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What do the following have in common: chess pie, chocolate cake, tiramisu? Yeah, they’re all desserts containing eggs, sugar, and flour. But more unifying than these ingredients is the crimson tide they often surf. Raspberry coulis—that purée of berries, sugar, and a bit of citrus—has become a colonizing force on dessert plates across the region. I sometimes envision pastry chefs carrying squirt bottles of the stuff around in holsters, ready to fire at anything that passes before them: cheesecake, a brownie, baklava. A quick search on Google reveals thousands of recipes for the stuff: gingered figs with raspberry coulis, lemon meringue pie with raspberry coulis, chocolate cake with fudge icing and…what’s wrong with just fudge icing, goddamnit?
Turns out that my quick-draw musings aren’t that far off-base. “The manufacturers have gotten smart,” says Steve Klc, pastry chef at downtown’s Zaytinya. “[Restaurants] can now buy raspberry coulis already in squeeze bottles—a server can just spritz a plate” as it heads out of the kitchen.
Whether you like raspberries or not, they’re too assertive—with their sweetness, acidity, and earthiness—to be a one-size-fits-all finish. “Coulis gets used as a paintbrush rather than [a] necessity,” says chef Jeffrey Buben, who uses the purée to adorn his lemon chess pie at West End’s Vidalia. Considered a kind of mother sauce for the pastry chef, he says, it’s become “the go-to add-on.” The coulis adds a specific flavor profile to Buben’s pie, but he notes that it’s often used willy-nilly by “restaurants that don’t take pastry seriously.”
Klc’s assessment is less diplomatic: “A chef is dumbing down their work,” with the raspberry-mother-sauce mentality, he says. “They’re selling out and giving the diner what they think the diner wants.”
The problem isn’t the coulis, continues Klc, but the carelessness and lowered expectations it represents. “Go ahead and use it, but you’d better be working at the Cheesecake Factory, you’d better be working at Clyde’s, or you’d better have a good reason to use it,” he says. “Diners should expect more.”
OK, full disclosure: I don’t like raspberries. Or strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, or huckleberries. In the year that I’ve been writing about food, I’ve made considerable efforts to revisit, and to overcome, my revulsion—without much luck, I have to admit. When ordering dessert, I still latch on to nonfruity items made with chocolate, coffee, vanilla, nuts. But following the menu’s, or even a server’s, description doesn’t always guarantee a fruitless plate. During a recent visit to Columbia Heights’ Rumberos, I ordered what were described as dulce de leche pancakes; I dug in to find myself disoriented, and not a little panicked, by the first bite. What I’d thought was a caramel sauce coating the crepes was instead a pear reduction.
Of course, the pear sauce was a sneaky, bastard son of Mama Coulis. The red puddle/swirl/zigzag (or what Klc calls “the stupid tick-tack-toe”) has become so ubiquitous that it’s rare for a server to even acknowledge its presence. A lifelong survey of diners tells me I’m nearly alone in my feelings about the sauce—and I take responsibility for finding out exactly what I’m ordering—but asking a waiter an even remotely leading question such as, “Is the chocolate torte just a chocolate torte?” is unlikely to yield insight into any garnish. “Uh, yeah,” he’ll probably say, looking at you as if you’d just asked if the cake came with a side of onion rings.
And some desserts are so straightforward that I don’t even think to ask. Who would guess that a piece of tiramisu would have a red squiggle across the plate? Yet there it was at U Street’s Al Crostino a few weeks ago. It was off to the side and easy to avoid, but I don’t enjoy not being master of my plate. I won’t hesitate to stain a cloth napkin by wiping my dessert clean.
More distressing was finding a bright-pink drizzle around some cannoli at Dupont Circle’s Sette Osteria a couple of years ago. I was sharing the dish with a co-worker—the former food columnist at the Washington City Paper, in fact—and I felt too ashamed to ’fess up to my proclivity. So I consulted my well-worn mental playbook and settled on taking odd, strategic bites of the untouched portions. This is difficult to do with cannoli.
I get it, though, chefs. The browns, buffs, and various whites of nonfruity desserts are crying out for color. A zabaglione from Dupont’s Galileo might look more interesting with its ruby slices of strawberry (or at least I can see how it would if I weren’t tensely watching the fruit bleed into my custard), but they number so many atop the small portion that they ought to be listed in the menu description.
The same old fruit garnishes will never completely vanish, and they can usually be avoided or pushed aside. But it seems as though the insipid raspberry coulis’ stranglehold is loosening a bit. According to Buben, the increasing popularity of the sauce in mainstream restaurants over the past 20 years means that fine-dining establishments now look toward more innovative garnishes.
Sometimes innovation is overrated. I took a crazy risk a few weeks ago at Adams Morgan’s Cashion’s Eat Place and ordered the chocolate cake with a mixed-nut crust—straight up, no conditions. What arrived were several smooth, rich, slightly bitter spoonfuls of flourless chocolate atop an addictively buttery crust, redolent of hazelnuts. The entire cylinder was nestled in a pool of…more chocolate. It tasted like chocolate and nuts, perfect in their brownness, and I ate every bite angst-free.
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