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Eat your damn dessert

By Scott Hocker, Photograph by Laura Flippen | November 25, 2008 | Story

Two hours before the doors open on what promises to be another busy Friday night in September at Candybar, the first self-proclaimed dessert lounge in San Francisco, chef Boris Portnoy is deconstructing a lit cigarette. Standing in the restaurant's kitchen, he removes a plastic container filled with beige cream from the fridge, peels off the lid, dips in a spoon, and tastes. “Hmm,” he mutters, moving the cream around in his mouth. “This one's better.” He then has his sous-chef, Kyle Caporicci, try some. Caporicci nods. “Yeah, it's not as sharp.”

The liquid in question is the duo's fourth attempt at infusing the flavor of blond tobacco into cream. Bizarre, yes. Almost as strange as putting icing on pea soup, some might say. But Portnoy was convinced that a hint of smoky tobacco would add an unexpected savory note alongside the other four elements of a dessert he calls Before and After 8. To achieve the perfect amount of tobacco flavor—sharp enough, but without the acridness of actual cigarette smoke—Portnoy and Caporicci tried more than 16 techniques, including steeping the dried leaves in hot cream (too intense), blanching the tobacco before infusing it (too mild), and using carbon dioxide to lighten the infused cream and quicken the process (a critical step, they learned). The ideal method turns out to involve a combination of the first and third: steeping dried tobacco in a mixture of cold milk and cream, then adding a hit of carbon dioxide.

When dinner service begins, the cream will be piped into a rice-paper cylinder, then wrapped in a chocolate shell. Across the tiny workspace from Portnoy, Caporicci is spreading a layer of sweetened red pepper pulp between sheets of silicon. When it sets, the pulp will resemble an enormous Fruit Roll-Up. After being broken into small pieces, the pulp, standing in for the embers at the end of a Marlboro, will be affixed to the tobacco-cream “cigarette,” as Portnoy calls it. On the plate, the cigarette will be strewn with “ash” made from almond flour and coffee grounds and accompanied by a quenelle of coffee ice cream. Coffee and cigarettes—already a fine pairing in their traditional incarnations—have never been so well matched.

Portnoy's sugar-fueled reverie may be an extreme example, but it's a delicious response to an unsavory Bay Area problem. He and a band of like-minded pastry chefs are trying to breathe new life into a neglected corner of the local restaurant scene: dessert. It may be going unnoticed by all but die-hard dining enthusiasts, but in one of the country's culinary epicenters, the last course has become an afterthought. Imagine, if you will, a recent meal at one of the region's cherished restaurants: You've already enjoyed an inventive first course of prawns with watermelon and lemongrass, or red abalone with pork belly and artichokes. The excitement contin­ued with grilled pork loin with farro and borage, or foie gras-stuffed quail with cabbage and huckleberries. Now, you're anticipating something equally inspired for dessert. But the menu arrives, and déjà vu strikes—hard—with a lineup of usual suspects: a fruit tart, maybe apple, maybe peach, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream; a lovely but uninspired crème brûlée; and chocolate cake, probably warm, surrounded by caramel sauce or crème anglaise. In my five years reviewing restaurants for this magazine, it's disheartening how regularly I've experienced this kind of letdown. The bitter truth is, dessert in this food mecca has become a broken record. And the lyrics to the tune on constant repeat are “boring and—worse still—bad.”

It's not as if Bay Area diners don't sometimes exhibit a more discerning sweet tooth. Consider the proliferation of artisan ice cream shops like Berkeley's Sketch and Ici, and Bi-Rite Creamery and the highly anticipated Humphry Slocombe, both in the Mission; bakeries like Tartine; our panoply of boutique chocolatiers; and even the new, high-end Dynamo Donut. But compared with that of other major cities, our restaurant dessert culture is downright backwoods. In New York, chefs like Alex Stupak, at WD-50, are wowing diners with desserts such as grapefruit curd with nasturtium ice cream, or a dissassembled cornbread pudding with lemongrass and prunes. Likewise, Ramon Perez, at Sona, in Los Angeles—a city known more for counting calories than for enjoying them—pairs caramelized satsuma oranges with black-sesame ice cream and almond-miso biscuits, and everyone's asking for more.

Here in San Francisco, the heroes are few and far between—and too often unappreciated. It's unclear whether lack of demand is driving the lack of supply, or vice versa, but either way, dessert sales are down. “Only 35 to 40 percent of our customers order dessert,” says Charlie Hallowell, chef-owner of Pizzaiolo, in Oakland. Elisabeth Pruiett, co-owner of Bar Tartine, in the Mission, clocks the number even lower: The restaurant's association with the bakery of the same name notwithstanding, only 30 percent of dinners at Bar Tartine end with dessert. Compare that with New York, where, according to a longtime Bay Area pastry chef who's done an informal survey of his Big Apple peers, up to 80 percent of diners insist on finishing on a sweet note.

Portnoy and a group of fellow iconoclasts are poised to change that—not by throwing tradition to the wind or being innovative for innovation's sake, but by striving to create what could best be called “smart desserts.” This means desserts that are surprising and new but are designed, above all, to taste great. At the most avant-garde end of the spectrum is Orson's Luis Villavelazquez, a renegade with match­ing male and female skull tattoos on his hands who's as comfortable with microwaved cakes discharged from a siphon as he is with simple poached figs. On the more traditional front, we find Range's Michelle Polzine, an ex-no-wave rock musician with serious bangs and horn-rimmed glasses. She bakes like a grandma running a chemistry lab, turning out the smooth­est blackberry ice cream and flakiest tart dough while creating quietly sub­versive flavor combinations, like apple and rosemary. Somewhere in the middle is Nicole Krasinski, formerly of the shuttered Rubicon, who comes at dessert like a savory chef on holiday, finishing a plate of cocoa custard with honey-lard granola and lard-accented pumpkin-seed shortbread.

Unfortunately, in the current restaurant climate, talent isn't always a recipe for success. Portnoy, for example, lost his post at Candybar in mid-September. The owners told him, he says, that they wanted to head in a “different direction”—one leading toward brownies and chocolate mousse. This means one of the most innovative pastry chefs in town is now without a job. No offense to Portnoy's replacement, who's doing good work with his limited options, but interesting desserts clearly face an uphill battle in the Bay Area. Portnoy worries that perhaps he's just “not a good fit for people's tastes right now.” So why, exactly, did the sweet life go so sour—and can Portnoy and his compatriots once again whip dessert into the knockout way to end a meal?

It seems to never end, the crediting of Chez Panisse for local restaurant culture as we know it. But our dessert story, for better and for worse, also starts on Shattuck Avenue. From the time Lindsey Shere debuted there as the pastry chef in 1971 until now, with Mia Ponce and Stacie Pierce jointly running the department, there has been an unwavering through line: pristine ingredients treated simply and reverently. Start with perfect, locally grown strawberries. Showcase them in a sorbet or an impeccably executed, butter-laden crust—and don't get too fancy. “You have to know when to leave something be,” says Mary Jo Thoresen, who worked at Chez Panisse for 12 years and is now pastry chef and co-owner of Jojo, in Oakland, where she continues to turn out exquisite desserts in the Shere tradition. Like a dropped scoop of mulberry ice cream spreading across the sidewalk on a balmy day, the iconic restaurant's dessert menu has led to a multitude of imitators. Notice an Autumn Flame peach tart on a buttery bed of short-crust dough, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla-bean ice cream, at your neighborhood restaurant last night? You have Ms. Shere and company to thank.

And thank them you should. Before Shere's purity-first mindset swept across the pastry landscape, desserts here were typically copycat renditions of French classics, like crème caramel and pastry cream-filled napoleons with out-of-season fruit. So the turn toward fresh ingredients treated with respect was a welcome change. But almost 40 years have ticked by since the launch of Chez Panisse, and the Shere dessert ethic hasn't always weathered well. When it's done right, the perfect peach tart is still a marvel—but it requires flawless technique (it just looks simple), and there's less of that to go around these days.

“I meet these people who call themselves pastry chefs who've only been out of culinary school for eight months,” says William Werner, a pastry chef and consultant who has worked at the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay. “I try to talk to them about tempering chocolate, and they look at me like I have three heads.” Werner, by contrast, has been working in pastry for more than a decade and began his career at the bottom of the sugar barrel, training under Stéphane Chéramy at the Ritz-Carlton in Sarasota, Florida. “I worked for free, 12 hours a day. After showing me how to make bonbons, he would leave, and I would clean his tools and polish the whole kitchen. I didn't care; I was there to learn,” Werner recalls. Others, including Shuna Lydon, founder of the blog Eggbeater and a pastry chef at large who has worked at the French Laundry and Aziza and in the lauded pastry department at New York's Gramercy Tavern, tell similar stories. Even Villavelazquez, who at 24 is one of San Francisco's youngest pastry chefs, began his career at 18 in the kitchen at Citizen Cake but acquired his title only when Orson opened this past February.

Of course, considering how little most pastry chef jobs in the Bay Area pay, it's no wonder the slots are being filled by underbaked culinary-school graduates. “I've been let go by restaurants and replaced by people making $23,000 a year,” says Lydon, who last month moved to London for a better-paying job. Compare that with places like New York and Las Vegas, where, Werner notes, it's possible—even likely—for professionals in his field to make a decent living. “I'm getting calls from headhunters, and they're offering jobs in Vegas that pay six figures,” he says. Some argue that the local stinginess might be misguided, because an excellent pastry chef can actually be a good investment. The better the desserts, this line of thought goes, the more people order them and the less that's thrown out at the end of the night. But at a time when the economics of running a restaurant are tighter than ever (reminder: San Francisco restaurants are now struggling with the costs of mandatory sick pay, a higher minimum wage, and universal healthcare), pastry chefs are often the first to feel the vise.

Some places simply can't afford to pay someone to make dessert—particularly neighborhood restaurants, where Bay Area folks do the bulk of their dining. And those that do have one often give that person the short end of the whisk. The pastry chef at Pizzaiolo, for instance, has a makeshift hallway station on the way to the bathroom. Even Boulevard, one of the busiest restaurants in town, with one of the largest pastry departments, doesn't give its dessert staff adequate real estate, says Lydon. “You should see where the pastry people have to work,” she says. “They share the entire space with the rest of the cooks.” Another problem: The dessert chef often has to share equipment with the savory department. In one case, an entire batch of panna cotta had to be thrown out after being tainted by garlic residue. The media certainly doesn't help the situation, either: In an August review of Coi in the San Francisco Chronicle, in which the restaurant was upgraded to four-star status, only four words were devoted to the tasting menu's two desserts, and there was no mention of Carlos Salgado, who masterminded them.

Beyond less-than-sweet economics, the stumbling dessert culture reflects the Bay Area's fine-dining priorities. For starters, many people around here are just too health-obsessed to care much about dessert. If diners are going to consume sweet calories, says Portnoy, they often do so at the beginning of the meal, in the form of one of the area's typically sugar-heavy cocktails.

Portion sizing is another culprit. While working other jobs before opening Citizen Cake and Orson, Elizabeth Falkner was flabbergasted by the amount of food coming out of the kitchen. “I'd think, ‘You guys are killing me! We're never going to sell dessert if people eat that much short ribs and mashed potatoes.'” At Citizen Cake and Orson, she aims for a better balance. “I want people to have an appetizer, an entrée, and des­sert and not feel like a pig when they leave.”

Even when local diners do order dessert, they tend to gravitate toward the familiar. “When I was at Mecca, the servers would always tell me to make gooey, sticky desserts, because they sell better,” recalls Eric Shelton, co-owner of Sketch with his wife, Ruthie Planas-Shelton. Some of that knee-jerk desire for pure sweetness may be a biological inheritance that even the most adventuresome diners—the type who go for the nine-course tasting menu at the French Laundry—are powerless to resist. As Harold McGee notes in his seminal tome, On Food and Cooking, studies indicate that of the four basic taste sensations, “only sweetness is innately preferred.” Our fondness for sugar, he posits, most likely stems from our history of eating nutrient-rich, glucose-filled plants; as a result, sweetness began to equal sustenance.

This biological push helps to explain why it's more work to develop a smart sweet tooth than a smart savory tooth. “People want comfort-food favorites for dessert,” says Kara Nielsen, a trend analyst at the Center for Culinary Development and a former pastry chef. Hence the profusion of s'mores, brownie sundaes, and root-beer floats on many local menus. Even food writer Alan Richman, who is fond of extolling the virtues of such gastronomic destinations as New York's seafood temple, Le Bernardin, and Spain's molecular-gastronomy mecca, El Bulli, regresses when writing about the subject, as he did in the July 2008 issue of GQ. ”I am no longer eight years old, but I feel that way whenever I order dessert,” he wrote. (The finest candy is See's California Brittle, he says, and his holy grail is an over-the-top sundae called Pig's Dinner.) Locally, an institution as beloved as Tartine Bakery isn't immune to diners' often hidebound dessert needs. A few years ago, co-owner Pruiett made blancmange (a simple almond-flavored dessert much like panna cotta) and served it with fresh cherries. The bakery's customers would have none of it. “But we can't sell enough chocolate pudding,” she says.

For Portnoy, chocolate pudding was never an option. He discovered early in his career that he wanted to make food that was complex and exciting, even if it meant guiding wary diners by the fork. Indeed, many a night at Candybar found him stepping out of the kitchen to walk guests through his unusual offerings. The week he was serving milk-chocolate fingers with celery-licorice sorbet, for example, he had to explain that the sorbet didn't have a heavy celery taste; the vegetable simply added a bright note to the rich chocolate.

Portnoy's dessert philosophy is rooted in one main idea: creating a well-tuned interplay among disparate elements, some of which may not seem to belong in a dessert. His Before and After 8, for example, somehow balances sweetness, acidity, smoke, texture, and salt. Sure, tobacco in cream might be considered a stretch—but that improbable combination is really only the extension of a dessert tradition many of us have already begun to embrace in the Bay Area. (Even undaring diners expand their horizons, given enough time.)

Take salted caramel. The flavor com­bination had an underground following, thanks to such chocolatiers as Recchiuti—but some traditionalists still couldn't wrap their heads around it. Now it's the Bi-Rite Creamery's top-selling flavor, and it's turning up in candy and ice cream all over the Bay Area. Likewise, Falkner touts the success of her Peruvian-corn ice cream. “When we first put it on the menu, people would scratch their heads,” she recalls. “But we kept pushing people to taste it, and now when they don't see it on the menu, they say, ‘Oh, I really miss that corn ice cream!'” In Portnoy's world, it's not such a great leap from savory caramel and vegetables in ice cream to olive cream piped into a chocolate cannellone.

The key is finding the right balance, which, you could say, Portnoy's entire career has been training him to do. At his first restaurant job, at the classically French Deux Cheminées, in Philadelphia (a land of pork medallions, marsala, and napoleons with brûléed bananas and pastry cream), Portnoy worked under chef Fritz Blank, who was once a micro­biologist. Blank approached savory food with a scientific precision usually reserved for baking, regularly sending Portnoy to one of the restaurant's 10,000 culinary texts for answers to gastronomic questions. Portnoy then helped open the restaurant Salt (also in Philadelphia) with Vernon Morales, an intrepid chef who had worked at New York's four-star, haute-French Daniel and at some of Spain's most cutting-edge restaurants. At Salt, Morales bolstered Portnoy's education in molecular gastronomy, the current movement that relies on unconventional techniques and additives to alter the shape and texture of food.

Portnoy continued his avant-garde schooling at Mugaritz, in Spain's Basque country, where the cooks would forage for herbs every morning. After a stint in New York, he came west with Morales to open Winterland, a short-lived Pacific Heights restaurant that was one of the first local practitioners in the culinary vanguard. When Winterland closed, Portnoy landed at Campton Place, where he introduced curious diners to dishes like cauliflower mousse ringed with milk chocolate and swathed in a mixture of reduced carrot juice and briny sea urchin that had been thickened with xanthan gum and albumen, then aerated with an immersion blender.

Portnoy's work at Candybar was similarly innovative, but in a casual environment. Now that he's no longer there, he is consulting for the California Walnut Marketing Board and launching a food zine, Paper Napkin. He's uncertain about the future, but it's hard to imagine he won't land in a restaurant kitchen again soon; in fact, rumor has it that he'll be spearheading the pastry department of a splashy restaurant due to open next year. (Portnoy confirmed the rumor, but wouldn't offer any details.) Anyone who wants to be a “purveyor of ideas,” as he calls himself, is bound to rebound.

The future is similarly ambiguous for Nicole Krasinski. She and her longtime co-chef and partner, Stuart Brioza, no longer have full-time jobs, since Rubicon closed its doors in August after 14 years (for financial reasons, according to proprietor Drew Nieporent). So there's currently no place to sample her frozen Earl Grey mousse, topped with a buckwheat tuile cookie and paired with a compote made from Mutsu apples and umeboshi (pickled Japanese apricots), or her plum financier with olive-oil ice cream and shaved Sardinian pecorino. Over the years, she and Brioza gained a loyal following. Luckily for locals, they plan to stay in the Bay Area and open their own place.

Two of Portnoy and Krasinski's standout peers are (thankfully) still employed. The shelves behind the dessert-plating station at Orson, where Villavelazquez runs the show, teem with many of the tools of the culinar cutting edge that Portnoy has employed: Kelcogel (a gelling agent), carbon dioxide chargers for creating foams, and intriguing flavorings, such as Douglas fir-tip tea. But Villavelazquez is also deeply in touch with the current dicta of Bay Area cooking. In the fall, his ingenious dessert the Swift Strike starred seasonal black Mission figs poached in the Italian liqueur Fernet-Branca—an herbaceous spirit that is drunk more in San Francisco than anywhere else in the country. But he took it a step further by adding black-pepper granola and pine nut-caramel ice cream to the plate; these disparate components seem odd only until you taste them together.

Polzine, on the other hand, is devoted to reinvigorating dessert at the neighborhood-restaurant level. This generally entails turning out sweets that are exquisitely executed and slightly offbeat, but not as overtly edgy as what you'd find at Orson. At Range, you'll find soufflés, crêpes, turnovers, upside-down cakes, and even fruit tarts—but ones unlike those made by her peers. Polzine's flawless chocolate crêpes come with grapefruit segments and pink-peppercorn ice cream. Her ridiculously creamy butterscotch pudding is made from real butter, brown sugar, and rum—not melted synthetic butterscotch chips—and accompanied by three freshly baked vanilla wafers shot through with real vanilla-bean seeds. And her impossibly flaky tarte tatin, featuring apples and quince, is finished with quince syrup and rosemary ice cream. This is dining at its best, where dessert completes the arc of the meal by complementing what came before, sending you home with equal parts contentment and pleasant surprise.

In the end, that is the goal of every member of this band of committed pastry chefs. We dine in restaurants to be coddled and cared for, but also to eat food that challenges us—sometimes on the smallest of scales—even as it satisfies. After all, if we weren't interested in food that surpasses our expectations or skills as home cooks, wouldn't we just stay home?

The shaky economy certainly won't make this sugary march forward any easier. During tough times, diners tend to gravitate toward the familiar—and money troubles for restaurants could make talented pastry chefs all the more dispensable. Still, food is a primal comfort, and a taste of sweetness can be a salve like little else. And this is the Bay Area, where diners' devotion to great restaurants is unlikely to waver. So while we continue to champion the ice cream parlors, bakeries, chocolatiers, and doughnut shops that have recently turned sweet snacking into a high art, let's also embrace the pear tart with cardamom ice cream, or the pumpkin custard with brown-butter streusel and root-beer maple syrup, at the end of a restaurant meal. We can have that salted-caramel ice cream and eat our microwaved walnut cake, too.

Scott Hocker is
San Francisco's senior editor. After a year of reporting this story, he still never ends a meal without dessert.

Main photo: At Orson, pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez's Clock Past Midnight features pumpkin custard, brown-butter streusel, shards of dehydrated carrot, and drizzles of root-beer maple syrup and carrot reduction.


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