Who leaps to mind when we ask about the best pastry chefs in Seattle? We typically hear about James Miller of Cafe Besalu (a.k.a. Temple of the Golden Ginger Biscuit), or William Leaman at Bakery Nouveau, with occasional votes for sugar-and-butter masters like Franz Gilbertson at Honore. This month, though, we’ve got a national spotlight on two guys you may not have tried — or may not have known that you tried.
On Capitol Hill, Neil Robertson of Crumble and Flake Patisserie just got a nod from Tasting Table as one of America’s top pastry chefs of 2012, and as Seattle’s only contender. In one way it’s an odd pick, because Crumble and Flake isn’t scheduled to open until April. On the other hand, Robertson baked knockout desserts during his time at two of Seattle’s high-end restaurants, Mistral Kitchen and Canlis. (Bon Appetit once said that his resume at Joel Robuchon and Guy Savoy in Las Vegas speaks for itself, but that you’re better off tasting for yourself.) He does classic, he does creative, but he always does perfectionism. I had the great good luck of sampling some of his pastries-in-progress last month. His version of caneles, those royally gorgeous, famously touchy, crisp-outside-custardy-inside pastries, is the best I’ve had. So mark your calendar, watch his progress, and sharpen your appetite for a new favorite contender in the croissant-kouign-amann competitions.
The other new name also has a Canlis connection. It’s current pastry chef Baruch Ellsworth, dubbed by Food and Wine magazine as one of the best new pastry chefs in the country in its recent online awards. He was also the only Seattle contender in that category (how did San Francisco wind up stomping us, with nine of the 16 nominations in the West? And what’s the deal with leaving the voting to online polls?) But still:
Ellsworth came to Canlis from San Francisco hot spot benu, and also has big-city-famous-place experience on his resume with the Ritz-Carlton and Campton Place, where he worked with Canlis chef Jason Franey.
Mark Canlis uses the word “comfort-geek” to describe how Ellsworth works, with a mix of warmth, technique, precision and beauty. “The pastry department here is growing up in a lot of ways,” he said. Most of what Ellsworth is doing now is “taking great desserts and making them better,” refining desserts on the existing menu and bringing his expertise to delicate delicacies like petit fours and macarons (the latter being “like a discipline, like a samurai sword art”). Don’t miss the upgraded chocolate fondant and the current tasting menu dessert of parsnip, pear, and pumpernickel.
Why haven’t you heard before that there’s an impressive new talent in the Canlis kitchen? Mark Canlis remembers a backlash from when the family announced via press conference that chef Franey had joined the restaurant. It didn’t strike people as their style. With Ellsworth, they wondered if they swung the pendulum too far in the other direction, saying nothing when he arrived and figuring people would take note if he was succeeding. A national honor from a big-time magazine sounds like a good first note to me.
The Canlis menu isn’t as easy to sample as a $2 or $3-ish croissant, of course, but you can always dine in the lounge and order off the dessert menu for $12 to $14 apiece.
Sound like Seattle’s best to you? Who’s on your list?
Photo of Baruch Ellsworth by Brian Canlis