Robert Wemischner explores the resurgence of classical French technique and iconic French desserts in culinary hot spots across the country.
While American foods, food carts and American-born expat chefs are shaking things up in the Paris food scene, here in the States, French techniques are making a strong comeback on dessert menus (if, in fact, they ever died out). But since classics such as pâte à choux, pâte feuilleté, crème patissière and crème anglaise are truly essential parts of even modernist desserts, pastry chefs are dusting off their notes from culinary school to return to these warhorses of the sweet kitchen, refreshing them in restaurants from coast to coast.
A shining example of a pastry chef taking cues from French dessert techniques, Craig Williams of Post 390 (Boston, MA) calls on many classical techniques in a Coconut & Fromage Blanc Cremeux. Starting with the mellow and mild dairy notes of locally made fromage blanc, Williams pairs tropical flavors in the forms of coconut curd, key lime sauce, mango passion fruit gelée with a central disc of the creamy main event, and sets things off with in-house made pâte de fruit, garnishing the whole ensemble with pink peppercorns for a hit of herbal heat and sticks of green tea-flavored crisp meringue. Here he appeals to an increasingly adventurous clientele using textures and techniques in his desserts that are decidedly Gallic in a restaurant that is in part emerging from its very traditional American tavern identity.
Another Boston outpost, Harvest (Cambridge, MA) highlights the end-of-the-meal creations of Executive Pastry Chef Brian Mercury who honors the patron saint of pastry with his version of Gateau St. Honore. Here the puffs are lightly encrusted with sesame seeds and flavored with white sesame seed butter that he makes in house. The pastry cream filling for the choux puffs is flavored with Earl Grey tea and the dessert is plated with caramel mousse and mascarpone cream. He says, of the dessert’s origins: “I don’t need to modernize. Starting with a traditional dessert that I love, it’s my challenge to take something that I learned in culinary school and shine a spotlight on it, allowing customers to enjoy something that they don’t typically see in a restaurant setting. Calling it ‘St. Honore’ requires some dialogue with the customer, giving the server something to talk about and describe.” By design, Mercury’s version is meant to be assembled at the last minute with all of its contrasting textures at their peak, a far cry from many standard bakery renditions that are sold after languishing for a day in a refrigerated display case. The moral of the story here: Perhaps it’s time to rethink bakery sweets and work them into restaurant menus.
At Paris Club Bistro and Bar (Chicago, IL), a unique arrangement between a major restaurant group, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chef Doug Psaltis and a local pastry consultant, Hsing Zhen (H Patisserie), has resulted in a dessert menu that features another classic, the Baba au Rhum. Served with candied orange and lemon zest and vanilla whipped cream, the brioche based bun is glazed with nappage. In the hands of Chef Psaltis and Chef Zhen, this classic has taken on new life in a restaurant reflective of an iconic Paris bistro. Chef Psaltis says: “I am unreservedly infatuated with classic French food. The old reliable recognizable and familiar dishes are something that the public has an easy time warming up to.” Never one to follow trends, he continues: “I’m one of the firmest believers in French cuisine. It’s easier to do something that one can’t compare anything else to than to recreate a classic that the audience knows well over the years.” Paris Club is not reinventing the classics. Instead it is burnishing them to a sheen as reflected in the glaze on the not-so-humble baba. Adding that extra fillip of excitement to the dessert, servers offer customers a choice of rums tableside to finish off the dish.
Georgette Farkas, long associate with Daniel Boulud, maintains an unswerving devotion to French classics at her Rotisserie Georgette (NYC). “I believe in not tweaking anything. I am completely devoted to getting things just right.” Working with Pastry Chef Jennifer Tafuri, her Gratin au Pamplemousse is just such an example of taking something that seems simple but each element must be just right. “Combining my French training with a bit of Italian influence in the form of Jennifer’s background, we put our heads together to fashion a dessert where each element must be just right. I had been taught a similar dessert years ago in a French kitchen where we prepared summer berries this way. Here you can use any number of liqueurs, from Crème de Pamplemousse to Grand Marnier or even pastis. And you can swap out the grapefruit for other flavorful seasonal citrus.” Farkas concludes: “The desserts at the restaurant follow a set of very classic old school entries.” Uncompromising, she says, “Our desserts perfectly reflect our style of cooking: traditional, comforting, generous, rustic yet refined.“ Not a bad definition of how French cuisine stays relevant in an age of restless culinary experimentation.
With a string of Michelin-starred restaurant gigs under his belt, Sylvain Marrari, Executive Pastry Chef for the Food & Wine Chef’s Club in New York City’s Soho neighborhood, sticks close to his roots, creating new visuals for plating classical desserts. “I like to bring a refreshing presentation to the classics. The customer knows what he or she is eating and finds what might have been considered overly rich desserts handled with a light touch.” Marrari works with the new generation of pastry chefs in honing their work for Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs cover stories, helping to keep the classics alive, updating them with modern touches.
A casual California bistro personality defines Terrine (Los Angeles, CA). With French partners Stephane Bombet and Francois Renaud, it’s a new restaurant in Los Angeles, helmed by chef Kris Morningstar, who handles both the savory and sweet sides of the kitchen. Hewing to a “Cali bistro” aesthetic, he trots out some of the classics as perfect endings to a sunny menu which rotates Paris-Brest, Floating island, a play on Tarte Tatin and even a multilayered crêpe cake. Morningstar explains: “I had a basic culinary school training, moved around a bit and eventually found myself working in pastry production at Casa del Mar, a local luxury hotel (Santa Monica, CA). To further my immersion in French classic desserts, I cherry picked techniques out of books as a jumping off point. I even got yelled out by Karen Hatfield early in her career (now a prominent restaurateur/pastry chef in LA) for putting away quinces poached in red wine while they were still hot, to be served with brown butter financiers,” evidently an indelible memory about how not to do things in the pastry world. He’s now doing things right, fostering a public acceptance of things both familiar and not so familiar to end a meal of classic French charcuterie, onion soup, choucroute, moules frites and crispy pig ears with sauce gribiche, among others.
Not just for the yellowed pages of well-thumbed classic cookbooks, French desserts are perennially re-examined, rendered lively and can be indisputably delicious when done well. They’re also here to stay.
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