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Hedonism lives

L.A.'s dessert motto: When you've got it, flaunt it.

May 14, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

New York might have better appetizers and San Francisco better main courses, but no city beats Los Angeles for dessert. Nowhere else has the raw fixings, the right kind of hedonists or the critical mass of cooking talent.

On the face of it, being a pastry chef could scarcely be a more frivolous calling. While chefs nourish, pastry chefs seduce the fed into taking one last bite. Their sole intent is to delight.

But it's hard to see how we would do without them. Dessert provides a reason to linger in a restaurant, perhaps one dish between two, two spoons, sharing casually at first, then eyeing and scooping the diminishing pastry ever more keenly, savoring the last licks of a great meal. Dessert is the course when friendships are cemented, love blossoms, birthday songs sung and anniversaries toasted.

And in L.A., the season for pleasure is almost year-round. This is the only city in America whose markets receive a seven-month run of berries and stone fruit, followed by an autumn rush of apples and pears, and then winter run of citrus. And Los Angeles selects for playfulness. Puritans don't like it here. Too sunny.

It seems odd that L.A. wasn't always a dessert town, but it didn't become one until the 1980s, after Spago happened. Wolfgang Puck hired Nancy Silverton as his pastry chef. In a progression from Spago to Chinois on Main and, latterly, as co-proprietor of Campanile, Silverton defined the L.A. style.

While Bay Area chefs were busy being more French than the French, Silverton took a French education, then let rip with sunny Western flair. She made puff pastry with the best of them, covered sauces A to V (apricot to vanilla) and made prune and Armagnac ice cream an addictive substance. But she also gleefully served chocolate and Jack Daniels ice cream and was as at home with Fudge Ripple as with Linzer tortes. Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, then at City restaurant, countered with a jokey approximation of a Hostess Twinkie. Unfazed, Silverton took the cookie to new heights. Chewy ginger balls. Sesame seed tuilles. Prune pucks. Animal crackers.

Seasonal joys

Today, several generations have followed and the badinage between L.A. pastry kitchens is ever more silvery and joyous. At Spago Beverly Hills, as pastry chef Sherry Yard awaits the pick of this season's cherries, she might combine a preserved Blenheim apricot with creme brulee.

At Campanile this spring, pastry chef Kimberly Boyce saw out winter with a Meyer lemon and licorice parfait.

At the new Beverly Boulevard restaurant Grace, Campanile-trained chef Elizabeth Belkind is sending out jelly doughnuts with vanilla custard dipping sauce.

At another squeaky-new place, Sona on La Cienega Boulevard, a full-on gastronomic experience might produce a haute version of brownies and milk, except the milk will be laced with grappa and brownies made with Valrhona ganache.

If you want a really fun petit four, you can hope that the peanut butter cookies are on the menu at the Water Grill.

The hallmarks of the L.A. style: seasonality, technique, intense flavors, wit. But oddly, in a town obsessed with fashion and appearances, there are no hard and fast rules about food styling. Pretty is optional.

At Spago Beverly Hills, Yard loves playing with color, say pairing a Meyer lemon souffle with a Persian mulberry granita.

To Sona's Michelle Meyers, a former art student, dessert is an art form, the plate a canvas and sauce paint.

By contrast, Campanile's Boyce, who trained with Yard before joining Silverton, has produced pastries so plain that she blushes when she remembers entering a competition in which all the other confections could have been Easter bonnets. "My baked Alaska looked like a blob on the plate," she says, laughing. "But then I was proud to say, 'Here, taste it.' "

Taste is not optional. And in Silverton's rule No. 1, sugar is not a flavor. After two decades, the rule holds. At Spago, Yard says, "sugar is my friend, not my love." She calls it a spice rather than a main ingredient. "I use it as a seasoning just as I would with salt, pepper," she says.

The discretion with sugar requires an exceptional palate and instinct in designing dishes. Yard describes the series of associations that led to a passion fruit sorbet recipe this way: "I was at a farm and realized that the passion fruit flowers have a jasmine smell, so I put jasmine into the base of the syrup for the sorbet. It does not scream out, 'Flowers!' -- but it helps pick up the flavor. Because of that, you don't sugar for flavor, just a touch for pitch."

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