I first came across Antonio Bachour‘s work during the 2nd annual StarChef’s Pastry Competition in 2011. Bachour was one of three finalists. His work was visually very impressive. From that time on, I began to notice and see more and more of it on facebook and elsewhere as his creative output was ferocious – both beautiful and copious. When I planned a trip to Orlando with my wife and son this past spring, I knew I had to get to Miami to experience his work directly and find out if it tasted as good as it looked. I made arrangements to stay at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Hotel, where he is the Executive Pastry Chef, specifically to be able to try all facets of his work.
Hotels are not typically the first places I think of when choosing restaurants, though in today’s economy, they are often the best positioned to support high end dining. The St. Regis Bal Harbour, like all the other St. Regis hotels in my experience, is a luxurious and elegant property that spares no expense in catering to well-healed clientele. That well healed clientele, more often than not, tends to like and appreciate quality, but when it comes to food, rarely venture into the realm of the avant-garde – at least not knowingly.
One of Bachour’s many talents, I quickly came to discover, is taking cutting edge technique and using it to craft an ouvre that is delicious, beautiful and truly creative without alienating any diners. The guests of the hotel and the restaurant need not know nor care as to how he does things as he does not place technique front and center. All they need know is that his work is both beautiful and truly delicious.
Our first experience came as we checked into our room overlooking the ocean. We were quickly greeted with a tray of chocolate and fruit based mini-desserts, bon-bons and assorted treats that were both delights to eye and palate. As we were soon to have lunch in the hotel restaurant, J&G Grill, we refrained from overindulging in these tempting morsels.
I expected a good meal at J&G Grill. It is part of the Jean-George Vongerichten empire, after all. However, I was somewhat surprised with how good the meal really was. Under then Chef de Cuisine Richard Gras¹, we experienced a meal that was true to the spirit of the cooking at Vongerichten’s NYC flagship Jean-George, in a setting that allowed it to be a unique experience.
Our first dish, Black Truffle Pizza, a Vongerichten classic, was first served at his NYC restaurant, The Mark. With a thin house made crust, plenty of black truffle purée, fontina cheese, frisée and micro chives, this was delicious and a worthy torch-bearer for the franchise.
I started with a cocktail, a Hendrick’s Cucumber Martini with lime and mint that was delightful and totally refreshing.
Our son drank J-G’s colorful house made sodas.
My wife enjoyed a glass of German Riesling from the 2011 vintage in the Mosel.
Bread was about as good as bread gets. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that bad bread at a high end restaurant is a pet peeve of mine. Well, I was not peeved with this wonderful bread baked under the direction of Chef Bachour.
Hamachi with ginger-soy vinaigrette, avocado, shiitakes, chives, chervil and radish, was a delicious rendition of classic J-G style. The hamachi is flown in from Japan every two days. The fish was rich, but very delicate. It’s richness kept it from getting overwhelmed by the signature Vongerichten acid punch of the vinaigrette.
Beet salad was prepared with local beets and filled out with micro-herbs, tangy goat’s milk yogurt, crispy shallots, spiced hazel nuts and a sherry vinegar reduction. Though not as colorful as some beet salads I’ve had, it was impeccably balanced and totally delicious.
Foie gras is a common dish in high end restaurants and is often good, though rarely does one stand out compared to other foie gras preparations. True to his name, Chef Richard Gras takes foie seriously and prepared one that did standout, a spectacularly delicious compendium of flavors and textures that defined the luxury in luxury dining. He deveined foie gras and made a paté with that, a little kirsh and oven dried strawberries. This was bruléed with raw sugar, seasoned with sea salt and Szechuan peppercorn and placed atop brioche. To the plate he added dry and whole strawberries, dabs of oak-barrel aged sherry vinegar and gotu kola, an herb likened by Chef Gras as a cross between parsley and chervil. Each component was individually delicious and the combination was synergistic.
We next had another Vongerichten classic – Spring Pea Purée with Parmesan foam and garlic croutons. This captured the essence of spring in both color and flavor. The pea flavor is extracted from pea shoots and tendrils as well as the peas themselves. The bright green purée shined with the essence of the vegetable in much the same way that Ferran Adriá’s spherical olive captured the flavor essence of that ingredient, tasting more of itself than the original ingredient did. It is because of dishes like this that Jean-Georges Vongerichten has been as successful as he has.
There wasn’t anything about the savory elements of the meal that can be perceived today as pushing the boundaries of cooking and food, though when Jean-Georges first started cooking, his nouvelle approach was contemporary and a brilliant contribution to cuisine. Much as happened in cooking since Jean-Georges first burst onto the scene, but it is a testament to his work that his dishes and style, as interpreted here by Chef Gras, have come to be considered classic. The sheer deliciousness and visual beauty of the food make it timeless. Such was the case with the dish of warm asparagus with morels, hollandaise and pea flowers brought out by Chef Gras. This was not in the least bit novel other than perhaps the inclusion of the pea flowers, but it didn’t need to be. It was beautiful, luxurious, light, comforting and full of sheer pleasure. Creativity and novelty are wonderful things, but so are dishes like this in a setting like this. I’m happy that life does not necessarily force an either or choice between the two.
The last savory course followed the theme set up by the others. It was light, well conceived, expertly composed and brilliantly prepared. Bronzino was perfectly cooked with a crackling crisp skin served atop flavorful Italian bulgur wheat and beneath a layer of sun-dried tomato preserves and micro-greens. At this point we were starting to get full, but not so full that we couldn’t have a little dessert.
By a little dessert, I mean a lot of dessert. Chef Bachour provided us with a tasting of the seasonal desserts that he had been employing at the time with some new ones reflecting the onset of spring as well as one or two that reflected the waning of the winter season. Whereas Chef Gras’ savories reflected the international nature of the Vongerichten culinary vision as well as the conservative luxury of high-end hotel dining, Chef Bachour’s desserts were a journey (mostly) into the tropical aspects of Florida and its multi-cultural background, all done with the panache that one would expect from such an august property. The first dessert could not have encapsulated this approach any better than it did. A variety of tropical fruits were manipulated and combined to titillate every sense save perhaps the sense of hearing. Bachour used textures, temperatures and flavors to seduce the mouth into a state of pure pleasure. He dipped an airy coconut foam into liquid nitrogen and perched it atop a spectacularly sweet-tart cremeaux of passionfruit and augmented it all with key lime gelee, caramelized banana, edible flowers and basil syrup. Like anyplace, South Florida has its issues and problems, but if its best elements could be combined and distilled into a representative dish, it would be this beautifully balanced, light, pastel-colored dessert tour de force. It had the balance of a high wire artist and the depth of a deep sea diver.
Bachour uses tropical flavors in his desserts as well as anyone I have ever encountered. Chocolate, though a staple of western Euro centered gastronomy, should also be considered a tropical flavor as cacao only grows within a narrow tropical band. Bachour is also expert in all facets of using this wonderful ingredient. The next dessert highlighted this aspect of his work as he combined chocolate cream with mango to create a nicely blended, light dessert that somehow gave equal weight to both components with textural contrasts and nuances of flavor in each heavenly bite.
Ever creative, Bachour is also comfortable with classics. I can’t think of a dessert more closely associated with South Florida than key lime pie, which also happens to be a personal favorite. I love the combination of tart and sweet and the specific lime flavor is one that I adore. Bachour’s treatment of this classic was amongst the most satisfying that I have ever had. Augmented with raspberry sorbet, micro-herbs and perfect berries, he took a classic and somehow improved upon it. I often complain that desserts are “too sweet.” That complaint has nothing to do with how much sugar a dessert has or doesn’t have. It wouldn’t be dessert if it didn’t have an underlying sweetness, but when the sweetness is all that is present, it becomes one-dimensional and cloying. Bachour is not afraid of sugar, but then neither is he afraid of acid or other balancing components. His ability to balance the sweetness of a dessert with acid sharpens the dessert, adds complexity and enhances its ultimate appeal. He uses acid in the same way that great dessert wines rely on their acidity to bring everything into focus. He then goes on to tweak the remaining components of his desserts to bring them to their ultimate levels of clarity and definition.
For our fourth dessert, Bachour used many of the same ingredients that he used in the first, but varied the textures and added mango in lieu of banana and augmented the dish with “spicy streusel” to create something that was completely different, but just as satisfying as the first dessert.
Our penultimate dessert came from the winter menu and demonstrated his skill with non-tropical ingredients. This was a dessert that would have been at home in France or northern Europe. Poached pear was served with pear sorbet, honey cremeaux, spiced crumble, creme fraiche and micro-sorrel to achieve a flavor profile completely unlike anything we had been served by Bachour previously. The visual construction of the dish was consistent with the style of construction we had already been witness to, but the flavors, textures and colors conveyed a totally different set of feelings. While my personal preference was for the tropical desserts, it was exciting to experience the extended depth of this chef’s knowledge, skill and creativity.
Our final dessert was the most overtly savory of them all, further displaying Bachour’s incredible range of technique and facility with a wide variety of ingredients and flavors. Guiness Stout Cake was paired with brown butter ice cream, sautéed apple, brown butter snow, spiced crocante and apple purée. The dessert was not as inherently sweet as the tropical desserts and so required less acidity to offset the sugar.
We finished a meal that was delicious and beautiful through and through. It blended classic and contemporary, international and regional and elegant and comforting to create a memorably marvelous dining experience. Chef Gras and his savory staff did a wonderful job in exceeding my expectations. I expected a very good meal, but got a great one. I was expecting Antonio Bachour’s work to be excellent, but I couldn’t have imagined it to be as wonderful as it was. After our lunch, Chef Bachour took me down to his pastry and banquet kitchens where he oversees not just the desserts for J&G Grill, but also all of the desserts for the hotel’s other restaurants, the extensive chocolate and small plate work as evidenced in our welcome tray and all of the baking for the hotel, including some of the flakiest and most delightful croissants anywhere.² The extent of his responsibilities and the quality of his and his team’s work throughout the hotel was astounding. Chef Antonio Bachour must be included amongst the world’s very best pastry chefs. His technical prowess, finesse, creativity and dedication are second to none. He is a true Pastry Artist.
¹Chef Richard Gras has since left the restaurant and has taken a position as the Executive Chef at Oak in dallas, Texas. Brad Kilgore has been hired at the St. Regis Bal Harbour to replace Gras.
²See the entire Photoset including photos from Chef Bachour’s work kitchen on Flick’r.