I've been wary of modernist desserts, which can suffer from overthinking and more attention paid to conceptualization and presentation than to taste. For that reason, the intricate creations coming from Juan Contreras's pastry kitchen gave me pause. But then I took a bite.
Well, actually first I sat down with the chef pâtissier. Speaking with him about his inspiration for the 6-course dessert tasting menu ($55) is fascinating, as you might expect from someone who only recently made the transition to sweets. He spent his early years cooking savory food, most notably in his collaboration with head chef Dominique Crenn at Luce in San Francisco.
"I come from a savory background, so that's how I think," he said. "But there is only so much you can manipulate a protein or certain vegetables. I wanted to create a bridge between savory and sweet."
Savory dishes inspired this menu? Yes, though in a very San Francisco way it was also inspired by his visits to the farm ("I saw beautiful beets and wanted to showcase them"), experiences ("the smell of Eucalyptus while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge"), and, most of all, nature.
So as you'll see in the photographs, this is a highly conceptualized menu. There is smoke and trompe l'oeils and edible flowers. But, true to his word, the flavors are natural, clean, and simple. The food may be delicate but it tastes earthy and in that way, keeps you grounded.
By the end, Contreras's desserts had reminded me of the upside of this style of cooking. The joy of the tasting menu is that each dish is so carefully thought out. Each plate has many components, a myriad of separate bites which can be combined and recombined, creating new flavors and textures. Each dish is a process of discovery, and much more exciting than eating 6 slices of pie.