At one Dallas restaurant, soufflés take center stage, reaching new heights in flavor.
When I had the idea of researching what chefs are doing these days regarding the soufflé, I was a bit skeptical about what I would find. Do chefs or diners even care about soufflés any more? After all, soufflés have a reputation for being fussy, often requiring patrons to order them before they’ve even settled on their appetizer while requiring a delicate balance by the chefs to manage their fragile nature in a busy kitchen.
My thoughts were that the soufflé is probably one of those dishes destined to be a rare find on few restaurant menus whose chefs dare take them on.
But sometimes the pursuit of what appears to be the least promising story uncovers a hidden gem. Such is the case with rise n°1 (www.risesouffle.com), a salon du soufflé and wine bar located in the heart of an historic shopping district in Dallas, Texas.
Opened in January 2008, rise n°1 is the concept of Hedda Gioia Dowd, a stylish and debonair Francophile, and her co-owner Cherif Brahmi, a classically trained French chef. Together they have taken this classic eighteenth century dish and turned it into something very current and approachable and the basis of one of the most unique restaurant concepts in the country, with the soufflé as its focus. The release of their first lifestyle cookbook, Rise to the Occasion: A French Food Experience (Pelican, 2010) is a testament to their success and offers recipes of their soufflés and other classic French dishes.
Walking into rise n°1 you get a sense of owner Hedda’s style and life experiences – a generous display of charming traditional French goods that she brings from all over France combined with products that are locally produced and environmentally conscientious. The atmosphere is both organic and contemporary yet exudes a warm romanticism. Above one of the tables hangs a large chandelier made from blue and green recycled wine bottles, suggesting the colors of the Mediterranean when illuminated.
Their menu is an offering of both sweet and savory soufflés with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients, so the choices are ever-changing and surprisingly low calorie. On the savory side, diners can find artichoke, escargot, smoked salmon, herb and spicy sausage, and truffle-infused wild mushroom, but of course it’s their famed dessert soufflés that get my special attention, including the airy but decadent best-selling chocolate soufflé served with a warm dark chocolate sauce, the cranberry soufflé made with champagne, a striking violet soufflé made with candied violets from Toulouse, and, on the autumn menu, the pumpkin with clove crème Anglaise and a dollop of beautifully whipped crème chantilly makes its well-anticipated appearance. During strawberry season, guests can enjoy a gluten-free strawberry soufflé at only 122 calories.
All of their dessert soufflés are baked, with Hedda succinctly summing up why frozen soufflés were never a consideration: “There is nothing heart warming about a cold soufflé.”
Both Hedda and Chef Brahmi were determined to share their love of the soufflé with others. “But when chefs found out I was going to open a soufflé restaurant,” Chef Brahmi explained, “I was frequently told I must be crazy.” But through determination and thorough study of the dish in both France and the U.S., he perfected what so many chefs shy away from. The results are light and airy soufflés that rise beautifully above the top of their generous (but not overly indulgent) 12-ounce baking dish, are rich in flavor, and lack any of the unappealing eggy flavor or aroma they can often have which, as Chef Brahmi explains, is a result of chefs using too much egg.
“And when it comes to soufflé instructions, I have seen it all,” he states. “What I realized is there were many myths about their preparation. I took what I learned, then did the opposite.”
The starting point of a baked dessert soufflé is a pâtissière, or pastry cream, which can be prepared ahead. Flavorings and other ingredients are added before a light meringue is folded in. But with Chef Brahmi’s approach, this is where convention ends. Sous chefs judge from experience the amount of meringue each soufflé takes, and forget the concept of “folding in gently.” These whites get a vigorous mixing into the base with a silicone spatula, which creates a mixture that looks somewhat deflated and soupy, like a mousse that has been over-folded, and all hopes of any significant rise in the oven appear to be lost. But the results are quite surprising. The soufflés quickly billow upward and stand tall as they make their way from oven to table. “One of my highest rising soufflés is my Roquefort,” Chef Brahmi states, “but when mixed appears the most broken down of them all. Soufflés usually go flat as a result of the wrong proportions, not the reasons one typically hears such as opening the oven door, high humidity levels, or creating a disturbance while they are baking.”
Their soufflés take an average of 12 minutes to bake, resting on the floor of a very hot conventional stone deck oven set at around 460°F. And their timing is impeccable, requiring very attentive servers to indicate to the chef at the appropriate time when the customer is about to finish a dish. The soufflés are quickly mixed and poured into the ramekins, sitting off to the side waiting their turn in the oven. When it’s time, they take their place in a well-organized rotation that coordinates with the arrangement of the tables and chairs where guests sit. They can easily be managing fifty soufflés in the oven at any one time, each at different points of completion, with chefs continuously—and fearlessly—opening and closing the oven doors without the soufflés ever noticing. The oven’s high heat not only ensures a fast and stable rise but also maintains enough heat in the baking dish to keep the last bite as hot as the first.
“Soufflés aren’t as fussy as they’ve been made out to be, but at the same time it’s also a specialized art form. You can’t make one soufflé per year and expect to be an expert at it. You have to practice. And don’t be afraid, just do it,” Chef Brahmi advises.
And just above the bar, painted on the wall that overlooks the kitchen, is a quote by foodie legend James Beard that highlights his point: “The only thing that will make a soufflé fall is if it knows you are afraid of it.”