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RESTAURANT SPECIAL '98: THE BEST...THE BEAUTIFUL...AND
THE BIZARRE | In the Kitchen

Sweet Feats

Three Pastry Chefs Work Their Magic With Blue Cheese, Fennel and Peppermint Candies

March 15, 1998|MICHELLE HUNEVEN | Michelle Huneven's last article for the magazine was about stew

Desserts are the final say in a meal, the parting shot, a kitchen's last chance to make good. They literally leave a good taste in a diner's mouth--or not. Given this power, it's understandable that many otherwise-terrific restaurants rely on certain old standbys--creme brulee, apple tarte tatin, tiramisu--and troubling that more pastry chefs aren't saving us from such boring, predictable sweets.

Pastry chefs are a luxury for most restaurants; good jobs are few and far between. Even then, a pastry chef never earns as much as a chef de cuisine, which discourages all but the most dedicated cooks from seeking work in desserts. A good pastry chef, in short, is extremely hard to find. L.A. has but a handful. Nancy Silverton at Campanile and Michel Richard at Citrus have long set the high standards. And there are a very few strong young talents in town--dessert makers who end meals with a bang, not a brulee.

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Jeffrey Johnson, the chef de patisserie at monrovia's Restaurant Devon, is a shy, handsome, compact young man who is wildly enthusiastic about his craft. He came to Devon when it opened two years ago thanks to, well, his mother, who worked in an office in the same building. As the restaurant was being built, word filtered down to the owner, Richard Lukasiewicz, that Laurie Johnson's son was a trained pastry chef. Lukasiewicz invited Jeffrey for a talk, and the young cook landed his first professional position.

Johnson, 26, grew up in San Marino, studied music and then was classically trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London, where he completed the full cycle of French cooking, studying first cuisine, then pastry. After graduating in 1995, he stayed on for seven months as the school's recipes administrator.

At Devon, Johnson was given free rein with one caveat: He had to make one rich chocolate dessert. His dessert menu, then, always includes something chocolate, along with a cake, a custard pudding, an ice cream assortment, a cheese selection and specials.

The amount of work he puts into each plate is staggering. The crunch in an espresso ice cream, for example, comes from crushing espresso beans, then making them into a crisp caramel nougatine, which, in turn, is crushed and added to the freshly churned ice cream. The ice cream itself is custard-based, and each custard, once cooked, is ripened for 36 hours so that the egg yolks mellow out and the vanilla becomes more pronounced. "I make very small batches of various flavors. To get a rotation going with the maturing processes involved takes some doing."

Ice cream, however, is only a sideline. "Cakes," he says, "are the great center, the foundation of my menu. My fondness for them comes out of my love for the British tradition of tea." His cakes share a moist, fine, buttery crumb that has the lightest filigree of crunch. Indeed, cakes teamed with specific ice creams are among his most innovative efforts. There's the beautifully spicy, seductive red wine cake served with a berry ice cream, and the haunting pear cardamom cake with Fourme D'Ambert ice cream. That's right: blue cheese ice cream. The cheese adds a subtle sharpness to the creamy, slightly sweet ice cream and proves the perfect complement to the pear, its flavor enhanced with cardamom.

"Intermingling the savory and the sweet brings the meal into a whole," Johnson says. "I don't like these big blasts of super-sweetness at the end of a meal. Why not carry the thread of flavors throughout the meal?" His latest cake would seem to carry this sweet/savory idea over the top. A Kalamata olive cake served with tomato Chardonnay ice cream?

Johnson laughs. "You can just imagine how it doesn't sell." In fact, cake and ice cream doesn't get more sophisticated--or delicious. By pureeing the olives, he makes them more of a flavoring; their slightly salty fruitiness adds depth and balances the cake's sweetness and richness. The subtle tomato ice cream adds tones of citrus, bay leaf and the oakiness of Chardonnay.

Johnson's chocolate philosophy can be summed up in four words: bitter, dark, intense and simple. His custards are unusual, like the creme brulee enhanced with seven spices or the flognarde, a souffle-like custard that's crusty like a popover on the outside and rich and eggy with macerated raisins and sultanas on the inside. And his rule for ice cream is, not surprisingly, not too sweet!--and, yes, possibly even a bit savory.

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