My friend, John Curtas, the pre-eminent food critic, journalist and attorney from Las Vegas has stated in his superb blog on Las Vegas dining called Eating Las Vegas that "Vegas has the deepest collection of pastry talent in the country." No doubt that Las Vegas has an abundance of top-notch pastry talent, but I still maintain that New York City remains the epicenter of the US restaurant creative pastry renaissance with such incredible talents amongst others as Alex Stupak of WD-50, Pichet Ong of P*Ong (unfortunately closing this weekend, another casualty of the economy), Sam Mason of Tailor, Robert Truitt of Corton, Johnny Iuzzini of Jean-Georges and not least, Michael Laiskonis of Le Bernardin.
Laiskonis, who maintains a fantastic blog chronicling his work in the pastry kitchen of Le Bernardin, has as strong a reputation for creative and delicious desserts as as any restaurant pastry chef in this country. Our dessert experience this past weekend did nothing to dispel that reputation. Since we are acquainted and he knew that we were there, he sent us a few additional desserts to try beyond the two on the tasting menu. Fortunately, we still had time to enjoy them thanks to the early reservation and the late theater curtain.
The table received seven different desserts. For each of the two principle dessert courses, the ladies were each served one dessert and the men another with yet another placed in the center of the table to share. Between the two courses, each diner was served Laiskonis' signature EGG. Our sommelier, Rocky, paired beverages with the desserts. Descriptions of the desserts are from Chef Laiskonis. obtained via email after I returned home.
For the first round, the gentlemen received:
"The cylinder of panna cotta is comprised of Greek yogurt and heavy cream, with vanilla and a touch of citrus. It's topped with pomegranate pearls (pomegranate juice, with a bit of raspberry as well, cooked with agar agar and dropped into cold oil), candied orange peel, and mint. Alongside are a pomegranate sorbet, lemon cream, and a simple broken-up streusel."
This dessert was totally satisfying. I love Greek yogurt and the balance of flavors was superb. The pomegranate added nice color balance while the flavor remained suitably muted. This was paired with Castelnau de Suduiraut, Sauternes 2001. This is the second label of Ch. Suduiraut. It possessed good flavor and botrytised depth, though it lacked some of the acid structure of its big brother.
While the ladies had:
"The yuzu parfait begins as a conventional yuzu 'curd' which is then lightened with whipped cream and set with gelatin, followed by a spray of white chocolate. A green tea biscuit serves as a base for green tea ice cream, and a 'false' meringue made up of yuzu, water, sugar, and versawhip (a soy protein that emulates the whipping characteristics of egg white). A thin conventional meringue and a ginger caramel finish the plate."
Yuzu and green tea were the predominant flavors of this spectacularly delicious Asian inspired dessert. While these are no longer novel flavors to most NY palates, they were handled deftly. This was my second favorite of the desserts and ironically as it was not served to me, but to my wife in the first round, I unfortunately neglected to photograph it. This was paired with Torrontez Sparkling -Deseado Familia Schroeder, Patagonia. The wine, reminiscent of an Italian Spumante worked nicely.
The table received:
"A frozen chestnut parfait set upon a rum soaked chestnut biscuit, alongside a chestnut wafer and coconut sorbet, offset by a touch of lemon and mandarin."
Though I liked it, this was perhaps my least favorite of the desserts, perhaps because I enjoyed the other two sent alongside it more or more likely because I could not attack it with abandon. Our friends, however, found it to be one of their favorites. In comparison to the other two desserts, the flavors were more muted with a greater balance towards the sweet.
In between the two rounds, we each received an:
"I began doing the Egg back at Tribute in Detroit some 8 years ago now. It started with the purchase of the egg topper, an impulse buy that I didn't really have an intended use for. I hit upon the combination of flavors and textures that make up the Egg almost immediately; it's the one dish I don't think I've ever found necessary to change or tweak.
Starting with the whole, raw egg: the top is removed, the egg emptied out (used, of course, in other preparations), and the inner membrane carefully removed. The shells are then returned to the cardboard container and filled half-way with a milk chocolate custard. The eggs are then placed in a water bath, covered, and then baked (or rather, steamed) until set. Upon firing, the eggs get a layer of liquid caramel, a caramel foam (caramel creme anglaise in a nitrous canister), then a touch of maple and a pinch of Maldon salt.
Here's a link to my first ever blog post, which on one hand introduced the Egg to many, yet on the other, was a way to put it aside and 'move on':
Elegant, complex, yet visually simple, this dessert was a true stunner, winning on every level. It was one of the best variations on an Arpege egg that I have ever had. I was afraid as the waiter described it, that it might be too sweet, but It was just right! Here the pairing was a beer, Westmawe Dubbel Trappist Ale, an inspired choice that helped round out the dessert's sweetness without fighting it.
For the next round, everyone was served Late Harvest Tokaji, Oremus, 2001. Not as unctuous as the luscious tokaijis of multiple puttonyos or eszencias, it was nonetheless delicious and a nice addition to the chocolate based desserts. To which, the gentlemen received:
"This is one of my favorites on the menu, not just for the flavors presented, but also because it demonstrates how a bit of re-engineering through 'science-based' cooking can simply make things better (as opposed to merely making something 'avant-garde'!).
The gianduja parfait itself is based on a traditional pate a bombe method, where a whole lot of sugar is cooked and poured into whipped eggs to provide structure and volume. We've altered the base by using a method that reduces the sugar to a fraction of the original, which produces the same mousse, but allows us to actually taste the chocolate and hazelnut.
The brown butter ice cream, too, used to be made with massive quantities of whole browned butter. It tasted fine, but it always walked a textural tightrope, in that such a high fat content quickly turns disastrous in an ice cream machine. I was shown a technique some time ago that utilizes the milk solids in heavy cream rather butter (pound per pound, cream has twice the amount of solids- the stuff that tastes good when browned); the cream is slowly reduced until the solids precipitate out of the fat and brown, thus leaving clarified butter and the extracted browned milk solids. These solids can then be introduced into the ice cream without the extra fat, maintaining more textural integrity.
Without a true 'molecular' approach (which I see as simply having an understanding of your ingredients and what happens to them when you cook, rather than describing a cooking 'style'), I don't think we would have stumbled upon these and other improvements!
Anyway, the remainder of the dish includes a praline cream, roasted hazelnuts in honey, and caramelized banana."
Simply put, the dish worked. I don't believe that I can add anything more to what Chef Laiskonis wrote.
The ladies received:
CHOCOLATE SWEET POTATO
"We're phasing this one out as we head into Spring. Built around a dark chocolate cream (set with small amounts of agar agar and gelatin), the sweet potato enters in the form of a sorbet, pearls (produced in the same manner as the pomegranate), and a fried garnish. We also incorporate a pistachio powder (pistachio paste and maltodextrin), grated jaggery, and vanilla-infused salt."
Another fine dessert, I appreciate its seasonality.
The shared dessert:
"This is my chicken- the dessert that kind of has to stay put on the menu while I'm free to explore other ideas with the remaining dishes.
A chocolate tart shell is filled with chopped salted peanuts and a layer of caramel, followed by a dark chocolate ganache. It's accented with a lemon puree (what all the kids refer to as a 'fluid gel' these days), candied lemon, peel, a peanut butter powder, and a praline citrus sorbet: hazelnut and almond praline paste lightened with orange and lemon. And as a friend and fellow chef-blogger mentioned recently, peanuts need a little love these days!"
This dessert had a strong comfort level to it. Chocolate and peanuts have become such a classic combination and deservedly so.
Lastly, we finished with an espresso and mignardises.
They were from 7 O'clock going clockwise:
"This is a simple fried pate a choux that's filled with a vanilla cream, then dusted with a bit of sugar and Saigon cinnamon."
CARAMELIZED WHITE CHOCOLATE
"A dark chocolate shell is filled with a caramelized white chocolate cream; essentially, we roast the white chocolate in order to brown the sugars and milk solids. The result flavor is reminiscent of dulce de leche. We finish this with some chopped pistachio and a few flakes of Maldon salt."
PAIN DE GENES
"This is a pistachio version of the traditional French pain de genes. It's soaked in a Pernod syrup, set on to a rectangle of white chocolate, then topped with a lemon cream, candied orange peel, and a piece of caramelized almond."
"This is a dark chocolate ganache that also contains a special Ecuadorian cacao liqueur that a friend brings me every so often."
We were quite satisfied, sated but not bloated. I looked forward to the walk back to my hotel and then on to the theater.
Though it had been some time since I last visited Le Bernardin, that time has treated the restaurant kindly. Ripert and his staff have not rested on their laurels. If anything, I found the restaurant to be even better than it was in the 90's and it was wonderful then. One thing that did not go un-noticed was that with the possible exception of cod (I don't know if the cod on the menu was the endangered Atlantic or the more abundant Pacific), the seafood was all rated as sustainable. Even had the food been only half as wonderful, the meal would have been laudable just for this. As with Rick Moonen in Las Vegas, it is heartening to see such high quality, well prepared food coming from a sustainable larder. It shows that few, if any sacrifices in degustation need to be made even at the highest levels.
Yes, Mr. Curtas, Las Vegas has great pastry chefs and perhaps for its overall population, it may even have the greatest concentration of top-notch pastry chefs anywhere, but I still believe, offering Michael Laiskonis as evidence, that NYC remains the capitol of restaurant pastry in the U.S.