“The fine arts are five in number,” the 19th-century chef Carême once wrote, “painting, sculpture, poetry, music and architecture — whose main branch is pastry.” In the 1820s, pastry was the rock & roll of the moneyed classes, and the neoclassical creations of chefs like Carême were astonishing — mountains of dough and spun sugar twisted into unearthly temples and fantastic pavilions that defied geometry. The central position of the pastry master disappeared not long after then, when the modern service à la Russe became fashionable, which is to say that the traditional French practice of serving all 47 courses at once became replaced by the course-by-course, soup-to-nuts procession that you still see today. No matter how accomplished the pastry chef, how advanced his imagination, his admirers tend to approach his work already sated with 3,500 calories of butterfat and a bottle or two of wine, ready less for an aesthetic experience than for a spot of chocolate to help the coffee down.
It can’t be easy, designing an all-dessert feast, sugar following sugar and fruit following fruit, pacing a succession of chocolate, cream and nuts diverting, varied and light enough to keep jaded diners at the table for a couple of hours without either boring them or causing them to explode. The best restaurants in France are often incapable of the feat, as anybody who has experienced the numbing parade of desserts at Gagnaire or Le Cinq can testify. Even the kitchen of Joël Robuchon in his prime hit a wall after the third or fourth round of pastry.
But in New York at the moment, there is a small fad for dessert-only restaurants — ChikaLicious, Room 4 Dessert — modeled perhaps on Espai Sucre, the ultramodern all-sweet restaurant that is one of the toughest reservations in Barcelona. And now, in Los Angeles, there is the dessert-tasting menu of pastry chef Adrian Vasquez at Providence, a five-course degustation demanding and ambitious enough, especially with its concomitant wine pairing, to command attention for an entire evening, a universe of puréed avocado and hot cider foam, passion fruit and exotic marshmallows as compelling as Michael Cimarusti’s poached Santa Barbara spot prawns and compositions of squid and pigs’-ears salads that inhabit the main menu at the restaurant. Vasquez’s menu isn’t something to toy with after dinner: It is dinner, with all the commitment that implies.
A white-chocolate orb, the prelude tothe tasting, is impaled on a paper stick and thrust into a liqueur glass filled with sugar, the way that raw oysters are served on a bed of rock salt — you bite into the crunchy chocolate, which is dusted with ground cardamom, and a teaspoonful of spiced blood-orange juice floods into your mouth, its tart-sweetness somehow just right against the fatty blandness of the chocolate shell. (I’m not sure I have ever contemplated a legitimate use for white chocolate, but Vasquez seems to have come up with one.)
A scoop of vanilla ice cream is laid over chewy lozenges of mango. The headwaiter brings a seltzer siphon to the table and spritzes the bowl with an ultratart soda made with Filipino kalamansi limes, which homogenizes the dish into something like an extreme root-beer float.
A ruddy orange disk of passion-fruit jelly is topped with a scoop of ice cream sharply flavored with the Japanese herb shiso and surrounded by jellylike soaked basil seeds, which look a little like masses of frog eggs on the plate and uncannily arrange themselves into concentric rings, so that the appearance is almost of a tiered stadium filled with tadpoles. This time, the waiter pours a thin broth of salted, coconut-scented soy milk over the composition, blanketing it with creaminess, and the flavor that emerges is very much like the classic Thai dessert of mango and sticky rice, but with the texture, perhaps, of Central American desserts made with the similarly gelatinous chia seeds — a completely novel sensation.
From what I gather, Vasquez never spent any significant time working in such avant-garde kitchens as El Bulli, the Fat Duck or WD-50, but his formative years as a chef were spent in Chicago, where he hung out with the chemistry-obsessed crowd around the kitchens at Moto and Alinea, and his sympathies are definitely with the movement that is sometimes called molecular gastronomy: chefs who adapt industrial technologies to the restaurant kitchen, mostly in the form of exotic emulsifiers, so that ice cream can be hot, pudding can be chewy, and hard-frozen treats can spurt sweet fluids like so many orders of chicken Kiev. The molecular-gastronomy school of pastry is a vast improvement over its immediate predecessor in fancy Manhattan restaurants, which seemed to involve gold leaf and a lot of repurposed breakfast cereal.
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After the layered sourness in the first courses of the tasting, the buttery squash polenta comes across almost as a rich savory, vaguely salted, garnished with candied pecans, a smooth, cool scoop of mascarpone cheese, and a spoonful of a fashionable kind of mellow maple syrup aged in bourbon barrels that has been making its way into the country’s best pastry kitchens lately.
Next comes a banana capsule, which is to say the half-frozen flesh of the fruit shaped into a thumb-size cylinder. To one side of the capsule is a small football of smooth, barely cold chocolate sorbet that threatens to collapse into a rich, brown puddle; to the other, a spoonful of golden “caviar,” a sweet, cinnamon-infused syrup fashioned into tiny orbs that pop in the mouth like salmon roe. The dish, as such, doesn’t really exist until the act of eating begins, when your spoon cuts into the capsule and a smooth, almondy caramel oozes out, the tart, slippery, crunchy passion-fruit seeds at the base begin to meld with the chocolate, the cinnamon explodes in little firework bursts, and the postmodern barbecue smokiness of the roasted cacao nibs buried in the ice cream spreads over the dish like warm liquid: spectacular.
The last course, an almost meaty chocolate cream served under a basil-flavored marshmallow bent to look like a midcentury-modern chaise and flanked by a smear of lemon curd, is structured so much like a Providence entrée that you start wondering what might be for dessert. I would have contemplated a plate of Cimarusti’s spot prawns if I wasn’t ?so happy, half-drunk on Banyuls and Coteaux du Layon, ?and full.
Providence, 5955 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 460-4170. Open for lunch Fri. noon–2:30 p.m. and dinner Mon.–Fri. 6–10 p.m., Sat. 5:30–10 p.m., Sun. 5:30–9 p.m. Full bar. Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dessert tasting $20 for three courses, $30 with wine pairing; $30 for full tasting, $50 with wine pairing.