As unique as the idea of a dessert and wine tasting menu is, Chef Aya Fukai and Sommelier Parag Lalit of Sixteen took the experience to another plane altogether with a fabulous culinary performance
By: Soumya Jain
Posted on: November 18, 2015
LF Says: ★★★★. 5
Trump is in news, and has been for quite a while, for reasons we all know. But our motivation of getting together at Sixteen, a two star Michelin restaurant at Trump International Hotel & Tower in Chicago, was completely different. We were about to embark on a dessert and wine tasting journey, and hell we were excited!
Pastry chef Aya Fukai’s handiwork was incredible enough that it is impossible to describe in words, and so were Sommelier Parag Lalit’s wine choices.
Personifying the concept of farm to table beautifully, Chef Fukai takes fresh ingredients from local farms and gives them a unique twist.
On the outset, let me clarify, none of the desserts were sugared to be unbearably sweet. Rather, all of them reflected the natural tastes of the various elements that Chef Fukai put together to enthrall us. And she succeeded superlatively!
Looking like a baked biscotti, the Pear and Verjus Mousse was, well, a delectable mousse, and surprisingly stable. This tiny marvel was topped with shiso (Asian minty leaves) and candied walnuts. Almost weightless, it was literally melt in the mouth. The sweetness of the mousse was balanced with the sourness of the verjus (pressed juice of unripe grapes) and slight earthiness of walnuts. And then creamy of course. All in one bite.
This delectable little dish was paired with St Chamant Brut Blanc De Blancs, a 2005 champagne with all the refreshing characteristics of a bubbly. With slight hints of citrus and racy acidity, both complemented each other well.
The next dessert was as pretty and intriguing to look at, as it was to eat. As Chef Fukai sheepishly talked about her ‘adult’ spin to this very innocent looking dish, I read its description on the menu. Adult indeed, sitting in front of me was Caramelized Apple with Bourbon Sabayon Mousse and Tobacco Ice Cream. Who thinks of tobacco ice cream? Only Michelin starred restaurants I guess!
The taste of bourbon in the sabayon (French word for zabaglione, a light, mousse-like Italian dessert) was quite strong, but not so much as to overpower everything. The tobacco in the ice cream was, on the other hand, very light. The caramelized apple skins (kudos to Chef Fukai for inventing such a creative use of apple peels) were crunchy, as was the long buttery croissant! The croissant, in fact, was particularly well made – all credit to Sixteen’s in-house baker.
From here, Sommelier Lalit’s choice of wines became more exclusive. Pouring Dumagin et Fils “Ratafia” from Champagne, a unique blend of chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier, the wine was red in colour and velvety in texture. A smooth, light bodied and strong wine, it was certainly an ‘adult’ combination to serve! With a fruity, spicy fragrance, it pleasantly settles down in the throat.
Chef Fukai’s next dessert combined grapes with a highly unusual oat and rye brown butter cake. While ‘balancing out the flavors’ is a common term that chefs and food writers use, it is genuinely apt for Chef Fukai’s creations. The pear mousse was sweet, sour and nutty – merging all contrasts in a beautiful way. The caramelized apple was the perfect amalgamation of crunch and creamy – again balancing contrasts in creative ways. This time, the tanginess of compressed grapes was offset by the spiciness of the pickled ginger and blandness of the oat and rye cake. Say nothing about the presentation – it was spectacular as usual! The Ratafia also added another dimension of flavor, completing the whole bouquet with a flourish.
We Indians love our spice. Our stir-fries and curries are famous for being tongue burners. Imagine my surprise, when I see Taro ice cream next! The same taro (called arbi in Hindi), which we fry, and temper with various spices to make this humble potato-like vegetable interesting. Combined with Coconut Tres Leches cake and passion fruit cream, it was like a trip back to Asia! Indeed, Chef Fukai dedicated this dish and the next one to her Japanese origins.
The tres leches cake is soft with the milky taste of coconut. Garnished with lemongrass, it got a marvelous kick! The taro ice cream is earthy, vanilla-ish and floral at the same time. This purple color ice cream livened up the presentation as well. The passion fruit cream was tart and perfect to combine with the milder coconut and taro.
The Benedicte and Stephane Tissot Macvin du Jura Blanc wine was paired here. Earthy, spicy, with hints of nuts, this wine was also light bodied, but a little less smooth than the Ratafia. In any case, the slight lack of smoothness made it perfect to go with this creamy dessert.
However, it was the method of opening it that drew astonishing stares and delighted tones from everyone. Using the tong method, which Sommelier Lalit says might be used by him only in Chicago, the level of dramatization was enough to match that which I had seen years ago at Megu at The Leela Palace Hotel in New Delhi.
After heating a tong for a measured amount of time or till he was satisfied, Sommelier Lalit held the tongs over the neck of the wine bottle. Keeping it there for 30 seconds, he then brushed some cold water over the neck to give it shock treatment. And then, voila! He confidently picked up the neck! It had laser cut super neatly in a straight line! To make sure no broken glass particles had entered the wine during this process, Sommelier Lalit sieved the wine in a decanter. This act alone deserves a visit to Sixteen I think.
Chef Fukai is a witty, intelligent and definitely creative show-woman. Before presenting the next dessert, she reminisced how it was a task to find even soya sauce 20 years back in America, forget rare Japanese ingredients. “Things have changed a lot since then,” she said. And so came the Kabocha custard in a glass bowl, accompanied with chocolate ganache, cranberries and cinnamon ice cream. Kabocha, an Asian squash, has an earthy, bland flavor, of course, like others in its family. And in the same balancing fashion, the Kabocha custard is made interesting with the rest of the frills. The texture is smooth and silky which you can feel with each little spoon! Combined with the spicy Tissot wine, I simply went to heaven in fall.
Small fine packages
And that’s not it. The whole dessert feast ended with rich Intelligentsia coffee and an assortment of small bites such as Banyuls chocolate truffle, Moscato Gelee and Rose French Macarons. A small, intricate chest also came with the coffee, with a variety of sugar cubes nestled inside it. And while the coffee didn’t need it, we all were happy tasting the bourbon, marigold and other sugars just like that!
I have always been a macaron hater due to its over-sweet sugar filling. The shells have mostly been a cheap version of wafers for me. But now I realize I was eating macaroons at the wrong places! Chef Fukai’s version was exquisite with a creamy ganache in the center (I suspect made more with almonds than sugar) with the slight hint of rose in its shells. My taste, and faith, in macarons has been restored.
Some of these desserts are particularly available only till December 2015, after which Sixteen will change its menu to match the next season.
Using simple ingredients in ways unimaginable by common cooks like us, Chef Aya Fukai proved why Sixteen deserves to be a 2 star Michelin restaurant. Melding different flavors, cultures and colors, she has Trump’d (pun intended) all the high expectations I had. Sommelier Lalit is knowledgeable, in quite an encyclopedic way, and I am sure he will always manage to bring some magical wines out of his hat.
LF Says: ★★★★. 5
Coordinates: 401 N Wabash Ave, Chicago, IL
Soumya Jain is the Chief Editor & CEO of LuxuryFacts. She is also the Co-Editor of ‘The Luxury Market in India: Maharajas to Masses’, along with Glyn Atwal, published by Palgrave Macmillan and launched in September 2012. The book is a window into the highly complex Indian luxury market. Soumya is also a visiting lecturer for luxury marketing and online journalism at leading educational institutes in India. She has been invited to speak at conferences and address industry colleagues about the Indian luxury market. Recognising her knowledge of the market, she has been quoted in the media several times, while also contributing articles on luxury in various publications.