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Eggplant for dessert? René Frank’s astounding desserts

The Michelin-starred World’s Best Pastry Chef pushed the boundaries between sweet at savory at Solaire

Eggplant Dish of Rene Frank
René Frank

Chef René Frank at Solaire

Eggplant for dessert?

It was one of the many surprises prepared by acclaimed pastry chef René Frank during the Gastronomic Indulgence series (March 16-19, 2023) to celebrate Solaire’s 10th anniversary.  If anyone can pull off that surprise, perhaps only Frank can. After all, as the World’s Best Pastry Chef (for 2022), he has elevated dessert to a level of importance never before accorded to it.  For him, dessert shouldn’t be just an afterthought.  It can exist in a parallel universe with savory courses—and still morph afterwards into a sweet meal ender.

At Solaire’s Oasis Garden Café, he proved this with an eight-course degustación that pushed the boundaries between the sweet and the savory, between dessert and main course.

The meal started dramatically with attendants spraying our hands with aromatic thyme.  We were told to inhale the aroma, as this was part of the sensory experience. The soothing aroma was just the thing to put us in the mood for what seemed to me like an upscale interpretation of the classic fruit and cheese platter.  Globules of refreshing grapefruit were arranged on the center of the plate, while shreds of mascarpone cheese and savoy cabbage cascaded nonchalantly on the side.  Like a pampered guest, we picked from one to the other, alternating fruity acidity with savory creaminess. In between bites we indulged our palate further with a cocktail of quince brandy spiked with lavender and muscat verjus.

René Frank

Grapefruit with Mascarpone Cheese

And then came the eggplant.  Frank said this was inspired by a dessert he had in Italy, where eggplant is sometimes treated as a fruit.  A paper-thin slice of crisped apple lay on top of a gelée, underneath which was a layer of eggplant that had been tenderly mashed into a smooth, velvety purée.  Crunchy pecan nuts sprinkled all over the plate added more contrast in texture.

Frank’s mixologist Adam Tudorei next insisted that we eat the third course with our hands.  It was only logical since it was raclette cheese enclosed in a fluffy waffle, much like a sandwich.  Get a bit of everything with each bite, he advised, and we did, while relishing the Aquavit from Denmark.

A shard of crisp, wafer-thin beet root on top of a foam of tofu came next. Seriously?  Who knew that beets could metamorphose into a wafer and that tofu could be reinvented into ice cream?  It was like a grownup take on an ice cream cone, with the beets being the cone to the tofu’s ice cream persona.  To accentuate that this was a berry showcase, the accompanying drink was a cherry eau de vie with wild raspberry brandy.

And so it went the rest of the evening.  A cheesecake made with Cirone, an aged Swiss cheese, reminded me of the burnt cheesecake that has become all the rage in recent years. Just in case we missed the point, melted cheese oozing like lava from its center further established the cheese’s commanding presence.

Then came a slice of grilled apple cradling a satiny mousse made with oats.  Frank said he harvested the natural sweetness of the oats to replace the sugar.

In fact refined sugar is anathema in his kitchen.  Instead he uses raw sugar, some of which are imported from the Philippines.  He also cultivates the natural sweetness of each ingredient, much as he did with the oats and the beet root.  The result is sweetness that is muted, as if it were only in the background. And since he uses raw sugar with utmost discretion, the resulting dishes, he said, are “less unhealthy.”

Just when we thought we had seen everything, the next course turned out to be a popsicle of Osietra caviar, which is a signature dish in Coda, Frank’s two-Michelin star restaurant in Berlin.  Caramelized pecan ice cream wrapped around a popsicle stick was studded with beads of caviar, creating an interplay of flavors:  the saltiness of the caviar contrasting with the sweetness of the ice cream.  It was like a two-Michelin star iteration of the more mundane salted caramel.

René Frank

Caviar Popsicle

Finally came the ending, or as Frank called it, the “real” dessert: national cacao with cherry and puffed pork.  It was a twist on the chocolate they would prepare in Coda, said Frank, with this one using Philippine cacao.  Like the other dishes that preceded it, it was a masterpiece in understatement. The sweetness of the chocolate was subtle, more like a whisper than a yell. And just to tease the palate further, the chef added texture and flavor with a sprinkling of puffed pork, which to us Filipinos was actually finely shredded crunchy chicharon.

René Frank

National Cacao with Puffed Pork

A dazzling degustación such as this must have taken hours of tedious work and meticulous planning to prepare.  Frank said that in his restaurant certain days are set aside for research and development.  How long it takes to create a dish is whatever time it takes to perfect it.

In all likelihood all this comes naturally to him.  “I’ve always loved cooking,” he said.  “I’ve never thought of being anything else but a chef.”

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