Popping candy, sherbet and ice cream may be more commonly associated with a five-year-old’s birthday party than a luxury hotel. Nonetheless, Sydney’s Shangri-La Hotel has become home to a series of dessert degustation nights that have taken a nostalgic range of ingredients and added a distinctly adult spin.
With the support of French chocolate brand Cacao Barry and Italian mineral water label San Pellegrino, executive pastry chef Anna Polyviou has brought dessert lovers to Sydney’s Shangri-La Hotel. And in a move to rebuke every element of pretence and ceremony usually reserved for five-star locations, her desserts are prepared and presented in the hotel’s own pastry kitchen.
The formula certainly works. Perched on stools just metres away from the action, the small group of guests is relaxed, chatty and giggly. With no alcohol served in the kitchen, it’s safe to attribute the atmosphere to a keen anticipation of what is to come.
“I want people to enjoy themselves. Desserts are a fun thing and I want them to be enjoyed in a relaxed atmosphere,” Anna says as she breaks apart shards of honeycomb.
“If you make the event really formal, expectations become completely different. Putting people close together in a casual setting makes it more intimate and helps people feel like they are at home. Look at them, they are laughing and Tweeting away! There is no pretence here.”
The well-thought out menu has a perfect balance of flavours, both sweet and savoury. Seamlessly transitioning from lighter to heavier flavours, the five-courses feature everything from popcorn to fresh herbs, broken up with a refreshing palate cleanser.
The first course, ‘Anna’s Liquid Mess’, is an elegant dish with immense visual appeal. A vanilla bavarois crème dome sits beside a crunchy base, fresh strawberries, baby basil, meringue kisses, strawberry sorbet and pop rocks. To top it off, warm strawberry coulis is poured at the table – softening the chocolate and fusing the flavours.
“I had a great recipe for a vanilla bavarois crème and when we were designing this particularly recipe, we played around with flavours and textures so as to really surprise the palate,” Anna says.
“As a result, you have a clean sharpness at the start, which dissolves into a gooey, delicious mess at the end.”
The addition of popping candy into this dessert is important. Not only is it an ode to Anna’s friend and guest Adriano Zumbo – whose popping candy macarons have become notorious with Sydneysiders – but more importantly, it has the guests talking.
“The pop rocks are a bit like an ice breaker. Popping candy is something a lot of people haven’t experienced since they were children. So as well as adding a really exciting texture, it brings an element of the familiar to the dessert – a sense of nostalgia and a prompt for people to tell stories of their childhood,” Anna says.
There is also a sense of playfulness in the way Anna describes the dessert’s presentation. The delicate pink cocoa powder on the domes has been applied with an air compressor gun. While the technique is fairly conventional, Anna prefers to align her inspiration with local graffiti art, rather than the delicate entremets and cakes of her predecessors.
“Nine out of 10 people here at the dessert degustation are from inner city suburbs; most of whom are very familiar with the area’s graffiti-filled alleyways that are becoming more and more trendy as bases for boutique bars, restaurants, cafés and general arts spaces,” she says.
“Airbrush compressors have been used for years, but I’m keen to start using them for bolder colours and stronger shapes. Let’s get some street cred,” she adds, laughing.
The second dessert of the evening, ‘Lemon Twist’, is a lemon soufflé topped with a lemon curd sauce. The pièce de résistance is the lime sherbet, creatively served in a mini-test tube. A spoon of lemon sorbet is served on the side.
“With the guests in the kitchen, this is a perfect opportunity to show off our deck oven and allow the guests to see first-hand how the soufflé rises when it comes out,” Anna says.
The decision to put sherbet in a test tube may have been practically inspired, as it keeps moisture from turning fizz into a thick, sticky mess. However, as you see the guests flicking, shaking and tapping the tubes before sucking down mouthfuls of sherbet, it’s clear they serve a far greater purpose.
“They’re a bit naughty aren’t they,” Anna says, delighting in the roars of laughter reverberating off the kitchen walls.
“There is something refreshing about seeing guests interact with their food rather than just eating it like they would upstairs in the hotel’s restaurant. I can guarantee guests aren’t having as much fun up there.”The third dish, ‘Re-freshen Apples’, may have been conceived as a palate cleanser, however, it shows as much skill and attention to detail as the main courses. Inspired by Wildfire pastry chef John Ralley, Anna worked both apple and fennel into the sorbet.
The dessert is served in glass to display the layers; caramelised white chocolate crème, apply jelly, cinnamon crumble, sweet and sour apples, apple and fennel sorbet and lemon herb. A disk of crispy almond tuile sits on top.
“We didn’t want a palate cleanser that was boring, we wanted to show how a range of natural flavours, that wouldn’t usually be paired together, work really well,” Anna says.
In a romantic dedication to her girlfriend, the following ‘Caramalise Me Casey’ dessert has incorporated its namesake’s favourite flavours; bananas, caramel, passionfruit, pop corn and milk chocolate. The highly sophisticated result is a chocolate gateau composed of crunchy cocoa nibs and milk chocolate mousse. Accompanying the gateau, which has a passionfruit insert, is white chocolate powder, candied popcorn, banana puree, caramel popcorn ice cream and passionfruit sorbet.
“This dessert had an edge to it. With a crunchy chocolate base and a smooth banana jam, it has both a sharpness and a sourness to break up the sweet menu,” Anna says.
The final desert of the evening is Anna’s favourite: ‘Lick’ (see recipe on page 18). The yoghurt parfait ice cream on a stick has a hard caramel centre and is complemented by mango jelly, baby herbs, honeycomb chunks, chocolate brownie crumbs and mango popping pearls.
To top off the indulgence, guests are invited to take home intricately decorated Oreo pops, garnished with honeycomb shards, freeze-dried strawberries and candy pearls.
“I’m so lucky to have such a great team, which includes my demi-chef Felicity Goodchild and sous chef second-in-charge Jee Hwang, who work at 100 per cent capacity at all these events. I’m also lucky to work for a hotel brand that is willing to try something different and to take a risk,” Anna says.
For the hotel’s marketing team, the risk has paid off and director of communications Jessica Somers couldn’t be happier.
“The dessert degustation events have been a wonderful success story for the Shangri-La Hotel Sydney. Our guests are loving being in the pastry kitchen among all the action and staff,” Jessica says.
“It’s an experience that is personal and unmanufactured and we have all been pleasantly surprised at how well the public have reacted to the invitation to give up the glitz and glamour of the restaurant for the real action in the kitchen.”
It’s this raw, unrefined aesthetic that really sets Anna’s experience apart from other dessert degustations.
“I want people to experience what we, as pastry chefs, experience everyday,” Anna says.
“And what better way to share this than to get people in the kitchen with the music going, with the apprentices running around and with the soufflés coming out of the oven?”