It really takes just one soufflé to make me change my mind about them.
Until tonight, I’m ambivalent about soufflés ”“ I’ve simply eaten too many bad ones, and they all tasted like wet baguette. Eeww, I know. Believe me, I’ve talked to various chefs, all of them French ”“ asking, probing, debating, wondering if maybe I’ve missed a key tasting point along the way; and like sticking to my exercise regimen or losing weight, there really isn’t a magic bullet.
Until I meet Chef Gavin Sellars, who is of all things, Australian. Old Manila’s Chef de Cuisine at The Peninsula Manila, the man is so unabashedly exuberant about soufflés that I begin to feel there’s hope for me yet. “There’s so much that can be done with soufflés,” he exclaims animatedly, his hands waving about. I want to show that there’s more to these things than those stuffy preparations.”
Good, because frankly, I want to venture beyond the plain cheese soufflé or the chocolate soufflé that overeager waiters cut into at table and then plow half a gravy boat-full of chocolate sauce into.
The soufflé menu that Chef Gavin prepares today is composed of starters, main courses, and desserts, roughly two soufflés per course. The Oscietra Caviar Soufflé, the first arrival, isn’t promising. The color of boiled cauliflower and looking like little florets of the said vegetable, it possesses overwhelming hits of lemon. Pity, for the chilled prawns marinated in Champagne that accompany it match nicely with the peach salsa.
But disappointment quickly turns to jubilation with the Black Truffle and Scallop Soufflé (cover photo). While this luxury ingredient can make practically anything smell and taste divine, there’s a certain delicateness brought about when it’s incorporated into a soufflé. Small tufts of fragrant, earthy steam escape with every spoonful that pierces the air bubbles’ tender framework. Pairing it with the miniature salad of crisp celeriac and a remoulade of Belgian endive ”“ admittedly, strong flavors all ”“ there’s a risk of powerful flavors fighting to dominate. But the lone juicy scallop that sits above all mediates and harmonizes every ingredient. It’s a double pleasure as well to find bits of scallop at the bottom of my ramekin, the truffle notes lingering when I take one last swipe of the remaining truffle vinaigrette staining my plate.
A French word that literally means, “puffed up,” soufflés aren’t as volatile nor as temperamental as culinary legend makes them out to be. It’s imperative that the oven door not be opened while they’re baking ”“ you wouldn’t want your door to be opened while you’re getting ready now, would you? ”“ since the sudden whoosh of incoming air destroys the delicate framework of stiffly beaten egg whites folded into a roux (cooked butter and flour) that’s been whisked with egg yolks and savory or sweet flavorings. Soufflés are often baked in ramekins because the dish’s high sides help in the egg foam’s expansion (plus it looks nice, too).
The first soufflé in the main course makes me see what it is I want in this classical dish. The Baked Atlantic salmon, a gentle pink from its frolic in the oven is perfectly cooked ”“ its moistness glistens in the restaurant’s light. It’s a foil to the very yellow soufflé, its color the result of a saffron-white wine reduction. The spice’s flavor is as exquisite as the salmon is subtle, both heightening the ethereal nature of the soufflé’s bubbles. Pop…pop… I can almost hear them. Special mention must be made here regarding the vine-ripened roast tomato. Vibrantly red with a surprisingly crispy topknot, Chef Gavin explains that its sweetness and crunch come from four hours of slow-roasting… exceptional. Equally of note are the fried beetroot strips: at first, I think I’m eating kani tempura ”“ the crunch and expected softness are there ”“ but then the beet’s unmistakable flavor shines through, the equivalent of a mouth’s “a-ha!” moment. Genius.
This is proving to be a most enlightening lunch; I’m learning so much about soufflés and enjoying the experience as I go along. My friend and dining companion, G, murmurs something about “… the lightness of being isn’t getting to be so light anymore.” The soufflés’ combined weight is beginning to make itself felt. But when the Roasted Rack of Lamb appears, two modest ribs crisscrossed like a culinary coat of arms, G’s appetite resurges. He loves lamb. Roasted just ”˜til medium with a pink center laying on a pillow of grilled eggplant and a square of puff pastry, the lamb incites curses from near and far, a few of which escape from my own mouth. The meat almost makes me forget about this last savory soufflé that’s wet and almost custardy ”“ what I realize I want my soufflés to be, it’s mixed in with pecans, Parmesan, and Muscatel, a sweet dessert wine.
The dessert soufflés are interesting but perhaps not served at optimal condition. They shrink and suffer because G’s and my dining companion, J, takes too long in finishing her lamb. But we love her enough not to smack her (although it takes considerable effort on my part ”“ this is dessert after all). What we have: lemon soufflé with a Cointreau sorbet, a chocolate-praline soufflé with espresso sorbet, and a fascinating crÃªpe soufflé (below) where a vanilla and Cointreau meringue gambol in a soufflé mixture that bakes up into something similar to a canonigo.
Serving soufflés are a supreme balancing act for the kitchen brigade but when the service dance is on cue and the cooks and ovens are revved up (so to speak), the results are worthy of an epiphany. Look at what happened to me ”“ I’m a soufflé convert. To enjoy the full-on soufflé experience, I suggest that you allow yourself at least 20 minutes per soufflé, from ordering to finishing, one hour for one savory and one sweet. After all, a soufflé can be waited for but it can never wait.
Breathless With Soufflé
A soufflé extravaganza ”“ savory to sweet, classic to avant garde.
February 3 to18, 2010 ”“ lunch and dinner.
At the Old Manila, The Peninsula Manila
Call 887.2888 extensions 6748/6749 (Old Manila); 6694 Restaurant Reservations) for inquiries and restaurant reservations.
Click here to see soufflé menu. (PDF format)