2011 has to go down as one of the most exciting and tumultuous years ever for the top end of the New York pastry chef world. On the exciting side: Bravo’s Top Chef : Just Desserts franchise finished its second season with NYC’s own Johnny Iuzzini as the head judge and a bevy of New York based pastry chefs as guest judges and hosts. Alex Stupak, another of NYC’s elite pastry chefs, finally got the praise he deserved for his restaurant Empellon, proving once again that pastry chefs can make the switch into savory (or management) and blazing a trail for future pastry chefs to follow.
On the tumultuous side: of the five restaurants with three Michelin and four New York Times stars, three of them–Daniel, Le Bernardin and Jean Georges–saw their long-time executive pastry chefs depart. Daniel’s Dominque Ansel had the decency to leave at the end of the summer while there wasn’t a lot of other NYC dessert news. But Johnny Iuzzini and Michael Laiskonis each left on the last day of 2011! I shouldn’t complain too much, these events resulted in two of the greatest weeks in DessertBuzz history, starting with a marathon tasting of last 15 desserts on the menu at Jean Georges, followed by a tasting of 6 of Michael Laiskonis’s desserts from Le Bernardin (two days before his final service). Read about the Jean George tasting here. Now, on to the Le Bernardin tasting…
Consider Michael Laiskonis’ desserts. To compare them to sculpture is so blatantly obvious that it’s almost a cop-out. I imagine a precocious young child, unaffected by what people think, dining at Le Bernardin for the first time with his parents saying “daddy the desserts look like the sculptures from the art museum!” That’s what I keep coming back to, so that’s what I’m going with–Lasikonis’ desserts are like small plated works of art–imagined and created in advance and built to order.
The first dessert to arrive was the Yuzu parfait which was completely new to me. While photographing the plate I was reminded how fragile all the components were. A dollop of foam applied with too much force or not aimed at just the right spot, or even a server over-tilting the plate, would ruin the composition and force the chef to start over. It’s quite an achievement that a dessert as beautiful and delicate as this it can be plated in identical fashion over and over again.
The Yuza had a surprisingly pronounced citrus flavor especially compared to the yuzu-flavored ice cream common to many Japanese restaurants in New York. It went nicely with the green tea ice cream. I love these two flavors, and their similar, smooth textures made them even more well suited to share the same plate. The green tea ice cream sits on a perfect square of green tea sponge and the sesame rice crisps add texture and crunch. The white dollops are non-dairy citrus meringue–no egg whites (!)–just yuzu, water and sugar, whipped with soy protein.
I recently posted some photos of the Black sesame panna cotta on Facebook and joked that Laiskonis actually used a custom laser device in the kitchen to align all the elements so perfectly. Nobody asked me if I was kidding.
Jokes aside, one of the pleasures (and challenges) of eating this dessert was deciding where and how to start. Do I just pierce the ultra-delicate (and let’s face it, ultra-cool looking) sour cherry sphere and then try to combine it with some panna cotta, sorbet and cake? Or, do I simply cut a perfect segment of panna cotta like a snowboarder slicing into virgin untracked powder and taste it on it’s own? I opted for small taste of panna cotta followed by a pirceing of the sphere and then a quick, but not rushed, consumption of the rest of the elements.
The black sesame panna cotta has two of the coolest and most artful components I have seen on a plate in a long time: the black sesame panna cotta cube with its half-milimeter thick black top and a sour cherry sphere. Despite it’s good looks the panna cotta doesn’t give up anything in the flavor department–as it tastes like sesame and has a perfect creamy texture. The tanginess of the citrus from the Mandarin sorbet makes the other two parts come alive. The “unifying sauce element” of the dessert is a mandarin coulis, bound with pectin, “to mirror the mandarin sorbet” said Laiskonis.
I asked Laiskonis whether the the thin, dark black sesame layer on the cube was there for flavor or for aesthetics: “It was actually the result of a happy accident: We blend a Japanese black sesame paste into a relatively standard panna cotta base (cream, milk, sugar). It’s then deposited into a silicon mold, then frozen, then unmolded and tempered. Popped out of the mold, it’s inverted–the ‘bottom’ becomes the ‘top’. We noticed this rich black sediment of sesame paste had settled to the bottom of the mold and immediately thought it looked so cool! We could have easily blended it further to make it more homogenous and thus more uniform, but something about the gun metal grey/dark black contrast takes the presentation to a higher level”
My dining companion Doctore, who has accompanied me on these missions before, proclaimed our third course, the Religieuse (elderflower ‘creme mousseline’, crunchy choux, pear coulis, black current powder) to be the best, non-chocolate, pastry he has ever had with the possible exception of Pierre Herme’s croissant isphan. In order to explain how good this 4-star choux pastry was, I have to talk about Macarons for a momment.
I’ve always found it odd that despite how many great pastry chefs we have in New York–many who are from France or who trained at Pierre Herme–the macarons flown in everyday from La Duree in Paris are still vastly superior to all but a few NYC-made macarons. The point is, there’s some reason, as yet unknown, that elevates Parisian macarons above those from New York.
Back to the religieuse. I have tried all kinds of delicious choux pastry, a few in NYC restaurants, some from bakeries that specialize in choux pastry as well as a religieuse or two from Paris and none were in the class of this delicious pastry. The delicate flavors of the pear coulis and the black current powder were subtle but could easily be detected and appreciated. However, to me, the texture profile was what made this dessert fantastic. It was crunchy on the outside and when you bit into it, it simply melted in your mouth until it disappeared like few other pastries I have had.
“Peanut” is a crowd-pleasing chocolate and peanut dessert that would make Frank Lloyd Wright proud. It features peanuts and chocolate in a number of different forms including a very thin “plaquette” of milk chocolate and a layer of flour-less dark chocolate cake. There was also some great tasting malted milk crunch and a salted peanut brittle layer to take advantage of humankind’s innate love of the salty and sweet. Whipped cream and a matching scoop of malted rum milk chocolate ice cream finish off the dessert.
The last two desserts have been on the menu at Le Bernardin for some time. As I have said before, “the egg” is really the epitome of a successful salty-sweet dessert. In addition, you won’t find two more satisfying teaspoons of dessert anywhere. Go here to read why I think Laiskonis was actually sick of creating and serving the egg at LB.
The chocolate tart with wine reduction sauce and sweet potato sorbet has it roots in the common “molten chocolate cakes” you see everywhere, but those roots are buried pretty deep in the lineage as the sweet potato sorbet and caramelized wine sauce will be unique to any eater and both are really enjoyable flavors.
One of things I love about fancy-pants restaurants is that in order to make sure guests leave feeling utterly impressed, they always send out a fixed number of post-meal sweet plates–no matter how many desserts you have already eaten. I wonder if a waiter has ever come out and said “you guys can’t seriously be thinking about eating more sweets after all that can you!?”
We were served a basket of piping hot madeleines and financiers (the only way to enjoy them) and the mini-macarons, (dulce de leche-passion fruit, vanilla and almond) had the same attention to detail as the plated desserts. There were also chocolates–even after lunch.
What does the Chef have planned going forward? Laiskonis wasn’t willing to share anything concrete but mentioned a possible book about pastry from the perspective of the pastry chef in the kitchen, doing some consulting and the desire to share his knowledge through some kind of teaching role. Next Monday, January 16th, he will be one of 6 acclaimed pastry chefs in attendance at “Killed By Dessert“, a charity event to raise money for Share our Strength–the event is sold out.
Coverage of our previous tasting of Michael’s desserts at Le Bernardin from March 2011 is here. Follow DessertBuzz on Twitter. Micheal Laiskonis’s blog is here. Le Bernadin is located on 155 West 51 Street. Their website is here.