Oh, that chocolate soufflé.
For starters, the technical acuity was off-the-charts impressive. What a study in textural contrasts! Arching ever so slightly as it puffs up above the edges of a tall ramekin, the top formed a delicate crust, although its soft-spoken sturdiness was slowly undermined after it was drenched in a vanilla- and orange-laced custard. Once my spoon had pierced that outer edge, the steaming interior segued from a wet sponginess to a shameless, near molten decadence.
The flavor? Similarly impressive, and expressive. The chocolate, fashioned from Venezuelan cocoa beans, radiated an intense bitterness, its full-bodied essence cleverly magnified by espresso. Countering the soufflé's just-from-the-oven heat was a sculpted scoop of a supremely supple sorbet, its bright sour-sweet notes the work of mandarin oranges, perfumed with allspice. Truly, perfection on a plate.
"Chocolate and orange, they always go so well together," said chef Christina Kaelberer. Yeah, that's the understatement of the year.
She is the creative force behind Edwards Dessert Kitchen. This fascinating and appealing North Loop newcomer is worth a visit for all kinds of reasons, not the least of which is that Kaelberer is a master at easing the sugary bite that often plagues so many desserts.
Schwan's, the frozen foods giant, is the money behind Edwards Dessert Kitchen (the Edwards name is lifted from the company's frozen pies division), and while the story is that the Minneapolis restaurant is a sort-of laboratory for its corporate overlord, it's hard to picture any of Kaelberer's exacting and imaginative work filtering its way down to lowly supermarket freezer cases.
But in the end, should consumers care? No. Nor should they tsk-tsk about what Edwards Dessert Kitchen isn't. That would include "breakfast place" (except on the weekends, when a few savory items pass for brunch) and "lunch hangout" (again, there's just those few savory dishes, and doors don't open weekdays until 2 p.m.). It's primarily a nighttime spot.
Open just three months, it's been fascinating to watch Kaelberer and her crew figure out what works, and what doesn't. Here's hoping for more made-to-order desserts, because the crew has an obvious affinity for that genre. Along with that soufflé, don't miss the tasting platter, currently brimming with four exceptional ideas: a pear/date cake that's an upscale nod to sticky toffee pudding; a keenly refreshing, apple-filled Pavlova; a delicate, pecan-laced Paris-Brest; and an ingenious play on fresh figs and juicy red grapes.
Less successful are the "in the case" items (an ode to hazelnut and chocolate, a tropical fruits cream puff), not because they're not delicious, but because their construction requires them to stand up to long periods of refrigeration, a necessity that slightly minimizes their otherwise visceral appeal. Instead, go for the verrines, jars painstakingly layered with all kinds of adventurous goodness.
To appease the city's liquor license bureaucracy, there's a brief savory menu. Wisely, the items don't stray too far from the pastry kitchen universe. "We're never going to serve steak au poivre," Kaelberer said with a laugh.
Pâte à choux, cleverly trimmed with "everything" bagel seasoning, becomes the backbone of a giant gougère filled with sumptuous smoked salmon from Duluth's Northern Waters Smokehaus, a thoughtful alternative to standard lox. A colorful cherry tomato salad proves to be an ideal acidic foil for the over-the-top richness of a crisped-up panini that's filled with Gruyère and salty ham. Best is tender, slightly sweet brioche toasts, each lavished with earthy roasted white beech, shiitake and oyster mushrooms. Oh, and bridging the sweet-savory divide, there's a well edited and well appointed cheese plate, including a slightly funky, cave-aged cheese from Italy's Piedmont region, made with sheep, cow, goat and, yes, donkey milk. "It's pushing a bit of a boundary," said Kaelberer with a laugh. "But that's what we do with our desserts."
So true. Rather than a standard-issue brownie, she cleverly underlines the link between cocoa and mole, splurging on marrying two varieties of premium dark chocolate with a spiced-up mole sauce, then finishing with pecans and caramel. Betty Crocker, it's not.
Her version of a bar snack is caramel corn, but she minimizes its often too sugary bite by taking the caramel fairly dark and then dusting the popcorn ("I love popcorn. It's such a guilty pleasure," she said) with a cinnamon-ancho chile powder blend. A standout on the kitchen's "How Do We Make This Better?" tour is the snickerdoodle, subbing out the usual cinnamon in favor of a more lively Asian five-spice blend, and then finishing with caramel, because, honestly, doesn't caramel improve everything it touches?
The scoop case is filled with eight superb selections. Flavors range from basics such as vanilla and chocolate — which may appear simple, but their complex composition is hardly simplistic — to such trippy excursions as sweet potato-toasted marshmallow (the antidote to any pumpkin spice aversion) and an avocado-lime sorbet.
Kaelberer has an affinity for gluten-free baking. Witness her chocolate chip cookie, which manages to be tender but also chewy; it probably helps that's she enlisted a premium Callebaut chocolate chip.
Prices? At first glance, they're a bit steep. That category-killing chocolate soufflé and that gorgeous fall tasting platter are both $15. But most everything on the Edwards menu feels shareable, by design, right down to those gigantic — and yes, $5 — cookies.
Along with recruiting Kaelberer, the Schwan's brain trust has made lots of wise choices. It selected Shea Design of Minneapolis to create a sophisticated but welcoming space (anyone with kitchen renovation plans will swoon over the pearly Vermont marble counter) and then dropped what had to be a big pile of cash. Who benefits? Anyone with even a trace of a sweet tooth.
After training at the former Art Institutes International in downtown Minneapolis, Kaelberer got her start at several local hotels before moving on to top properties in New York City, Boston and Napa Valley.
She's an example of one of the most exciting trends in the improving-the-Twin Cities-dining-scene front: a local who gains top-flight experience elsewhere, then returns — armed with priceless knowledge and know-how — to dazzle her hometown. Welcome back, chef.
Edwards Dessert Kitchen
★★★ out of 4 stars
Info: 200 Washington Av. N., Mpls. 612-800-0335, edwardsdessertkitchen.com
Hours: 2-10 p.m. Tue.-Thu., 2 p.m.-midnight Fri., 10 a.m.-midnight Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sun. No reservations.
Service: Fast plus friendly.
Price ranges: No food items over $15.
Recommended dishes: Chocolate soufflé, fall tasting, maple panna cotta, Rocher mousse, verrines, cookies, ice creams, roasted mushroom toast, ham and Gruyère panini, salmon gougère, caramel corn.
Beverage program: A half-dozen vivacious, inventive cocktails ($12). There's a first-rate coffee program, five well-chosen ($6) locally produced ciders and beers and a lemonade ($6, laced with bright yuzu and cherry accents) that's more mocktail than picnic staple. Best about the brief (10 choices) wine list are the four sparkling options, which include an elegant Normandy pear cider; not so great are the uniform $12 by-the-glass prices, with one affordably priced exception: an $8 tap chardonnay. Naturally, there are dessert wines: three appealing choices, at $8/glass, $45/bottle.
Special menus: Lots of nods to those following gluten-free diets, plus a few vegan offerings.