Sweet Spot: Wildebeest keeps dessert deliciously simple

Sous chef Guerin is one to watch

Wildebeest doesn’t have a dedicated pastry chef. At most restaurants, this would result in the mighty troika of pleasing-but-pedestrian desserts: molten chocolate cake, lemon tart and panna cotta. Dessert on plate, dollop of whipped cream, half a strawberry shivering in the middle of winter.

Things are different at Wildebeest (120 West Hastings). “We don’t have a proper department for pastry, [so] we try to do simple desserts, not too complicated in technique,” says sous chef Brigitte Guerin.

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Here, not too complicated takes on new meaning. Consider the signature dessert, the “cheesecake.” When I order it, the server points out the quotation marks on the menu — not because she shares my love of punctuation, but because the dessert isn’t a cake at all.

Instead, it arrives in a bowl: a pillow of cream cheese with a touch of goaty tang, more substantial than a foam but airier than a mousse. A quenelle of blood orange sorbet sits on top, adding a hit of acidity and freshness. Finally, it’s all speckled with toasty crumble that hints at graham cracker crust.

That sweet, tangy, pillowy texture comes from spraying cheesecake base out of a pressurized canister, the sort you might use for whipped cream. Guerin recalls former executive chef David Gunawan and another cook playing with cheesecake recipes. “They put it in a canister and then it was all foamy and light and really pleasant to eat, so we decided to do that.”

Many pastry chefs would try showing off more complicated techniques, so leave it to cooks to put cheesecake batter in a canister and squoosh it into a bowl. It’s so popular that Guerin can’t take it off the menu. “The owners, they really want to keep it,” she says in her French accent.

On the savoury side, Wildebeest’s menu is meat-forward, with emphasis on the odd bits. “People are not used to it, but I think that people are trying to go for it more than before,” says Guerin. That penchant for the unusual (veal necks, hay jus) extends to the dessert menu (dehydrated chocolate mousse, tonka bean ice cream). Tonka beans taste like a less-floral vanilla, with more fruit and spice notes. “People don’t really know about the tonka bean and how flavourful it is, and how it goes really well in ice cream,” says Guerin.

Guerin attended culinary school in France, where she trained in both cuisine and pastry. She had her heart set on being a pastry chef but ended up in a lacklustre restaurant. “I was pretty disappointed in being there. I quit and I couldn’t find another job in pastry, so I went in a kitchen to cook meat. I don’t know for which reason, [but] it pleases me more than doing pastry.”

Guerin’s relatively unknown in Vancouver, but she’s one to watch. She’s cooked at one- and three-Michelin star restaurants in France, as well as Vancouver’s West Restaurant — where she first met David Gunawan, who asked her to help him open Wildebeest in the summer of 2012. (Gunawan left last January and now helms the kitchen at Farmer’s Apprentice.)

Most nights, Guerin shuttles between savoury and sweet, though any member of the team is welcome to play. The result is more than just foamy cheesecake. There’s remarkable cohesion between savoury and sweet courses, and a consistently cerebral tone to the experience.  

“We look for something not too heavy because we know that people always have a good meal before having a dessert… We don’t want dessert to fill them up too much,” says Guerin. “I think it’s really a good thing to have to do pastry. It’s a part of the whole restaurant.”

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