Lucy Damkoehler's Absurdly Delicious Work at Mistral Kitchen
The first thing I hear upon walking into Mistral Kitchen is Queen—Freddie Mercury (RIP) is enthusiastically singing, "Fat-bottomed girls, you make this rockin' world go round!"
I take this as an excellent sign. The reason I'm here, after all, is to gorge myself on the restaurant's new dessert menu by Lucy Damkoehler, the restaurant's new pastry chef. There are five desserts in my very near future—like warm blueberry coffee cake with caramel corn and sticky toffee pudding with blackberry fig compote.
Before being hired on at Mistral at the beginning of August, Damkoehler worked at TASTE, where she was known for her absurdly delicious doughnuts. At TASTE, Damkoehler was limited to using only local and seasonal ingredients—"I couldn't even use coconut," she says mournfully—but at Mistral, she can take advantage of any ingredient she'd ever want, allowing her to take her recipes, which are generally based on comforting favorites, to more innovative places. Mistral Kitchen's pantry is filled with untraditional stuff like buttermilk powder, yogurt powder, carrot and spinach powder, glucose, and sucrose—ingredients Damkoehler hasn't had much time to experiment with. But she's excited to get started.
"There's a lot of molecular gastronomy," she says. "That's what's challenging for the new menu, because I want to play with all this stuff! But I haven't had time yet. But I will—I want to refine my skills and understand how all the products work."
One new toy she has had time to play with is the kitchen's Pacojet, a small $4,000 (!) machine that "quickly spins ice cream so you can make it to order," she says. The Pacojet is partly the reason the scoop of blueberry sorbet that comes with the warm blueberry coffee cake is the smoothest and freshest-tasting sorbet you'll ever eat. Not a single grain of sugar or ice is felt on the tongue, and unlike so many other sorbets, it isn't oversaturated with sweetness, allowing the clean, bright flavor of the blueberries to really sing.
"You can use bases without sugar," she explains. "With traditional ice cream, you need sugar for it to freeze and cream properly. But with the Pacojet, I could do a squid-ink sorbet with no sugar."
She laughs and assures me that won't be appearing on the menu.
Damkoehler only has about four feet of counter space and two sinks to work with, and she has to hop down five stairs and go out a set of swinging doors every time she runs to the oven. But as she goes through her daily list—make graham crackers, roll out bread sticks and pizza dough, cut gelée—she isn't frantic. Unlike so many other pastry chefs, she has a casual air about her, making the process look more fun than stressful. (Have you been watching Bravo's Top Chef: Just Desserts? Those panicked chefs look like they're going to explode from anxiety—"Oh my God, it's not gonna fucking smear!")
Damkoehler could actually be described as relaxed. While she melts the chocolate for the ice cream in the s'more sandwiches ("Which is more like a semifreddo," she says), Damkoehler tells me stories about her family. Her father was a technical writer, her mother is an artist, and all of her siblings are in the food industry as cooks, chefs, or bartenders. She splashes cream into the bowl of chocolate without making sure it is exactly however many tablespoons she needs it to be. She barely looks at the recipes in her notebook. She's familiar enough with her ingredients and her process that she knows how much is enough. She also has a degree in savory cooking, which is much less exacting in nature—those slightly more lax cooking techniques carry over into her baking, but you'd never guess it when looking at her final products, which are like beautiful, edible paintings on a plate.
My favorite, in both flavors and appearance, is the s'mores ice cream sandwiches with homemade graham crackers. Small sandwiches are piled up next to a lightly burned (in a good way) dome of marshmallow. The sandwiches are perfect—the ice cream is not too soft, the crackers are not too hard. Around them are dollops of dark-chocolate syrup and light-green mint gel. So, basically toothpaste, I think, while dipping the corner of the ice cream sandwich into the goo. Nope. Not toothpaste. Amazingpaste. I've never had anything like it. And the little candied mint leaf on the side dissolves on my tongue like a leaf isn't supposed to do. The leaf is a tiny component of the entire dish, but still thoughtful, still memorable.
The coconut lime trifle is a close runner-up. It has layers of pale yellow lime cake, lime curd, and creamy coconut tapioca pudding all topped with a scoop of bright-orange apricot/passion-fruit sorbet—again, the smoothest sorbet you'll ever eat. There are a few mini snickerdoodle cookies on the side, along with a generous sprinkle of candied lime zest.
"If you want, you can throw the zest on top, and it's kind of like Pop Rocks in your mouth," Damkoehler says. You want to do this. You must do this. I want to throw that candied lime zest on everything.
The sticky toffee pudding is another wonder of textural magic. Sticky pudding is, historically, dense and usually more gummy than sticky, but Damkoehler's version is just incredible. It's gooey and sweet, but it doesn't stick to the roof of your mouth or coat your teeth in a sugar-sweater. Incredible. And the Earl Grey crème fraîche on top is a thoughtful and memorable change from the usual vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. My only complaint: The accompanying poached fig and berry compote is a little too boozy for my tastes. But then again, I don't drink, so wine lovers would probably end up licking the plate.
The chocolate terrine with peanut-butter mousse and cherry gelée comes with a tiny malted milkshake and makes a strong argument against my antideconstruction stance (though I wish I could taste a little more cherry in the gelée). And until tasting the coffee cake with its smear of sweet corn purée, I never would've guessed that blueberries and corn could be on the same plate together. Genius!
This is only the first round—a month's worth of what she's capable of doing in her new digs. It can only get better from here. And yes, should you be craving something more familiar, Damkoehler's famous doughnuts will be making a comeback.