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Dessert Circus by Jacque Torres

New York Cookbook
by Molly O'Neill

Pleasure of your Company
by Molly O'Neill

AWell-Seasoned Appetite
by Mollie O'Neill

Dessert Circus by Jacque Torres

Ask Tog, October, 1998

Dinner at the Kitchen Table

On September 18, 1998, I had the best meal I will ever have, sitting at the most exclusive table in the finest restaurant in the USA, perhaps the world. (You, Gentle Reader, now have the distinct advantage of me: Your best meal is yet to come.)

My former good friend, now best friend, Molly O'Neill, food critic for the New York Times and author of a string of best-selling cookbooks, had invited me to a special tasting dinner at Le Cirque 2000, inside the Palace Hotel in New York City.

On entering, we passed through several rooms lavishly ornamented by Adam Tihani in a manner that strangely amplified, rather than detracted from, the original 1920s interiors. Even though I would have been quite content to pass an evening's meal, or even a lifetime, in any one of these rooms, it was not to be, for our exclusive table lay beyond, up the short marble staircase that leads to the kitchen.

Now, Le Cirque's kitchen is hardly ordinary. Finished just last year at a cost approaching four million dollars, it sports not only the finest hand-made French stoves (1/4 million dollars each), most advanced cold foods and pastry facilities, it features the finest chefs in the world. I would love to have a kitchen just like it and that night I did. The staff had assembled a special tasting table for us right in the midst of the kitchen fury, where we were to experience a four and one-half hour, nine-course meal.

While such an accommodation is rare in Le Cirque's history, it is not without precedent. Indeed, the first guest invited by Le Cirque's owner, Sirio Maccioni, to dine at the kitchen table some 25 years ago was none other than Bill Cosby: "Mrs. Cosby and I didn't have enough money to eat at Le Cirque, so he would feed us in the kitchen….We kept coming, eating whatever Barbara Walters sent back." Now, such a table is set up only in the event that the chef would like a few of his hand-chosen "tasters" to assemble to critque new dishes.

Our meal began with cold shellfish--oysters, clams, shrimp, Dungeness crab--segueing neatly into fresh, plump Beluga caviar with toast points. If you've ever tried those salted-down, dried-up fish eggs that usually pass for caviar, you're in for a treat when you first taste Beluga caviar. It's a whole different animal. Figuratively, as well as literally.

The fresh Maine lobster encapsulated the chef's talent. My experience, to this point, was that lobster could be served only one of two ways: either in sweet, naked, pristine elegance, or buried under a cloying sauce that fairly screams out I'M IN CHARGE HERE! Sottha Kuhn, Le Cirque's executive chef, has found a middle ground with his preparation. The lobster sits, indeed in pristine elegance, atop a layering of complementary foods in a delicate sauce. The lobster is fully in charge, conducting, while the rest of the dish serves as orchestra, amplifying, never leading.

My dinner partner for the evening, Molly's little girl, Ariana, decided at this point it was time for us to say hello to the chef. Well, actually, she decided it was time for us to say hello to the chef's dog, Ted. Sottha, ever the gentleman, led us on a merry chase up several flights of stairs, through meandering corridors, to his private offices where his cute little tousle-haired dog awaited.

Sottha is a warm and friendly man of 46, able to hold sway over the most watched kitchen in the USA, even at the height of the evening rush, while maintaining a calm, relaxed demeanor. Sottha became a chef so that he could recapture the pleasure of the kind of eating and entertaining he had been used to as a boy. His family ruled Cambodia until the coming of the Khmer Rouge. Sottha, in Paris when the palace was overthrown and his family killed, was suddenly faced with the prospect of common employment. He took up cooking, working his way up through the ranks of all the finest restaurants in France. He became souchef at Le Cirque several years ago, finally accepting the job of executive chef just last year, an appointment long overdue.

When we returned to the table, we found freshly-prepared paté de foie gras awaiting. The generous disk of goose-liver paté occupied one-third of the plate, while a simple crisscross of four tiny string beans drizzled with vinaigrette held down the second third. The final portion of the plate held a log cabin made of asparagus with a bloom of fresh greens bursting from the roof. It was as much a feast to the eyes as to the palate.

By this time I was full, but the courses moved on relentlessly. Frog's legs gave way to delicate hot fish dishes, which in turn gave way to the entrées, including venison, duck, and my own, a veal chop with grilled paté de foie gras--even better hot than cold. These latter were accompanied by a melt-in-your-mouth risotto, over which our waiter shaved fresh white truffles. (One pound of white truffles costs approximately the same as 1000 pounds of white Mercedes-Benz. Rather like shaving solid gold onto your food, but I'm getting ahead of myself.)

With seven courses behind us, plus a few extra odds-and-ends that Sottha had passed our way, I was truly and completely stuffed. Could not possibly eat a thing. Until the waiter set a large chocolate soufflé before me. OK, I can handle this. It's just chocolate air. I'll just take a bite. Perhaps another. Maybe just one more. Oh, so good. It's going to be all right. It really is…

Then, they brought the other eight desserts. Crème Brûlé. Floating Island. Flourless chocolate cake. Raspberry soufflé. A hat (edible), a clown (also edible), a piano (equally edible) and a L’Opéra cake served with a chocolate stove (extremely edible). Four people, twelve deserts. You do the math.

Spotting the flourless chocolate cake, topped with a bittersweet Belgian chocolate sauce that had more than 100% chocolate in it, I skipped ahead. With my first taste, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Ariana, sensing the moment, took my hand and announced it was time to go visit her friend, Jacques, pastry chef extraordinaire who was responsible for all this.

Jacques Torres, seen here with another chef of some note, has been preparing pastry since his early teen years in Provence. He graduated at age eighteen from his formal apprenticeship first in his class. He then walked into a job as chef patissier at the beautiful Hotel Negresco in Nice, a building that is a confection in itself. Following his eight-year stint with the Negresco's executive chef, Jacques Maximin, he completed his degree of Master Pastry Chef.After winning, in 1986, the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France medal--the youngest chef ever to do so--he sailed for America.

Now 38, Jacques not only presides over the pastry kitchen at Le Cirque, he is Dean of Pastry Arts at the French Culinary Institute, hosts the PBS series, Dessert Circus, and has completed the beautiful and illuminating Dessert Circus cookbook.

Jacques put Ariana and myself to work in the kitchen for around 20 minutes, giving us a short course in decorating with chocolate. Even though I followed Jacques' every instruction, his results were appreciably different. Don't know why. (You will be happy to learn that none of my efforts were visited upon that evening's diners.)

When we returned to the table, Molly had set the L’Opéra cake, with its chocolate stove, between Ariana and myself. I could see the pleading in Molly's eyes: "If you two don't eat it, I'll just have to." After my exhaustive culinary duties, I was fully fit to climb this final mountain.

L’Opéra cake was created in the 1960s by another of the great French pastry chefs, Gaston Lenôtre. Its two layers of coffee buttercream and one layer of chocolate ganache are enshrouded in a chocolate glaze and slivered with shavings of gold. Yes, solid gold.

Jacques accompanies this cake that, to many, might seem extravagant enough on its own, with his signature chocolate stove. His first chocolate stove was actual size (really), but he has, over the years, scaled it down a bit, so that it now stands only four or five inches high. From the two pots "boiling" on the range, the waiter pours fruit sauces, in contrasting colors, over the cake.

It was just as I took the last bite of my half of the cake, even as Ariana began to devour the chocolate stove's broiler, that the tower-o-cookies arrived. Jacque had crafted a fourteen-inch-high conical tower of white chocolate, carving perhaps 20 or 30 tiny cubbyholes into its face, into each of which he had inserted a variety of elegant little cookies, which, I'm informed, taste a lot more like candy. I, alas, could only enjoy them with my eyes. My mouth had shut down. For the next two days. I'm sure, like everything else from this evening to remember, the cookies were heavenly.

Click here to see a picture of the chocolate stove, along with a few of Jacques' favorite recipes from his web site. (I recommend the chocolate soup. I mean, how could you go wrong?) Then click his cookbook, to the left, to find out more about this gorgeous book. And the next time you are in New York, treat yourself to a meal at Le Cirque. If you are really nice, they might even let you sit in the dining room, instead of sticking you out in the kitchen.

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