Dishes that blur the line between sweet and savory can be unforgettable when the contrasting flavors cascade over the tongue in perfect harmony. But for every successful attempt at this kind of culinary high jinks, there are a dozen failures. Christian Gatti, chef/co-owner (along with wife April Lisante, former food writer at the Daily News) of the new Bala Cynwyd BYOB Avril, has dedicated a vast swath of his menu to just this type of high-wire act.
Avril’s menu combines the flavors of France and Italy and is divided into sections; one column, labeled “Bistro,” is where you’ll find pork tenderloin, salmon and steak; another, “Boulangerie,” is dedicated to Gatti’s dessert-meets-entrée creations. The chef says he has always wanted to create a savory menu based on the dessert-making techniques he’s mastered over the years. The result is a collection of unusual dishes that can taste more like experiments than dinner.
For example, the components of the champagne mousse with smoked trout and cucumber salad occupied separate regions of the plate. When sampled alone, the mousse was a bit gummy with gelatin and a tad too peppery. The trout was fishy, even when offset with a taste of cucumber. But bring the three ingredients together, and voilà! Too bad it’s up to the diner to figure out how to eat the dish. The lobster profiteroles, sweet lobster meat tossed with asparagus in a mustard-sage sauce and tucked into a hollow pastry, was a bit unnerving, like a seafood cream puff.
The bistro portion of the menu has similar problems. A fried chicken leg coated in date sauce tasted like a meat cookie. Grilled shrimp and polenta was among the best dishes I sampled, the sweet shrimp charred by the grill, the cornmeal perfectly creamy. But it was served with a fruit salad that just didn’t belong. Pastas, offered in a third menu section, are made in-house. There was nothing experimental about fluffy gnocchi topped with perfect pistachio pesto. The linguine was also terrific, though an overcooked chicken leg atop it ruined the dish.
Gatti isn’t the first chef to serve weird combos in the name of innovation—this creative impulse has put many forward-thinking restaurants on the map. Some of his ideas need to percolate a while longer, and some need to go back to the drawing board.