For Francisco Almaguer, dessert isn't just some indulgent, peripheral afterthought for the main event.
"At great restaurants," says Almaguer, "the dessert is the continuation of a climax, part of a carefully constructed experience that surprises and excites."
And An—the Cary fusion hub of Southern and Asian cuisines—is a great restaurant. As the pastry chef, the soft-spoken and thoughtful Almaguer is a vital component. An's menu divides the courses into "chapters," together forming a carefully constructed adventure. Almaguer has created a glorious denouement for An's spring and summer narrative: the rhubarb financier with brown butter sorbet, fromage blanc, and pickled fennel.
Named for its shape and color, a financier is a small French brown butter cake that resembles a gold bullion. The shortcake-like pastry is typically made with almond flour, but Almaguer uses pistachios instead, and slips the rhubarb into the batter.
"Ah!" he says as I take a bite. "That's the first surprise!"
The slices of cake arrive hot, so that the fork slips easily through the crisp exterior and into the fluffy insides, emitting a rich, buttery aroma. The cake delights your senses even before your first bite. Beurre noisette sorbet provides the icy white foil. Almaguer lets the frozen dessert sit overnight, allowing the butterfat to rise to the top. He removes the top, leaving the sorbet with the essence of brown butter but without the richness or heaviness. The snowy confection braces the pastry's intense sweetness.
Delicate bursts of gingered tapioca pearls, dyed pink with a tart rhubarb syrup, dot the dish's landscape, while ribbons of poached rhubarb and savory fennel pickled in plum wine and vanilla bean drape creamy braids of fromage blanc. A puree of pickled Japanese plums and dried apricots provides a slightly salty balance. Thin slivers of flax seed and sesame toast perch above it all, providing a cap of crunch to the underlying riot of flavors.
"A surprise ending for you, no?" asks Almaguer.
Indeed. And a surprising beginning, too: just before dessert arrived, there was a prologue, an amuse-bouche featuting a diminutive kusshi oyster. On the half shell, it luxuriated under a tiny orange serving of sorbet made from yuzu and kanzuri paste, a bold relish of Japanese chilies fermented in snow and aged for three years. The subtle brine of the mollusk and herbal notes of the delicate ice suggested some hidden heaven at the edge of earth and sea—really, a lot like An itself.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Perfect Punctuation"