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As decadent as it gets: Foie gras is now dessert

February 12, 2003|Valli Herman-Cohen | Times Staff Writer

Foie gras sorbet, anyone?

Don't gag.

When I recently joked about having foie gras for dessert at Sona, a new West Hollywood restaurant, the waiter disappeared into the kitchen and emerged with disbelief.

"We do have foie gras sorbet tonight, Madame," he told me. "I was five minutes in the kitchen because I think they are pulling my leg."

They were not. I was intrigued. And, the truth is, if I didn't think too long about duck liver as a dessert ingredient, I had to concede it was really a pretty good dish. But was it an aberration?

Nope. It turns out that at the finest restaurants in Los Angeles, sugary foie gras is, incredibly enough, in the air. Most places aren't bold enough to call it dessert, but the trend is there. And Sona isn't the only one to leap the fence: Chef Shawn Davis at Union Restaurant in Santa Monica is developing his own foie gras dessert in which a seared and cooled slice of the liver is wrapped in shredded filo dough, sauteed until it's crisp and topped with a mixture of stone fruit, creamy mascarpone, Gran Marnier and Cognac.

It's not on the menu -- yet.

"I've only been here a month," Davis said.

More often, chefs are serving foie gras appetizers that taste like they've been through pastry school. Saddle Peak Lodge has a foie gras with brandied cherries and toasted brioche. Jean Francois Meteigner at La Cachette pairs it with fruitcake and black currant sauce, when he isn't serving it with raisin chutney and brioche.


Foie gras brulee

FaRther north, at Citronelle in Santa Barbara, there's a foie gras appetizer: creme brulee, with foie gras custard and the thinnest brulee of dark caramelized sugar on top.

It actually works.

At Alex on Melrose Avenue, Alex Scrimgeour pairs seared foie gras with caramelized onion and blackberry emulsion and cold poached foie gras with brioche toast and caramelized pear on his Valentine's Day prix fixe menu. "The trend is absolutely toward a sweeter preparation," said the chef, who prefers a drier, floral wine such as a Riesling with the new interpretations.

On her Valentine's Day menu, Josie Le Balch at Josie in Santa Monica is offering foie gras with brioche bread pudding, dried cherries, walnuts and a cherry-reduction veal stock. "It's very desserty in a sense," Le Balch said. "But I won't put sugar in the custard when I make the bread pudding."

This dish is only one notch on her foie gras evolution: Previous variations have included vanilla-poached persimmons or a calvados-apple soup.

Executive chef Mark Gold at Cafe Pinot in downtown Los Angeles makes a sweet walnut tart crust for his new foie gras appetizer. He mixes slightly molten sugar with roasted walnuts, butter, cornstarch and powdered sugar for the crust, tops it with foie gras, which he roasts to a flan-like consistency, and decorates it with rhubarb poached in sugar syrup.

The result "is almost like a dessert," Gold said, which isn't so unusual considering that he's paired coffee ice cream with foie gras on tasting menus.


A sweet history

Where did the madness begin?

Actually it's rooted in tradition. French chefs have classically paired slices of the seared liver with a splash of sweet wine and sauteed apples. Period. The more common preparations today follow suit and balance the earthiness of the liver with sweet and acid flavors.

The dessertification seems like destiny, though, given the imaginations of chefs who see possibilities in rich, buttery ingredients that no ordinary cook would. Not to mention the constant push for novelty and the relative abundance of the raw material.

Until the early 1980s, foie gras was a rare delicacy on American menus. There were federal laws restricting its import, and no large-scale domestic producers.

Then Michael Ginor and Izzy Yanay bred a hybrid duck that was more resistant to disease and economical to raise for foie gras. Their Hudson Valley Foie Gras company in upstate New York is now one of two major foie gras producers in the United States, along with the much smaller Sonoma Foie Gras in Northern California. More recently, the import laws were eased and French foie gras began appearing on the menu. These days, almost all foie gras is duck liver, not goose liver.


By the scoop

But at Sona, home of the foie gras sorbet, modern technology was at the root of the innovation. Here, it started with the Paco Jet, a powerful frozen dessert machine that achieves that silken texture so common in restaurants these days.

David Myers, the chef, and his wife, Michelle, the pastry chef, had quietly been playing with unusual ingredients in the machine.

One day, in an inconspicuous corner of their kitchen, the couple were inspired to process duck liver with a caramelized apple.

On the night I was there, Myers uncorked his favorite Muscat while his wife scooped the smooth, caramel-colored sorbet into pristine white dishes. If you hadn't already known the ingredients, you would have never guessed them.

We ate every bite.

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