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Two chefs’ inspired reveal of chocolate’s savory side

Therese Jamora-Garceau, Scott R. Garceau - The Philippine Star
Two chefsâ inspired reveal of chocolateâs savory side
Chef Hylton Le Roux (left) says the 2nd Finestra Auro Wine Pairing Dinner is “not just ‘chocolate and go,’” and chef Josh Boutwood agrees: “Events like this I think of as once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The lucky few who experience it will create a memory that, hopefully, will last for decades.”
Jesse Bustos

For a Finestra dinner based around Auro chocolates, you might think the focus would be on desserts, but as Part 2 of Finestra’s Auro Wine Pairing Dinner shows, in the hands of chef Josh Boutwood and Solaire executive sous chef Hylton Le Roux, chocolate is elevated to main-course status, and the two chefs were so inspired they used all the edible parts of the cacao bean, introducing them in subtle ways into fine dining.

Solaire’s Finestra has offered this type of hybrid experience before: May 2022 saw the one-night “Chocolate Harvest: Farm-to-Table” degustation event, which infused the local cacao bean in a variety of dishes by Solaire executive chef Alan Marchetti, highlighting Auro chocolates and the local farmers who supply them.

This November, the luxury Italian steakhouse goes a step further: a two-night chocolate event featuring two gifted chefs. The challenge seems to have inspired the pair to truly creative levels, as we discovered at a press preview dinner.

“We didn’t want to be overly obvious that it's a chocolate source,” says chef Josh, who’s sporting a “Movember” ’stache, “because Auro chocolate has wonderful combinations with so many different notes.”

“It’s not just ‘chocolate and go,’” says chef Hylton. “There's so much more to the fruit, the cacao, than just chocolate. Because it's easy just to put chocolate sauce over meat and say, ‘It's a chocolate dish.’ Boring!”

Amazingly, other than trading some emails and notes, the preview dinner was the first time they’ve been in the kitchen together. “I'm very spontaneous when creating dishes,” says Boutwood. “I feel like doing an event like this helps me to be spontaneous, not knowing anything in advance.”

“I was surprised at how seamless it was,” says chef Hylton. “Within two weeks, we sat down, put our menus together, six courses. We didn't have to tweak anything. And we still haven't tweaked anything. It's the same since we put it together.”

As we sit down at a long table, we’re promised by Solaire beverage director Daniel Blais that “What we’re having tonight will be exactly the same experience that guests will enjoy at Finestra” when the two-day pairing event opens to the public on November 30.

We start with a few nibbles and two special cocktails also infused with Auro chocolate (it’s the signature chocolate of Solaire, explains Joy Wassmer, as the resort helps support cacao farmers in Davao):  there’s the Contadino (Italian for “farmer”) with orange juice, Navarra (a licorice and orange digestive) and Prosecco on top; the other is an Auro Negroni, a gin-based cocktail with Campari and vermouth infused with a hint of dark chocolate.

Chef Josh’s oyster, horseradish and cucumber opening appetizer uses raw Gallega oysters spritzed with a vinegar made from cacao pulps, and a touch of cacao butter and dill for freshness. The dish, to Josh, is “quite Scandinavian.”

Gold standard: Chefs Hylton Le Roux and Josh Boutwood pull out all the stops for Finestra’s second Auro Wine Pairing dinner.

Our resident sommelier Blais serves it with a 2019 Condrieu “Les Terrases du Palat” from Rhone Valley, and advises that we slurp the oyster juice last, paired with a mouthful of Condrieu (“Your mouth will say ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”)

Chef Hylton returns the favor with a wonderful chocolate disk ravioli, a sphere of chocolate encasing goat cheese, cacao pulp and olive paste (revealed as the “yolk” — the chef seems to be a fan of modern techniques).  We fork through it and release its Mediterranean notes enfolded in a blanket of luxury chocolate, paired with a Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2020, also from the Rhone Valley. Wonderful. What could be next?

It’s Josh’s adlai porridge — an inspired fusion of Italian risotto and Pinoy champorado, using 100 percent Auro chocolate (for a hint of bitterness) and adlai instead of stickier, heavier rice infused with a dried fish spuma to suggest tuyo.

“I prefer the texture of adlai,” Josh admits. “It's more interesting on the palate to have these slightly larger morsels to bite on, with enough starch to still create a champorado-like texture.”

The result is a happily deconstructed Pinoy breakfast favorite, reimagined as Italian fine dining. We also preferred the adlai’s chewier and crispier textures, and how Josh reveled in the dish’s brinier flavors than the usual sweet-chocolate flavor profile. It’s paired with a Rioja Gran Reserva from 2011 that stands up nicely to it.

We approach chef Hylton’s cocoa butter and miso-poached sea bass middle dish with forks raised, crashing through the gabi pureé speckled with roasted seaweed powder to get at the luscious fish; the California Pinot Noir, a red, seems an odd pairing choice, but the smoky sea bass flavors pair perfectly with the Santa Monica Dierberg, evoking a seaside campfire, mixed with the subtle chocolate in the cocoa butter that comes swimming up. Another marvel.

Josh’s dry-aged duck breast is another standout, paired with a 2018 Hermitage Red from Rhône Valley. He uses a 70% Reserve Auro chocolate made especially for Solaire for the duck sauce. (“It has this wonderful peak of acidity, but also an underlying roastiness; it’s not overly chocolaty, but those acidic and roasty notes amplify the savoriness.”) The result is kind of heavenly, if you like duck (which Scott definitely does).

Chef Hylton’s final dish, the cocoa powder-aged short rib, might corrupt half the pescatarians out there: deep, smoky cocoa husk flavors paired with pools of chocolate, almond pureé and local Bugnay berry. It was a gamble for the chef that paid off: “I took the short ribs and thought, ‘Why don't we dry-age it?’ So I Googled it; there's nothing. And maybe there's a reason why there's nothing. So I dusted it, I tested it, I put it in the dry-aging cabinet and left it there for two weeks.”

It’s rubbed with cacao powder and prepared right before the guests. Rich but rewarding (paired with a 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Groth Vineyards), the beef releases rivulets of flavor, trickles of juiciness from the aged process.

What was left for our senses was Solaire executive pastry chef Ben Haslett’s trio of creations: a sublime Auro White Chocolate Basque cheesecake (encased in a lightly flamed pastry bowl); a baked cocoa cream Auro Regalo 50% chocolate cremeux (chocolate feuilleté, orange confit, cinnamon ganache) that looked and tasted holiday-festive with its gingerbread flavors and tree-shaped garnish; and the Auro Agravante 70% gelato Don Papa honey cake (with pineapple jam, ginger and lime espuma) that was deemed best paired with a Don Papa 7 Year Old Rum. You could almost say the walk-off of Auro desserts was almost a hearty encore after the sublime parade of dishes from these two chefs.

You might think, how can a chocolate menu ever go wrong? Filipinos love all things sweet, after all. But the challenge for the two chefs was to ignore the obvious notes, and raise the stakes on what your palate expects.

“We did a dinner that was very successful,” Le Roux says of the first chocolate pairing at Finestra. “We sold out within a matter of hours. And then we thought, ‘Let's do this again, but let's do it different.’ How do we raise the bar? We thought: ‘Let's get Josh.’” Hylton was even inspired to remove his executive sous chef hat and get back in the kitchen.

We asked why Solaire didn’t simply extend these chocolate-pairing menus to last a month. For chef Josh, it goes to the heart of the temporal nature of food and its enjoyment. “Events like this, I like to think of as once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The lucky few who will be getting to experience this will create a memory, and a memory that, hopefully, will last for decades.”

* * *

The Auro Wine Pairing Dinner will be held on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 at Finestra Italian Steakhouse at Solaire Resort & Casino Manila, 1 Aseana Avenue, Parañaque.  Reserve by calling 8888-8888 or visiting https://www.solaireresort.com/dining/finestra.

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