San Francisco, Final Chapter: A Tale of Two Desserts

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I took a cab to the bakery. But only after I’d dropped into a fancy hotel on Market Street, sashayed up to the concierge’s desk and asked her to find me the exact address and exact time it closed. (She was so sweet, that concierge. Let. Me. Know. How. The. Croissant. Was. she said).

It was getting late. I had to meet the Gay Ukrainian Writer Boy in an hour and a half. Only one of us had a cellphone, so there was no margin for error. (How. Can We. Meet. If. You Don’t. Have. A Cellphone he asked plaintively). Several people, including Writer Boy, told me I had to go to this bakery – Tartine. It was roughly in the same area as the place I was going for dinner. So, I took a cab to a bakery, through the glittering dusky streets.

I walked into the warmest of environments: a bakery full of long wooden tables, people crowded around them or standing near them, glasses of wine in hand. A swing band was playing, and the room was full of happy chatter. What kind of a bakery is packed at 6 p.m., full of people eating cake or drinking wine and listening to live music?

After choosing a brioche bread pudding studded with apples and currants and piled charmingly into a cafe au lait cup, I wedged myself, my pre-dinner dessert and my tea into a banquette. I was fiddling with my new camera, so the couple next to me got involved. Turns out they were Russians from Ukraine, now living on the east coast – Maine or Massachussetts, I can’t remember. We had a brief yet very rich conversation about the peculiarities of the North American Ukrainian diaspora. It was one of those little moments you can have with fellow-travellers, intimate and fleeting.

The bread pudding was soft, subtle. Perhaps a little too faint of flavour for my taste, but pleasurable nonetheless. I could have stayed in that bakery for hours, writing in my journal and sipping tea. I might indeed have tried the croissant, just so i could back to the hotel I pretended to be staying in, so I could tell the bespectacled concierge, Yes. They. Are. The. Best. Croissant. In. Town.

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We met through our blogs, The Pastry Chef and I. She has a delicate, yet streetwise writing style. She’s tough, remote, and passionate. We were going to be reading together that weekend, but first, I had to visit the new restaurant, Sens, where her dessert creations were to be found.

I’ve been to friends’ book launches and orchestral performances and movie premieres. But I’d never done anything quite like this.

The Feminist Lawyer, who had zipped into town from Vancouver for the weekend, came with me. She was curious too. I warned her this was no trendy streetfront boite. We had to negotiate barren lobbies and ambiguous hallways. The lack of signage filled us with dread. But when we finally got to the restaurant (a warm if confused decor: Colorado ski lodge meets Turkish music hall), we felt just fine. The staff were lovely; perhaps it helped that we knew both the Chef and her charming Assistant, The Queer Baker.

We had dressed up, Feminist Lawyer and I, she in the theatrical designer jacket she’d bought for untold sums in Hayes Valley that day, me in my faux velvet dress from Valu Village, $8.99 not including the $3 red heels from the Sally Ann. We settled in. It wasn’t long before bread and ricotta (at least that’s what I think it was) anointed in olive oil, sea salt on the side appeared before us.

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We were there for the dessert, but the savoury menu drew us in. Feminist Lawyer had the Lambs Lettuce Salad – endive with figs, graviera cheese and meyer lemon vinaigrette which she described, in her precise, lawyer-ish way as “nicely balanced.” (Me, I called it delicious). She followed that with the blandly named Market Casserole. No blandness there! Various vegetables (courgette, eggplant) had been stuffed with an ancient grain named farrakeh, lambasted with haloumi cheese, enrobed with a rich tomato sauce and baked in a wood-burning oven. FL described it as the best vegetarian restaurant meal of her life. My entree – sole stuffed with fig and olive , accompanied by barley risotto and a brussel sprout stew – was not so momentous. The fig barely registered, the barley was plain and the brussel sprouts seemed unadorned. The fish was flaky, competently cooked – yet so ordinary, and so unlike the assertive flavours of the Middle East.

But that was all prelude.

The Pastry Chef floated over to our table in her whites and welcomed us. She seemed austere, but there was an amused twinkle in her eyes. I was so happy for her.

“We have some special things planned for you,” she said cryptically and then drifted back to her kitchen.

The Feminist Lawyer and I conferred, like a client and her attorney heading into a trial. She. Said. She. Has. Some. Special. Things. Planned I relayed to my friend. Feminist Lawyer frowned. We weren’t sure what that meant. I suddenly wished I had only ordered salad.

Before we knew it, the cute server-boy was bringing two small bowls of granita – blackberry and peach – to “cleanse our palates” he said. I liked the fancy sound of that. Those granitas were subtle, sparkly, light and rich, all at the same time.

Nobody rushed us, which was a good thing. We took a pause between the granita and the next dessert courses. I’m. Not. Sure. I. Can. Eat. Any. More. whispered the Feminist Lawyer to me. I glared at her, told her to buck up.

The climax is supposed to occur before the denouement. Closure, happy or not, ties up the story, and separates fantasy from reality, allowing the reader to return to the world.

Shuna Lydon’s desserts offer no such easy ending. They are postmodern narratives, with a conclusion that merely opens up all sorts of culinary questions.

Two dessert sculptures appeared before us. The first one – it was not on the menu and I don’t know the name so I’ll call it “Lemon Souffle” – was a challenge. It confronted us and made us think about fruit, and all the different things fruit could mean, or be. A globe of light, mouth-puckering lemon substance was accompanied by a biscuit-like element and a fruity-nutty mixture that reminded me of charoset, the Jewish fruit-nut paste eaten at Passover. i admit that, at this point, descriptives were beginning to fail me. I’d stopped taking notes. I was feeling a little drunk – on dessert.

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The second, called “First Blush”, was a fine composition: a bird’s nest of crisp pastry (called “kaddaif”) topped with soft, warm manouri cheese and juxtaposed with rosewater sorbet and quince. Even the Feminist Lawyer, rarely silent, was rendered speechless by this one. Every taste was a sentence with a slightly different structure, depending on how the flavours combined. I’ve never known a dessert to speak so volubly as that one. In fact, I’ve never known dessert until then.

We lingered over our tea, flavours washing over us. The Feminist Lawyer looked bemused. She had enjoyed herself but I could tell she didn’t quite get it.

Here’s the thing I said. This isn’t just about dessert. It’s about writing and politics. It’s about the farmer’s market we went to this morning, where the Pastry Chef buys her produce. It’s about a chef who hangs out with farmers and queers and it’s about a whole web of connections that extend all the way to Toronto and places beyond, through gigabytes and printed pages and a vision of sustainability – artistic, culinary, and otherwise.

It’s about love, and food, and community, and something that’s beautiful but you’re not sure how, or why.

5 Comments

  1. There is another fabulous new dessert on the menu so you’ll just have to come back! It’s so yummy…herbs, creamy semolina, lots of caramel, nuts, delicious rosemary. I think she should change the name to “delicious rosemary” in fact. (The lemon dessert is called “lemon essence”) I hope Shuna reads this…

  2. I have tears in my eyes. Thank you for understanding the sensuality and compassion with which my craft is expressed. I wanted to feed you the whole menu but my hope is that you’ll come back soon.

    I say that words should be delicious and used as well as components and ingredients and fruit and our hands need to know this, to understand.

    I feel like you are my sister and I barely know you. Thank you for continuing to reach out even when I’m remote.

  3. Lindsey,

    Thank you for welcoming me back. Amid all the pleasure there was a slight feeling of inadequacy of someone who does not know how to fully sample a dessert menu. Next. Time. I. Will. Only. Eat. Salad.

    Shuna,

    Thank you.

    I’ll be back to taste the spring menu.

  4. Wow! Le piece de resistance. I think that you know the chef’s genius when every bite gives you that multifaceted experience of eating something beyond the ordinary. Those elusive experiences are truly inspirational and artistic.

    Your honesty about things you don’t like are also refreshing. Ha!

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