Restaurant Scene: A passion for pastry

Back in the days of white tablecloth dining, the position of an in-house pastry chef was a sign of a serious restaurant. As eateries pare costs and tend to diners' casual tastes, they're cutting back or eliminating pastry chef positions.

Eleven in the Strip District, Habitat in the Fairmont Hotel Downtown, Legume in Oakland and Spoon in East Liberty stand among the few local restaurants that still have pastry chefs. Luxury resorts also maintain a pastry staff, such as the 11 who make desserts for Lautrec and the Tavern at Nemacolin Woodland Resort in Farmington, Fayette County.

"I have watched the field diminish over the past decade," said James Wroblewski, pastry chef at Habitat.

"Pastries are the last memory of a good restaurant," he said. "Do you really want to skimp on that?"

Mr. Wroblewski honed his skills as a caterer, at Big Burrito restaurants, at The Omni Homestead Resort Hotel in Hot Springs, Va., as well as in Las Vegas, when he worked with Chris Hamner, winner of Season 2 "Top Chef Just Desserts."

He says he makes desserts in a classic French style. He does not embrace modernist techniques or trends and he does not believe in savory desserts.

"I try to stay away from bacon as much as I can."

Like the few pastry chefs left in town, Mr. Wroblewski adheres to seasonality on the dessert menu, with a winter limoncello cake flanked by a quenelle of whipped cream or an Apple Brown Betty, a traditional American dessert much like a cobbler or a crisp served with ice cream infused with Apple Jacks cereal.

Cereal-infused desserts and other novelties offer pop-culture nostalgia, attractive to those who might forgo sweets. Ushered in by New York's Momofuku Milk Bar a couple of years ago, such desserts can also be found at the newly opened Grit & Grace, Downtown, which offers a coffee and dessert with lemongrass creme anglaise, chocolate truffle, coffee mochi and a Fruity Pebble crust.

While whimsy may appeal to diners who otherwise try to cut calories or costs, dessert aficionados are drawn by two more general categories: chocolate and fruit.

Fruit is more refreshing and naturally sweet, while dark chocolate lends a chalkiness that pairs well with big red wines and milk chocolate offers a velvet creaminess that can be addictive.

"People like chocolate desserts or a simple creme brulee," said Sheena Husar, assistant pastry chef at Nemacolin Woodlands Resort.

But the most popular dessert, especially for Valentine's Day, combines the two in chocolate-dipped strawberries. "If we were to put them on a banquet table in crowded room," she said, "They'd be gone in minutes."

Nemacolin's fleet of pastry chefs is a defiance to the nationwide trend, with dessert a luxury item in a luxury resort, where people are more likely to splurge.

In less lavish settings, some pastry chefs are breaking off to create dessert destinations away from the confines of the dining room.

Such is the case with Gaby et Jules patisserie, an offshoot of Paris 66 in East Liberty. Pastry chef David Piquard used to bake at the restaurant but now has his own domain in Squirrel Hill to create beautiful tarts, cakes and macarons.

"I wanted a bakery with a restaurant, that's how important the pastries are to me," said Frederic Rongier, co-owner of Paris 66 and Gaby et Jules. He said because the desserts made by Mr. Piquard are attractive, petite and delicious, his restaurant has seen brisk dessert sales. It has helped that macarons can be packaged to go.

A macaron is a meringue-based dessert made with almond powder sold at Gaby et Jules in flavors such as vanilla or chocolate, pistachio, sea salt caramel, lavender, jasmine or poppy.

Unlike most neighborhood bakeries that keep daytime hours, Gaby et Jules remains open until 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and until 5 p.m. on Sunday.

"With so many restaurants in the neighborhood, we have been very busy," said Mr. Rongier. "People want to eat macarons after dinner in Squirrel Hill."

A patisserie is a world away from a traditional bakery that sells bread. Although bakers and pastry chefs are sometimes lumped together and they often share real estate within a restaurant kitchen they consider themselves in different camps.

Baking is savory and relies on the baker's senses to monitor the texture of dough, humidity as it proofs and the scent as dough transforms into bread. Baking is a more physical job than pastry, which requires the precision of a surgeon, whether it's in making rustic or elegant desserts.

Brittany Rall, pastry chef at Eleven, confirms the difference. "I've baked bread before, but I prefer pastries." She has worked for parent company Big Burrito since she graduated from the now-closed Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh.

She, too, claims she has a traditional style, though less French than desserts created by Mr. Wroblewski or Mr. Piquard. "Stuff your grandma makes," she said.

For her take on the banana cream pie, she first cuts bananas on a bias and aligns them on a metal plate. After sprinkling them with sugar, she blow torches them until they're shellacked with a caramelized sheen.

Next she takes out a bottle filled with dolce de leche and laces a plate with curlicues. She centers a rectangle of banana pudding that's sandwiched between homemade vanilla wafers, then applies dolce de leche mousse on top with a swirl of the pastry bag. Then she presses caramelized bananas into the mousse and finishes the dish with brown sugar crisps.

This dessert tastes as memorable as a slice from a Southern grandmother's recipe. But with an eye on refinement, Ms. Rall elevates a humble pie to a stunner.


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