Monday, March 12, 2012

A Tasting of Shawn Gawle's Desserts at Corton

For years, I’ve lamented the fact that dessert gets the short shrift. It’s not that I have a sweet tooth – I’m more of a savory craver – but, as an avid baker and scientist, I really appreciate the skill, precision, creativity, and beauty of a well-executed dessert.  Why, though, is it that dessert is always an afterthought, even in restaurants with dedicated and talented pastry chefs? Many restaurants relegate dessert to a separate menu that is often not seen until after several courses have already been consumed. Why isn’t the work of pastry chefs given equal attention? This holds particularly true for restaurants with only a prix fixe menu, leaving those of us who have no desire to wade through multiple courses of seafood and meat (or not terribly inspired last-minute vegetarian substitutes) unable to indulge in the exquisite creations of renowned pastry chefs.

Several weeks ago, I asked that question out loud with respect to Corton’s pastry chef Shawn Gawle, who was recently named one of the best pastry chefs in America by Food and Wine magazine, and his gorgeous “Birch” dessert.  I was beyond surprised to get the response that I did.

Several days later, I received an invitation to a complimentary dessert tasting with Chef Gawle. I was stunned – I have never had such an offer extended to me! – and I clearly accepted. There was no way I could turn down the opportunity to be treated to several desserts from such a talented pastry chef, and one whose work I had been eager to try for some time but reluctant to do so because of the menu setup at Corton – it’s only prix fixe and it’s quite meat/seafood-centric.

The dining room

We arrived at Corton right when it opened so that I could take photos without being obtrusive. Chef Gawle came out several minutes after we were seated and couldn’t have been warmer or easier to talk to. [Matt insisted we had seen him somewhere before – possibly at Killed by Dessert – but I wasn’t sure about that. Turns out Matt was right.]  He kept the conversation short so we could get started on what would turn out to be some of the best and most consistently executed desserts we’ve had in quite some time.
This qualifies as dinner

Our first course, Rose Grapefruit, was quite possibly my favorite of the evening. It looked simple, but the textures and flavors worked perfectly. I have recently fallen hard for grapefruit and I loved how it was used here in different forms – sorbet, segments, candied zest, and meringue. Its accompaniments – burnt honey sabayon, a fine dice of candied ginger, and ginger gelato – were perfect complements. The dish was thoughtful, well-balanced, bright, and flavorful – just perfect.

Rose Grapefruit

Our second course was the now-infamous Birch, which was the dessert that landed me in the seat in which I was sitting and therefore very eagerly awaited. A beauty to behold, its taste did not betray its appearance. I’m not a huge fan of chocolate desserts – and, as I later learned, neither is Chef Gawle, which is why the chocolate components in this are light – but this one is something I would very happily eat again. Chocolate cremeux, birch sorbet, chestnut cream, mint blossoms and leaves, and thin chocolate sheets comprised this dessert, and the elements were well-balanced, with the slightly astringent, woodsy, and bright birch sorbet serving as an apt counterpoint to the luxurious, yet not-too-rich, chocolate cremeux. The chocolate sheets and crumbles provided just the right hint of texture and the chestnut puree tied it all together with its earthy, sweet flavor. Now I know why this was included in Grub Street’s rundown of the 101 best desserts in the country.  It’s one of the best I’ve ever had.


For our third course we were presented with a beige blob in a bowl that received a shower of chocolate sauce at the table. It wasn’t much to look at but I reserved judgment until eating it. The blob was in fact banana sponge batter that was frozen with liquid nitrogen, resulting in a crisp, light exterior and a cold but nearly liquid interior. The sauce, Valrhona Caramelia chocolate spiked with caramel and rum, was way too boozy for my taste (and I am not averse to booze) so I ate around it. This one was simple – the batter tasted just like banana bread, which I think is something that’s generally well-liked – but the preparation was whimsical and elevated everyday banana bread into something a little more special.


Vol au Vent

Our final course was a Vol au Vent filled with a honeycrisp apple sorbet and chunks of honeycrisp apples cooked with Calvados and was accompanied by coffee ice cream, toasted oat crumble, raisins that tasted like they spent hours in a bath of Calvados, and an apple butter sauce. The vol au vent was textbook perfect – flaky, intensely buttery, and crisp – and I was pleasantly surprised by the pairing of coffee and apples, which I questioned but ended up liking. The raisins, much like the sauce for the frozen banana puff, were way too boozy so I didn’t eat them. (Either I’m losing my edge or Chef Gawle has a high threshold, and I hope it’s not the former because then I will have to admit that I’m getting old.) The toasted oat crumble – which was comprised of sable dough, toasted oats, and Reims spice, which is a blend of ginger, anise, and honey – made the whole thing taste like apple cobbler, and I mean that in the best way possible. This, similar to the banana, registered with me as a refined take on a simple, classic dessert, and it was a lovely ending to our meal.

Vol au Vent

Except we were far from done. Shortly after our plates were cleared, we were presented with a cavalcade of mignardises. Caneles, macarons, chocolates, and financiers took over our table and we didn’t know where to begin.

Chocolates and caneles and macarons, oh my

I’ve never had a warm canele, so I attacked it right away. The exterior was slightly crisp and the inside was warm and slightly custardy – what a good canele should be. It was the best one I’ve had, but, to be fair, I’ve never had one fresh from the oven.


I went for the macarons next. Despite sounding strange, the kalamata olive-gianduja combination worked really well. The salty, savory flavor of the olive cut through the sweetness of the gianduja and made this one of my favorite macarons ever.  [I told you I like savory things.]

Lots of macarons

The toffee bourbon one, though, I could do without – it was another very boozy bite so I handed over my half-eaten macaron to Matt because I couldn’t bear to waste something that was otherwise really well-executed. (Seriously, what’s going on here? Am I totally unable to handle liquor anymore or was there really just a lot of it in all of these desserts?)

The financier looked different from others I’ve had, and we later learned that it was made not with almond flour but rather sesame flour, giving it a savory edge that I appreciated. And those pates de fruit! Very intense – the kalamansi half reminded me of a sour patch kid – and I was totally into how aggressive it was. No tiptoeing around flavors here.

Pates de fruit and financier

The jewel-like chocolates – filled with olive oil lime curd, jasmine hazelnut ganache, palet d’or, and salted caramel – were pitch perfect. I thought that including a salted caramel one was kind of a cop out but I changed my mind the second the caramel center burst into my mouth – it was aggressively salty, which is rare for salted caramel, and I dug that boldness. If you’re going to call it salted caramel, then make it salty! And Chef Gawle did just that.

Chocolates - clockwise from back: palet d'or, Meyer lemon-rosemary, jasmine hazelnut, salted caramel

Shortly after we were presented with all our mignardises, Chef Gawle reappeared to talk to us for a bit. I got some more details on a few of the dishes we had just been treated to and also learned of his massive collection of canele molds. I just had to ask about the birch sorbet, the nebulous texture of which really intrigued me. Its base is several liters of water that is infused with an actual bundle of birch branches (and sugar), and, after the addition of some high and low acyl gellan, it's spun in a Pacojet. The texture was somewhere between a traditional sorbet and a fluid gel and I kind of loved that I couldn't quite figure out what it was.

After a little over two hours, we were stuffed with some of the best desserts we've ever had.  Everything was thoughtful and bold, the latter of which is often lacking in both desserts and food.  What was even more impressive than the individual desserts was the consistency - everything was executed so well, especially the mignardises, which can often fall short of the courses that precede them.
We were so lucky to be treated to this amazing tasting of Chef Gawle's desserts and I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of great things in the future from this very talented chef.

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