my time.

This year, rather than writing so much, I'm actually spending every afternoon there. The best thing is- our kitchens at school are using all the produce. And we're shortening the food supply chain, one tub of heirloom tomatoes at a time.

Special thanks to Dianne Martinez, Jack Gingrich, Adam Burke, Caitlin Henriksen, and all the Greystone students who work to keep the student garden growing.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Eat Here Now- The Alembic

One place I'm stoked on these days: the Alembic in the Haight in San Francisco. I've been several times since the beginning of the summer, and I'm convinced it's one of the best places in the city. It's tiny, so it may take a while to get a table. That's fine by me because their cocktail list is extensive and intriguing: Gold leaf? Check. Peanut-infused whiskey? Check check. That's probably why GQ magazine named them to their Best Cocktail Bar list last year. But the food really steals the show. The bar snacks go way beyond wings; think duck hearts and togarashi popcorn. Nasturtiums from the backyard garden pepper up the Nectarine and Burrata salad. Or try the beef tongue sliders to break the boring bite-size burger mold.

Right: Bone Marrow with Caper Gremolata and Garlic Confit. Brash. Decadent. Delicious.

Below: My friend Jon Boncek shooting Chef Ted Fleury's beautiful Hiramasa Crudo

The Alembic
1725 Haight Street
San Francisco
M-Thur 5pm-1am
F-S 12noon- 1 am