The Sweet Seduction of Five Young Ladies
by Boris Portnoy of Campton Place, San Francisco
The very idea of eating at Campton Place again had been playing on my mind ever since my food writer friend, Catherine Nash, awarded Portnoy, a man who she claims can "engage my intellect and make me shiver with giddy pleasure" with San Francisco's Best Pastry Chef honour for Northside last November.
My initial plan to get a bunch of my girlfriends together for a New Year Saturday Dine About Town lunch was thwarted by Opentable whose reservation system showed the restaurant to be fully booked on weekends for the entire duration of the January promotion. On hearing my plight, Catherine approached the Campton Place contact she'd made, after her article was published, who managed to secure us a lunch table, just for us two.
The three course tasting menu started well for me with a mouthwatering celeriac soup. It was rich and intense with a supersmooth puree into which bite-sized chunks of the celery root were folded. The surface glistened with dribbles of oil and speckles of mysterious dark brown seasoning that made my tastebuds sparkle with the taste of umami. "How come I can never make soup taste this good at home?", I somewhat rhetorically asked Catherine. "Because you don't use enough cream", she quipped. We were both still laughing as one of the servers approached our table. "I'd just like to take a moment to explain your courses to you", he started, "to my left we have the celery root soup, which is completely vegan...", at which point my descending chuckles stopped dead in their tracks as my eyeballs widened to the size of saucers and I shot Catherine a look of amazement. Proof, if any was needed, that soup can taste startling without any help from dairy.
I could describe the other savoury courses we ate that day, but since it is what happened at dessert that deserves your attention, I won't waste your time with anything less. After the table had been cleared of the entrees, a server brought us another knife and fork. Always sharp as a butter knife, me, I immediately protested, "I think you have made a mistake, we are expecting dessert next". The waitress, with a cheeky twinkle in her eye, wryly smiled and explained "the chef has something special arranged for you." The penny dropped. Since Catherine had made the reservation through her contact, it was clear that the pastry chef knew that she, the woman who had given him that accolade in the press, was dining in his restaurant again. We were to be treated accordingly.
And so it was, on that early January Saturday, that Catherine and I indulged in a three course dessert sampling of five of Portnoy's desserts, two cheese courses, two palate-cleansers and then each a coffee tart with Meyer lemon curd, cold-infused coffee sabayon, espresso bean ice cream, coffee cookies and a chocolate praline. As they presented the final dish my spirits dropped. I don't like coffee desserts. OK - let's rephrase that. I didn't think I liked coffee desserts. Boris had baked a simple but tender little round pastry case that acted as a tray to hold his cast of unexpected bed-partners. It was like Christmas, discovering the contrasting tastes and textures of hidden sweet treasures, most bewitching of which was the 'white-coffee' sabayon. Boris came to visit us at our table and I couldn't help but inelegantly blurt out "I don't really like coffee, but I love the way coffee smells and you've managed to make a dessert that tastes like the smell of coffee, not like the the taste of coffee". As I spoke, the Chef was nodding his head in agreement, so perhaps I hit the nail on the head and understood exactly what he was trying to achieve. Boris returned to his kitchen smiling.
At that moment Catherine and I decided we should return to Campton Place for a girls night out and a full dessert tasting. So, the arrangements were made and a few weeks later, after an at-home chaser of Prather Ranch bacon, eggs and champagne, five of us turned up at Campton Place to be treated to another symphony of sweet things by Mr Portnoy.
Proving that Portnoy's work is always in progress, our first cheese plate, Epoisse Cheese, Vanilla Icecream, Argan Oil, was an improved version of the cheese course I'd first eaten a few weeks earlier. Back then he'd used a sweet biscuit crumb base, but by now crunchy, toasted pumpkin seeds had taken their place, giving the dish a better contrast of textures and a more savoury flavour to counter balance the sweetness of the ice cream.
Gorgonzola Popovers, Pear Saffron Pearls, Poire William Honey Sorbet were next up. The popovers are ugly little greyish-blue bites that wake up your taste buds with a gazump! The shame is that there are only a few on your plate. Eating a dozen of these strong and zingy baby pancake-like morsels would be no hardship.
I love Negronis. Campari has been one of my most-favoured spirits of choice for over twenty years and grapefruit is my favourite citrus, so how could I not love the Nigroni Granite, Grapefruit Sorbet, Celery? Tiny little celery micro greens giving forth a peppery flavour adorn the top of these two ices, which far from being a palate cleanser, leaves your taste buds fizzing and assaulted for quite some time after this dessert has packed its initial punch.
It was if Boris had made this sequence of desserts just for me. Maybe others at the table weren't so keen on campari. Maybe they aren't so hot about egg yolks either. As someone who has been known to just get rid of the white before frying an egg, I could totally appreciate the Pistachio Financier, Golden Egg. What I had before me was one piece of toasty cake and one whole, soft egg yolk crusted with a crispy gold-leaved translucent sugar shell. I cracked open the coating, causing the yellow to run over my plate where it was mopped up by wedges of the nutty financier. Like a sweet version of fried egg on toast, Boris really caught my attention with this dish which he also described as 'something I am still working on'. [Boris, you can experiment on me any time.]
Carrot coconut ravioli, Avocado Semifreddo, Spiced Tangerine Sorbet, Carrot cardamom nage was the star dessert course of the evening. Just thinking about this combination of unusual flavours makes me want to jump up and down for joy and squeal in my chair even though there is nobody to hear or see me. Cute little parcels of creamy coconut wrapped in sweet tender carrot ribbons with cold, creamy, frothy, mousse-like avocado that slips onto your tongue so softly, it whispers to your heart strings and they succumb immediately. The nage, a strong smear boldly striped across the plate, is almost an affront to the other softer elements, but its appearance is misleading and it's bark is much stronger than its mildly spiced and perfectly balanced bite. It is worth visiting Campton Place just for the specialness of this one unique plate.
After such a whimsical and dainty platter of bright summery colours the dark and sombre finale entitled A study of Chocolate in Textures and Temperatures could, sadly, not hope to engage such a euphoric reaction from any of us present. Chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate, much as I love chocolate, did not do Portnoy's many talent's justice and I prefer it when he plays with a wider palette of flavours and colours as he did with the wonderful coffee tart on our previous lunchtime visit.
Our sweet meal ended with a couple of trays of delicate petit fours which we nibbled on, slowly, as our evening together drew to a satisfied close. There is no question that Boris knows how to give the perfect sugar high. If you are looking for an alternative girls' night out that will make your mates sigh with satisfaction, Boris is your man. If he visits your table, he's so cute, you might even swoon...
This review was a second visit with the current cooking team.
This was my third visit to Campton Place.
We were charged $35 per person for the tasting. We consumed rather an immodest number of sweet sticky wines and our final bill was considerably more than that. You may want to call and check with the restaurant first if you intend to visit for the sole purpose of eating dessert.
Campton Place Hotel
340 Stockton Street
San Francisco, CA 94108
415 781 5555