What makes a great dessert? Although this question can be as subjective as what your favorite band is and dependent on your mood at the time, truly great desserts need to be beautifully presented and have a fine balance of flavors and textural contrasts that excite the palate. Dessert is usually the climax to a meal and the last impression you will take away from a restaurant.
My first stop for a magical dessert has got to be either Uchi or Uchiko both led by Philip Speer. Technically, Speer is now the Culinary Director of the Uchi group and has recently named his long time assistant, Monica Glen, as the pastry chef of the soon to be opened Uchi Houston and Andrew Lewis as the pastry chef at Uchiko. Speer is still very involved in the development of the pastry menus but not as much in the day to day productions as his new job duties take him between all three restaurants with staffing, training, aligning food costs, and the million other things it takes to launch and run three high end restaurants.
Speer’s desserts are as sophisticated as they are playful, a blend of familiar tastes with innovative techniques. He seeks to balance textures in a final course that is not too sweet with definite notes of contrast like acid and salt in the clean Asian aesthetic that the rest of your meal followed.
Head chef Tyson Cole has been known to challenge Speer to come up with a dessert with components from a single color. One of my favorites is his “Yellow” dessert of polenta custard, corn sorbet, cornbread tuile, and lemon fluid gel. Your first bite transports you to a field of corn swaying in a summer breeze. It is not over the top sweet, just bright and balanced like fresh picked corn. The cold sorbet complements the soft custard and the crispy tuile, with just a hint of acid from the lemon gel.
Speer likes to take traditionally savory ingredients and transport them to the dessert world. One of my all time favorites is the roasted tomato sorbet with cherub tomato confit and chevre fondant. It sounds like a salad course but not at Uchi. Speer roasts the tomatoes to bring out their natural sweetness and turns them into a sorbet with a hint of sherry vinegar, basically candies a few luscious tomato babies for the confit, turns the goat cheese with cream and gelatin into a creamy custard, places the whole thing on a bed of pistachio crumble for crunch and contrast, then accents it with tomato salt and tomato paper.
One of the most visually stunning desserts has to be the coffee panna cotta with mango yolk. The coffee flavored panna cotta is presented on a bed of crunchy coffee soil with a white chocolate sorbet and transparently crispy mango paper. Once you pierce the panna cotta, a river of mango puree runs forth like the yolk from an egg. The earthiness of the coffee and chocolate are highlighted by the bright mango burst. Crunchy, creamy, cold, sweet, crisp all come together in a symphony on the tongue.
So head over to Uchi or Uchiko and get a taste of the best. Or for a real treat, check out the Dessert Project. Speer and his team join fellow pastry chefs Plinio Sandalio from Congress and Steven Cak from parkside in a tour de force of one sweet and one savory course each with wine pairings on November 13 at parkside. Friendly rivalry between the trio is sure to bring out the best in each and I want a table up front for this one.