New York might have better appetizers and San Francisco better main courses, but no city beats Los Angeles for dessert. Nowhere else has the raw fixings, the right kind of hedonists or the critical mass of cooking talent.
On the face of it, being a pastry chef could scarcely be a more frivolous calling. While chefs nourish, pastry chefs seduce the fed into taking one last bite. Their sole intent is to delight.
But it’s hard to see how we would do without them. Dessert provides a reason to linger in a restaurant, perhaps one dish between two, two spoons, sharing casually at first, then eyeing and scooping the diminishing pastry ever more keenly, savoring the last licks of a great meal. Dessert is the course when friendships are cemented, love blossoms, birthday songs sung and anniversaries toasted.
And in L.A., the season for pleasure is almost year-round. This is the only city in America whose markets receive a seven-month run of berries and stone fruit, followed by an autumn rush of apples and pears, and then winter run of citrus. And Los Angeles selects for playfulness. Puritans don’t like it here. Too sunny.
It seems odd that L.A. wasn’t always a dessert town, but it didn’t become one until the 1980s, after Spago happened. Wolfgang Puck hired Nancy Silverton as his pastry chef. In a progression from Spago to Chinois on Main and, latterly, as co-proprietor of Campanile, Silverton defined the L.A. style.
While Bay Area chefs were busy being more French than the French, Silverton took a French education, then let rip with sunny Western flair. She made puff pastry with the best of them, covered sauces A to V (apricot to vanilla) and made prune and Armagnac ice cream an addictive substance. But she also gleefully served chocolate and Jack Daniels ice cream and was as at home with Fudge Ripple as with Linzer tortes. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, then at City restaurant, countered with a jokey approximation of a Hostess Twinkie. Unfazed, Silverton took the cookie to new heights. Chewy ginger balls. Sesame seed tuilles. Prune pucks. Animal crackers.
Today, several generations have followed and the badinage between L.A. pastry kitchens is ever more silvery and joyous. At Spago Beverly Hills, as pastry chef Sherry Yard awaits the pick of this season’s cherries, she might combine a preserved Blenheim apricot with creme brulee.
At Campanile this spring, pastry chef Kimberly Boyce saw out winter with a Meyer lemon and licorice parfait.
At the new Beverly Boulevard restaurant Grace, Campanile-trained chef Elizabeth Belkind is sending out jelly doughnuts with vanilla custard dipping sauce.
At another squeaky-new place, Sona on La Cienega Boulevard, a full-on gastronomic experience might produce a haute version of brownies and milk, except the milk will be laced with grappa and brownies made with Valrhona ganache.
If you want a really fun petit four, you can hope that the peanut butter cookies are on the menu at the Water Grill.
The hallmarks of the L.A. style: seasonality, technique, intense flavors, wit. But oddly, in a town obsessed with fashion and appearances, there are no hard and fast rules about food styling. Pretty is optional.
At Spago Beverly Hills, Yard loves playing with color, say pairing a Meyer lemon souffle with a Persian mulberry granita.
To Sona’s Michelle Meyers, a former art student, dessert is an art form, the plate a canvas and sauce paint.
By contrast, Campanile’s Boyce, who trained with Yard before joining Silverton, has produced pastries so plain that she blushes when she remembers entering a competition in which all the other confections could have been Easter bonnets. “My baked Alaska looked like a blob on the plate,” she says, laughing. “But then I was proud to say, ‘Here, taste it.’ ”
Taste is not optional. And in Silverton’s rule No. 1, sugar is not a flavor. After two decades, the rule holds. At Spago, Yard says, “sugar is my friend, not my love.” She calls it a spice rather than a main ingredient. “I use it as a seasoning just as I would with salt, pepper,” she says.
The discretion with sugar requires an exceptional palate and instinct in designing dishes. Yard describes the series of associations that led to a passion fruit sorbet recipe this way: “I was at a farm and realized that the passion fruit flowers have a jasmine smell, so I put jasmine into the base of the syrup for the sorbet. It does not scream out, ‘Flowers!’ -- but it helps pick up the flavor. Because of that, you don’t sugar for flavor, just a touch for pitch.”
Devising desserts may sound easy, but it isn’t. Boyce recalls Silverton’s guiding her through the creation of the licorice and Meyer lemon parfait. “Black licorice is so harsh. Some people hate it. I hate it,” she says. But she decided to try muting harshness by using it in ice cream. It was then too bland and needed acid, so she added Meyer lemon, which has not just acidity but also floral notes. The final dish was so startlingly good, the process so satisfying, that Boyce describes it as a coming of age. “It was the first moment when I truly felt Nancy’s equal.”
While using intense flavors, the trick for L.A. pastry chefs became how to shade them. Yard makes her chocolate puff pastry with three types of chocolate: cocoa, dark chocolate and Madagascar chocolate.
Over at Grace, Belkind makes a rhubarb cobbler that doesn’t just have rhubarb, it has rhubarb cooked to three states: stewed and pureed, cooked just to softness and the finishing stalk heated only while the two cooked components set.
Boyce, who trained Belkind at Campanile, fondly calls her the most exciting new pastry chef at work in L.A. She is certainly among the most playful. No dessert menu is complete without a fried item, she thinks. When it became too hot to keep Spanish churros and hot chocolate on the menu, she replaced them with jelly doughnuts.
“Why not?” she asks. “Doughnuts can be elegant.” But not too elegant. Belkind serves them with a creme anglaise dipping sauce, which means diners must eat with their hands. “I like interactive desserts,” she says.
A dessert tour
If Belkind is taking the L.A. style to its limits, at Sona in West Hollywood, Meyers is cooking in a way that takes it around the world and sets it down in the same place again. Each dish is an architectural study of the ingredients. As a tasting menu shifts subtly from savory to sweet dishes, sorbet leads to richer offerings. In one of the richest, tiny chocolate doughnuts are set on the plate like Hershey’s Kisses and served with Port. Sweet, no. Intense? Stronger than that.
Meyers’ ideas come and go like edible one-liners, say a tiny white meringue with a pink peppercorn stuck rakishly to its side. She likes crossing over with savory spices, she explains. Something about the nuttiness of pink peppercorns begged for one to be stuck into a sweet white meringue.
While Meyers is a cutting-edge chef cooking for adventurous eaters, downtown at the Water Grill, pastry chef Wonyee Tom is the embodiment of a cook bound by tastes of lawyers and convention center crowds. “We have a clientele that demands a cheesecake, demands a creme brulee,” she says. “So you have to do something to enhance it.” For Tom, this has included devising the lightest cheesecake imaginable, then adorning it with tuille biscuit, candied ginger and berry sauce.
One look at this dessert and it’s obvious that Tom does not cook in the L.A. style, that she came out of New York and the Gotham Bar & Grill. These are very traditional, very East Coast adornments. But at the same time, California is getting to her. As she waits for the summer fruit to pick up, she’s been sending out bowls with two sorbets: blood orange and kiwifruit. At her heart, she shows a Silvertonian penchant for honest desserts, including chocolate bread pudding and vanilla and pistachio ice cream. She is a strict adherent to the “sugar is not a flavor” rule.
Watching waiters carry her desserts across a busy dining room, it becomes clear why she uses the tuille biscuits. These pastries are like billboards. They sell themselves. Even in lunch-is-for-wimps territory, almost half the guests eat dessert. Over on the West Side, particularly at Silverton’s Campanile, the percentage of dessert eaters rises to more like 60%. This proportion is high in any town.
Perhaps there is one more explanation for L.A.'s being a dessert town. It understands drama. A meal without dessert is like a story without an ending. At Spago, Yard prefers a musical analogy. “We supply the end of the song,” she says. “It’s the triangle at the end of the meal. Ding!”