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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Desserts of the Future

On Monday night I turned up at Fenix demanding my just desserts. My friend had emailed me soon after the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival program came out asking if I'd be interested in going along to a dessert dinner at Fenix. It was expensive, so I hesitated, but then remembered I've been wanting to eat there for ages, ever since Raymond Capaldi really embraced the whole molecular gastronomy thing. I ate at Reserve when George Calombaris had just started there, and remember my mum's reaction to her blue cheese and dark chocolate crab-meat patty creation when it appeared in front of her (I seem to recall it all worked together??), and I caught a few episodes of Heston Blumenthal's latest series when I was in the UK last year. So, I figured we'd get to sample some pretty interesting flavours and combinations. Plus, who doesn't think the idea of a dinner which includes 1 main and 4 desserts matched with wines doesn't sound like a Very Good Thing?!

Raymond Capaldi came out and set us all straight immediately. He's got some presence, that man, plus an accent straight out of Billy Connolly:
"Right, so desserts are not meant to be sweet."
Huh? Confusion all 'round. Hell, we're not going to get desserts made of savoury stuff, are we??
Yes, and no. His belief (and I think it's a sound one) is that the overwhelming sensation of a dessert should not be only sugar and sweetness. There should be a mix of flavours and taste sensations, and a good dessert should make use of all 5 tastes our tongues can sense. He's big on unami as one of them, so seaweed takes a starring role in many. Salt is important in desserts too, especially when using nuts or chocolate.
He went on to explain that recipes found in popular foodie magazines are created for the lowest common denominator and are full of unnecessary extenders. Flour is one such nasty extender, and his own example was the Fenix basic chocolate souffle, which has all the flour removed, hence creating a much more intense flavour and delicate texture. Once a customer requested a sticky date pudding, which isn't on their menu, so he Googled a recipe and told the staff to remove 1/2 the flour and double the sauce. They argued it wouldn't set, and told him his reputation would be on the line when it flopped, but it turned out to be the best sticky date pudding they'd ever tasted; just set and wobbling on the plate. As somebody who tends to bake more often than your basic Joe, and who shouldn't be eating vast quantities of flour, this idea interests me.
Enough of the theories: onto the food.

So we wouldn't only be eating desserts, we started with a main course of 36 hour cooked lamb. Sorry about the crap photo; I hadn't worked out my manual settings yet!
This was exquisite. The lamb neck meat was cooked at 58 degrees C for 1.5 days, which meant that the meat never got so hot that the fat escaped into the pan. Instead, the meat cooked extremely slowly, with the fat remaining inside keeping it lubricated. After 36 hours, the lamb was still pink inside and so tender we didn't need to use knives. We had a velvety sauce made of pureed char-grilled eggplants, almonds, garlic etc. and a bit of roasted capsicum (not a turd, despite the photo). I'd be really keen to replicate this at home. It'd be one of the only things from the night I'd be capable of doing!

A special guest on the night was Will Goldfarb from Room 4 Dessert; a high-end dessert bar in New York. He gave us a talk (very lovely guy, but slightly pointless talk) before the meal began, and this first dessert, was one of his creations. I knew when I saw something as mundane as ice-cream sandwich on the menu, that it would actually be something pretty special. Hey, probably something with foams and liquid nitrogen?! Actually, it was pretty simple; a sweet-dough biscuit topped with vanilla icecream and a scoop of Epoisses cheese topped with smoked salt. Will said it plays on peoples' love for things sweet, fatty and salty and, sure, I could have eaten at least 5 of these, but maybe it was just 'cos I was hungry; because if I'm being completely honest what it tasted like was a bit of soft camembert and icecream on a shortbread biscuit! Great icecream and amazing cheese, but still.... We couldn't taste the smoked salt. Each part was lovely, but it was definitely a head-spin to eat icecream and salty, creamy cheese together. The simplest dessert on the night, but I remember the taste and texture intensely.

Tahitian Vanilla Mousse with cucumber sorbet was one that didn't grab my attention on the menu but ended up being our favourite of the night. A advantage of events like this is that they challenge your preconceived ideas about what you like. This is not the sort of thing I'd order on a dessert menu, but it was incredible. The vanilla mousse made with Tahitian vanilla seeds is the long, white sausage. The cucumber sorbet is topped with a mango gel, and a coconut tapioca mixture is down the other end. Along the way is a square of lime jelly, a few bean shoots and cubes of cucumber. What I enjoyed was that each component tasted good on its own, but even better when combined with others. We had fun mixing and matching. Fresh and light and citrussy, this was a winner. Particularly the cucumber sorbet: wow, star of the plate.

Now, what I said before about challenging preconceptions? This "Coffee & Potato" is the type of thing I would have ordered from a menu. The description struck the right notes of interest in me: coffee icecream, hazelnut custard and potato puree, but just didn't do it for us. All of us (we'd made friends by this stage).
Ray described this dish beforehand, pointing out that it wasn't dreamt up in the middle of the night by a crazy person. He said the Ratte potato has a hazelnut taste to it, and hazelnut pairs well with coffee, so he figured they'd work well together. Great idea, in theory. But in reality the puree was not and the texture was all wrong. Coffee icecream: great. Hazelnut custard: gorgeous. But the potato was too dry and powdery, and got caught in your throat. If it had been lubricated just a little more, it might have been more successful, but who knows if adding milk or butter to it would have thrown the taste balance out with the other components? I just couldn't get past the fact that I was eating a lump of dry mashed potato with my icecream and custard! A friend who heard about it said it sounded like something made up by a toddler playing in the kitchen. :-) Not awful, in the realm of all the food in the world, just not the best of what we experienced that night.

This green apple sorbet, with parsnip puree, blackberries and cashew nut jam is another thing I might have overlooked on a menu, but again, I've had my preconceptions challenged. Along with our new friends we decided this was a real winner. Ray had already explained to us that in old-English useage, 'nip' meant something sweet, and parsnips were generally used in cakes and desserts. Sometime in the last 200 years this changed and parsnips are just known for their use in the Sunday roast and veggie soup. I can't say I enjoyed the parsnip puree on its own, but I don't think that was the point. Combined with the tangy apple sorbet and the salty cashew nuts it was a incredible combination. We felt this dessert in particular was made for playing with taste combinations. Cubes of apple combined with salted blackberries and the amazing cashew nut 'jam' is something I remember enjoying.

By the last course we were feeling pretty lightheaded; a different wine had been served with each course, and after our first enthusiastic sparkling we realised that if we were going to drive home, we were going to have to be a bit more careful. At the end of the night you can see how sensible we were, dammit:

The wines were really incredible; I've never had a meal where each course was so perfectly matched with the wine. There was one particular choice all of us disliked intensely when we tasted it (smelled like iodine!) but when combined with the coffee & potato dessertit suddenly worked.
You'll notice that in a dinner of 4 desserts chocolate didn't make an appearance, but that omission was rectified with the petit fours. We had a red fruit 'popsicle': kind of frozen air on a stick; a blackcurrant jelly (like the best jube you've ever tasted) and a salt & vinegar chocolate stick. Uh-huh. Salt & vinegar chocolate! And it was so amazing we were stealing extras from other peoples' plates (how could they possibly leave them??!). Adding salt to chocolate is already widely known to heighten the flavour of chocolate, but the addition of a sweet (possibly balsamic) vinegar was a revelation. Outstanding!
I'm glad I made the decision to go along. It was a real eye-opener of an evening, and enjoyable on many levels. My friend and I were so impressed with Raymond Capaldi's views on food, the service, and the look of the regular menu that we're planning to return for a degustation dinner; and hang the cost!!

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