“It’s kind of like this cool theater, exposing the ice cream,” says Sam Mason, Executive Pastry Chef at Manhattan’s new Press Club Grill, explaining his creative interpretation of Cherries Jubilee. The restaurant is one of a bevy of recently opened establishments offering experiential eating, a trend predicted by several culinary pundits for this year.
Last December, New York Times reporter Kim Severson wrote “people will seek out restaurants that offer interaction, excitement, and a bit of a show. Look for more dining room trolleys, elaborate ice structures, flaming desserts like Baked Alaska.” Bloomberg News took a similar tack, focusing on trolley service and referencing Manhattan standouts like the Italian meringue encased spumoni set ablaze at Andrew Carmellini’s Carne Mare, Ferdi’s gelato made on the spot with liquid nitrogen, and Crêpes Mademoiselle at Angie Mar’s Les Trois Chevaux. Mars demonstrated the dessert in July on Good Morning America: “A celebration of citrus,” she declared, describing the crêpes prepared with candied kumquats, orange blossom water, orange and lemon juice, and flambéed with Grand Marnier.
At The Press Club Grill, where the menu pays homage to bygone Mad Men era favorites reimagined for today’s diners, Mason’s playful desserts riff on classics like Bananas Foster and S’mores. An acclaimed pastry wizard, Mason’s diverse career ranges from revered kitchen colleague of avant garde chef Wylie Dufresne at the legendary WD50 in lower Manhattan, to restauranteur at Taylor, and founder of the maverick OddFellows Ice Cream Co.
For Cherries Jubilee, Mason places two scoops of miso vanilla ice cream on a granola-like base of toasted almonds, dried sour cherries, butter and chocolate. He encloses the ice cream in a dark chocolate dome sprayed a deep cherry red before molding. A whimsical chocolate cherry stem sits on top. Tableside, a waiter pours rum over the dome, and sets it ablaze. When it melts the waiter spoons a sauce made of dark red cherries poached in cherry juice, sugar, vanilla, and orange zest over the ice cream and serves it, accompanied by an almond financier. According to Mason, “It’ll stay on the menu all year, as the guests enjoy it, and we sell a lot.”
More traditional versions of Cherries Jubilee have also been cropping up this year, in Claire Saffitz’s cookbook, What’s For Dessert (Clarkson Potter, 2022), and in New York Times columnist Melissa Clark’s paean to flambé, both similar to the original recipe named by the great French chef Auguste Escoffier to honor the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.
Clark also sings the praises of another flaming stalwart, Bananas Foster, the New Orleans favorite from the Brennan clan of restaurateurs, named for a family friend. At mid-Manhattan’s Monterey, an American bistro that opened last fall, Clark describes a pan “set ablaze, orange flames surging and swaying before fizzling out, leaving behind caramelized, rum-soaked bananas, and causing the neighboring tables to adjust their dessert orders.”
At The Press Club Grill, Mason transforms the dish into a fanciful hybrid Banana Brûlée. For the brûlée, he notes, “I steep mashed bananas in cream, and let it sit for about an hour.” Then he strains the cream and makes a regular brûlée with brown sugar and egg yolks that is cooked, torched and topped with a ‘scarf’. The scarf is actually a really thin banana paper, a paste composed of banana purée, flour, salt, sugar and butter, that is spread on a Silpat and dried in the oven. Cut into strips, Mason adds “it becomes malleable, and you make it into a kind of whimsical organic thing that crisps up in about 30 seconds, and you place it on the brûlée. It’s pretty fragile, so when the waiter walks up with the brûlée, he also has a pot with caramelized bananas sautéed in rum, so he just takes a spoonful of the bananas and kind of smashes that beautiful piece of paper.”
Brooklyn’s Gage and Tollner pairs chocolate cookie crunch with fresh mint, dark chocolate and Amarena cherry ice cream. Mason’s preference is a trio of sorbets, observing that “it’s also a lactose-friendly situation, because there are a lot of dairy-free people these days.” His combinations have included lemon, blueberry and buttermilk; peach, apricot and plum; and tropical fruits. Each is embellished with a ring of fresh fruits.
Crème brûlée, dating back to the Middle Ages, has become a modern classic, popularized in the 1980’s by Sirio Maccioni at Le Cirque, and ever evolving with infinite iterations. At Nobu, Las Vegas, it’s coffee with whisky foam; at Koloman, the French-Viennese accented restaurant in NoMad, a Duck Egg Crème Brûlée with caramelized pineapple and mint. In the Chocolate Lounge at French Broad’s emporium in Ashville, North Carolina, a creamy custard made with their bean-to-bar dark chocolate is brûléed with a crunchy caramelized topping.
Torched and toasted Baked Alaska has also been dessert royalty for over 150 years, named for the acquisition of Alaska by the United States from Russia in 1867. Recently at The Grill in Manhattan, the flavors were blackberry, layered with milk sherbet and corn caramel;
The blowtorch is also getting a workout with myriad styles of S’mores, a beloved camping treat since the 1920’s that has been readily adopted by pastry chefs. Barry Callebaut chefs offer several suggestions: Fruity Ruby with black currant jam and ruby chocolate, caramelized banana using Van Leer Henna Milk Chocolate 41%, and lemon curd with caramelized white chocolate.
Pastry chef Andres Lara developed two S’mores cookies for Melissa Coppel’s Chocolate and Confectionary School, the original with homemade graham cookies, creamy bitter chocolate ganache center and toasted vanilla bean marshmallow; S’mores 2.0, replacing the graham with a chewy double chocolate dough containing small pieces of caramel.
At Agnes, a Michelin Guide restaurant in Pasadena, California, Executive Chef Thomas Tilaka Kalb’s S’mores Cocoa Taco, is one of the restaurant’s signature sweets: “We make graham cracker pizelle and roll the outer edges in chocolate and crushed peanuts. We then fill each shell with dark chocolate ganache, pipe with marshmallow meringue on top, and torch it for the full S’mores effect,” Kalb says, adding, “The dish is a nod to my three favorite summer chocolate desserts: the S’mores, the famous Choco-Taco, and a childhood snack that consisted of an ice cream cone, chocolate chips, marshmallow, and a microwave.”
Mason’s S’mores feature made-inhouse Calamansi marshmallows that give off the citrus aroma of the Asian fruit when burned. The marshmallows rest on a round graham cracker along with chocolate cremeux in a cube mold, cacao nib tuiles, and a quenelle of chocolate sorbet. Blasted with a blowtorch or set ablaze tableside, culinary keepers of the flame are offering a new take on a venerable tradition, delighting guests with more than “a bit of a show.”
(This article appeared in the Fall 2023 issue of Pastry Arts Magazine)