Dark chocolate bavarois, chocolate almond cake with roasted blackberry marshmallow and chunky almond ice cream. Sour cherry and apple tart with griottine cherry cream cheese ice cream. These fantastical-sounding desserts are real, and they're the brainchild of Rhonda Viani, pastry chef at West Restaurant since December 2003.
Perhaps you're not as well versed in classical French pastry as you'd like. You might wonder what a bavarois is (mousse's stiffer, less squishy cousin) or puzzle over griottine (sour cherries macerated in liqueur, typically Kirsch), but you'll probably order dessert anyway.
You'll be rewarded for this leap of faith. The dark chocolate bavarois is a stately cylinder crusted with toasted almonds, sitting atop a wee puddle of blackberry coulis. Next to it, chocolate almond cake is topped with a sprightly lilac-coloured marshmallow that has been kissed by a blowtorch. And the chunky almond ice cream is phenomenal, with satisfying chunks of rich toasted almonds.
As deeply chocolatey as the bavarois is, the cherry apple tart is light and refreshing. Viani coaxes buttery, flaky pastry into a triangle, then fills it with vanilla-scented custard, apples and sour cherries. The warm tart plays off the cool, refreshing cream cheese ice cream, with kicks of boozy griottine to kick things up.
Viani's style is one of classic flavours and techniques, thoughtfully put together and impeccably executed. It's the culmination of stints in some of the province's finest restaurants: Le Crocodile, Lumiere, Chocolate Arts and Sooke Harbour House, as well as Sydney's Marque Restaurant.
"[It's] about taking it all and using it [at West]," says Viani, where all that experience comes in handy. With the help of one assistant, she's responsible for a constantly changing dessert menu, petits fours - small chocolates, cookies, and confections - and all the breads for the restaurant.
Originally from South Delta, Viani has seen the changes in Vancouver's appetite for sweets. When she first started, "it was pretty bleak. It was very different... more conservative. I made lots of souffl‚s and tarte tatins."
Thankfully, things have changed since then. One trend of late is the blurring line between sweet and savory (exhibit A: salted caramel in nearly everything). "I think dessert is becoming another course in a meal, rather than an afterthought. It's not just the last course. It's another course that happens to be sweet," says Viani.
That blurring line is also changing attitudes in the kitchen. "I make desserts the way I would cook. When I cook apples, I deglaze the pan just as I would deglaze meat. It's about using that same philosophy and applying it to pastry."
That's not surprising, given that Viani actually started on the savoury side of the kitchen, even going so far as to complete a three-year apprenticeship program. And while she may be best known for her sweets, when she's at home, savoury wins. "If I do sweet it's always very simple, like crepes or biscuits with berries."
Viani loves the creativity of her job ("I have total freedom with the menu") and as much as she can, she draws inspiration from her home garden and in seasonal ingredients. "Blood oranges are really nice right now, and there [are] pears, apples, and tropical fruits. Kumquats, pineapples, guavas."
And her original source of inspiration? "One side of my family is Italian... that's probably where I got it from. We love food. We love eating."
At West, it's hard to hold back. But the next time you're there, do save room for dessert - you won't be disappointed.