The waiter had seen our kind before. We were dithering over the dinner menu, two of us tying up valuable restaurant real estate at prime time on a Wednesday night as a lineup of would-be diners waited by the door. "We need another minute," I said, waving him off. He smiled, all grace in face of lameness. When he returned, I told him, "I think we're just going to share one of the burgers and a salad." Another smile, but less convincing. I added, "We really want to focus on dessert."
Now the waiter's face lit up. "Our desserts guy is a bit of a crazy genius."
I clarified, "Actually, we want to have all five of the desserts." There was no more explaining necessary. Richmond Station's desserts guy, named Farzam Fallah, is a crazy genius. At 23 years old (just barely), Mr. Fallah is already a master at tweaking and combining tastes, textures, aromas, temperatures and colours into exquisitely imaginative dessert dishes that are self-contained little worlds, as captivating as Joseph Cornell boxes.
On his menu was an item called "apple millefeuille." Rather than take that title literally – a piece of pastry, a few stewed apple slices – he played with the meaning of millefeuille, a thousand leaves, and turned the $9 dish into an absurdly delicious autumn narrative.
Mr. Fallah made sweet, tart and tannic apple purées as the foundation, laying them down in glossy pools of crimson red and autumn yellow; then he added warm bites of phyllo that he'd brushed with cinnamon sugar butter and soaked in burnt maple syrup spiked with cloves. He added ice cream flavoured with Riopelle cheese, and scattered the ice cream with more of that phyllo, but deep-fried now and encrusted with poppy seeds. I can't remember ever being so completely lost in a plate of dessert.
But the finish, strewn over everything, was the coolest part: Mr. Fallah soaked red and green, orange and yellow apple peels in different fruit juices – lemon for sour, cranberry for sweet-tart, and so on – and then dehydrated them so that they crumbled into trompe-l'oeil autumn leaves.
Five desserts between two people? Not even close to a problem. The art of the pastry chef is undergoing a renaissance around Toronto. I was all too happy to lend the movement every last gram of my support.
You can do the same now in almost every corner of the city: over the incredible chestnut cream and meringue cakes at Sweet Note, a popular new shop in a plaza off Highway 7 in Markham , and at Richmond Hill's Hong Kong-style fruit dessert specialist called Full House. A Syrian-Lebanese standout in Scarborough called Pâtisserie Royale was better than ever when I visited earlier this week, and has moved into a bright and modern new location. FV Foods, which began in Mississauga with a single baker making Filipino pastries out of his garage, now has six locations around the GTA.
Closer to downtown, the dessert scene is blowing up, in excellent standalone shops such the new Tempered Room in Parkdale, King West's Forno Cultura and the ever-expanding, ever-improving Nadège empire (the French pâtissiere Nadège Nourian just opened her fifth location, in the Path).
Refreshingly, the restaurant desserts scene is also on the rise. For much of the past decade, savoury chefs and restaurant owners did away with pastry departments. With few exceptions, they were seen as unnecessary luxuries, especially after the financial collapse in 2007. I think of that period as the lost years when dessert menus infantilized diners with no-skills-necessary milk and cookies (for $10 a pop, usually) and ooey-gooey-gaggy molten chocolate cakes.
Today there are enough great restaurant pastry departments around town – the ones at Café Boulud, Bar Buca, Byblos, The Chase and Los Colibris among them – that it's hard to keep up.
But when you ask around, the conversation always comes back to that kid at Richmond Station. After my binge there the other week, I can think of five very good reasons why.
Here's another one, called "sweet milk kulfi." The kulfi itself is not what you expect, because while it's rich from evaporated milk, it isn't blow-out-your-molars sweet. And kulfi is usually dense, frozen solid into cylinders. Mr. Fallah churns his so it's nearly as light as semifreddo. He dresses it with dukkah, a toasted almond and sesame blend goosed with puffed black rice, chili, cardamom, coriander, orange and carrot zest. ("I could eat that by the handful," moaned my dinnermate.) He adds apricot purée for floral kick in place of kulfi's usual rosewater. And then he pipes in deliciously garish orange sourness in the form of sea buckthorn curd. .
Mr. Fallah's food memories start early. As a kid in Tehran, his parents used to ship him to his grandmother's every summer, southwest of the city. He had his own cherry tree there. It was his, planted when he was born, and every summer the boy and the tree stood equally high. He grew up eating cherries at his grandmother's, and always, before bed, his grandmother made him drink a glass of milk.
He hated milk. He used to gag it down. And then one night his grandmother added cinnamon to the glass, and something popped, he said. He loved it. He started to see what could be done with food.
They came to Canada when he was eight, refugees in an apartment owned by World Vision, at Bathurst and Steeles. (Mr. Fallah's family is Baha'i, one of Iran's most persecuted minority faiths.)
At 15, he got a high school work placement at Terra restaurant, in Thornhill. The pastry chef showed him how to make crème brûlée. Another thing popped. With savoury cooking, you took ingredients that already tasted good – a carrot, say – and made them better. With pastry, you had to make flour delicious.
He worked up from there to serve as junior pastry chef at Ruby Watchco and then at Pizzeria Libretto. In 2012, the chef Carl Heinrich took a flyer on Mr. Fallah, who was just 20 at the time. Mr. Heinrich was about to open Richmond Station, and he wanted the place to do pastry right.
Mr. Fallah does a new dessert menu every month. He is obsessive, he says, about engaging all five senses with every plate. There needs to be colour and crunch, sours to balance the sweets, as well as savouries and bitters. There needs to be a story of some sort – a narrative behind the madness. ("Even before I start thinking about the flavours of a dish, there's usually a story.")
His plating is magnificent. Mr. Fallah, who paints in his spare time, draws much of his inspiration from Ralph Steadman, the gonzo illustrator and Hunter S. Thompson collaborator; Toronto Life once described a dish of his as being "arranged like an artful crime scene," which pretty much nails it. And dessert has to be fun, he believes; every bite must be different from the last one. This is the curse and the blessing of pastry chefs everywhere: dessert is utterly unnecessary. The great pastry chefs make skipping dessert unthinkable. Mr. Fallah has reached that point.
In his time at the restaurant, he's done poundcakes made from wickedly tangy, pongy butter that he churned himself from crème fraîche; he's made ice cream out of wormwood and molasses rendered from plums and beets. And childhood figures large in his creations. A couple of years ago he did a dish called "Manijeh." It was named after his grandmother, composed in part of seared cherries and cinnamon milk.
Another of his desserts this month, called "PB&J," riffs on his bi-cultural childhood, playing Froot Loops-flavoured ice cream (it is excellent, strangely) off crumbled peanut butter cookies and whole, roasted Concord grapes that pop with sweet grape juice when you eat them. That's the growing up at Bathurst and Steeles part. Mr. Fallah's father used to grow grapes in Tehran; the kids used to always eat them before they ripened. And so to his PB&J the chef adds a silky, sublimely puckery curd made from verjus, which is pressed from unripe grapes.
Savoury chefs can always move up to their own restaurants, provided they can find the funding. But in Toronto so far there is no such thing as a pastry chef-run restaurant that specializes in plated, coursed, restaurant-style desserts. (Montreal's Patrice Pâtissier, run by the star chef Patrice Demers, is one of the only successful Canadian examples.)
Mr. Fallah says he'd love to open his own spot, but he's not sure he's mature enough yet, and he seems uncertain of whether there's a market. In the meantime he and other leading pastry types have started teaming up, learning from each other, and holding pastry-only pop-up events around the city. On March 22, Mr. Fallah will cook a one-night-only event at Richmond Station called Stranger With Candy. (Tickets, available through email@example.com, are extremely scarce.)
And on May 24, the chef hopes to team up with Nadège Nourian, Matteo Paonessa from Blacktree in Burlington, Bar Buca's Cora James, Los Colibris's Elia Herrera and Bertrand Alepée from The Tempered Room to do a multi-course dessert dinner. (I will tweet the details when they become available.)
If you can't wait until then, there is always the just-order-every-dessert routine.
At Richmond Station, they're used to it by now.
Five of Chris Nuttall-Smith's standout GTA dessert shops
Sweet Note Desserts
Chef and owner Candy Lee's popular Markham shop, opened a year ago, specializes in French-influenced Japanese-style treats. There are gorgeous little milk bottles filled with layers of custard and fresh fruit purée (the guava is exceptional), superb passion fruit baked Alaska, and the must-order, a whisper-light chestnut cream meringue cake. Commerce Gate, Unit 61-63, 505 Highway 7 East, Markham, sweetnote.ca
The Tempered Room
At chef-about-town Bertrand Alépée's Parkdale café and pâtisserie, there are fantastic, French-style grab-and-go savouries such as quiche and croques-monsieurs; the perfect midday pick-me-up. Better yet is the case of sweet pastries, in as many varieties and tastes as a Valentine's Day chocolate box. There were several choux-based offerings the last time I ate there, including double-stacked choux religieuses filled with cassis cream. 1374 Queen St. W., thetemperedroom.com
At David Castellan and Cynthia Leung's bean-to-bar atelier, Mr. Castellan uses vintage machinery to turn whole cocoa beans into some of the finest chocolate anywhere on Earth. You can get it in single-origin bars, as hot chocolate, in truffles, or sculpted into unusual shapes (such as a birch branch) and filled with the likes of hazelnut butter crunch and sour cherry jelly. 32 Tank House Lane and 443 King St. W., somachocolate.com
At this absolute gem of a shop, in a bright, modern new room off Kennedy Road, the Syrian and Lebanese-style offerings taste like good butter, freshly chopped nuts, top-quality honey (but never too much of it) and some of the flakiest, most delicious pastry you'll ever eat. Ask fourth-generation baker Mounzer Jamous to fill a $20 box, then try not to eat them all in a single go. 1415 Kennedy Rd., Unit 26, 416-755-6323, patisserieroyale.com
Nadège Nourian has become Toronto's queen of French pastry, and with good reason. She does it all – very good croissants, kouign annans and viennoiserie, gorgeous petits pastries, achingly pretty cakes, perfectly decent cannelés and best-in-the-city (possibly; people get extremely exercised over this sort of thing) macarons. Five locations, nadege-patisserie.com