Paris Brest from Balsan, at The Elysian Hotel (photo by Steve Dolinsky)
If Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong only knew how good things were over at the new Elysian Hotel. First of all, the Gold Coast hotel has two restaurants: Ria, the more upscale sibling (think caviar and foie), as well as Balsan, a more casual room just down the hall. Both restaurants share pastry chef Alissa Wallers, who has resurrected a famous French treat that has its roots in a 19th century race. Long before the Paris Brest was a pastry, it was a famous bicycle race. In‚ 1891, the route ran from Paris to Brest and then back to Paris again. It was the precursor to the Tour de France. As a way of honoring this event, the Paris Brest was created in the shape of a bicycle tire. What Armstrong does with bikes, Wallers achieves with cream and sugar; she has simply created one of the best desserts in town: incredibly rich (thanks to praline paste, toasted hazelnuts and delicate pâte à choux) pastry that is impossibly crisp on the outside, yet oh-so-forgiving within. It’s truly amazing that a dough consisting of butter, flour, water and eggs can produce a pastry that is so delicate, light and airy. The praline paste and hazelnut nougatine are embedded within a thick, middle layer of heavy cream, and the sensation of biting into this creation is what I would imagine one feels when smoking crack - it’s so god damned good I literally couldn’t stop eating it. As a point of reference, the night I tried it, I had already consumed one dinner elsewhere, then managed to eat my way through a burrata-topped pizza, a thick blue cheese-topped burger and still managed to eek out enough room in my second stomach to polish off this dessert. It’s that good.
You can see how Wallers makes it on the 11 a.m. news today on ABC 7. She told me it’s really “not that complicated,” but when you see how many steps are involved, you’ll agree that it’s something no one outside of pastry school would ever attempt, not even on a dare.
Satsuma awaits its fate in Blackbird’s pastry kitchen (photo by Steve Dolinsky)
Another source of intriguing desserts this time of year comes from the abundance of winter citrus. Normally, this time of year brings blood oranges, minneolas (half tangerine, half orange), kumquats, satsumas and pomelos to the city’s best kitchens. ‚ However, the weather has been wreaking havoc on some of the crops in Florida, which has driven up prices. Still, places like Blackbird haven’t given up on winter citrus, and they’re in the midst of some truly inspirational cooking right now - in the dead of winter no less.
Chef de Cuisine Michael Sheerin has been all over pomelo, which I first tasted in Thailand many years ago and fell in love with its giant, juicy sections that looked like grapefruit, but weren’t quite as tart. Sheerin has been dehydrating these sections, then using them in a salad of Bay scallops and beauty heart radishes. ‚ Meanwhile, upstairs in the pastry kitchen, Patrick Fahy has recently moved back home, after working at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. While he worked in California, he was introduced to the satsuma (pictured, above), and was surprised when he moved here that they were being made available by the likes of Tom Cornille, the guy who supplies produce to the culinary stars of Chicago. Fahy showed me an intermezzo course he’s offering at the restaurant, and it just blew my mind: he converts the simple, tiny fruit, into at least five different forms, and I don’t think an immersion circulator was involved in any of it. He’s got a gel, a liquid center candy, a few tiny, crunchy, dehydrated pieces and of course some fresh, pith-free pieces as well. Oh, there’s also a foam and some sorbet to boot. Intermezzo? Hell, I could end a meal with a citrus explosion like this: fruity, refreshing and just the thing to keep my palate enlivened without overwhelming it. ‚ You can see how both guys make the dishes - as well as hear from 3rd generation fruit importer Cornille - on my Friday Night Special tonight at 10 p.m.
Michael Sheerin works with pomelo at Blackbird
Some of the many uses for satsuma at Blackbird (photo by Steve Dolinsky)