Summer Sweets

Is Gregory Gourdet Making the Desserts of Summer?

The Departure chef unleashes a gothy coconut ash sundae stunner, and readies an ice cream cone lineup for sunny day domination.

By Kelly Clarke June 19, 2017

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Departure's new coconut ash pudding, inspired by old school Thai desserts and Portland coffee culture.

Top Chef favorite Gregory Gourdet gets a lot of buzz for his Instagram-friendly style and his (often alt-diet friendly) fresh, pan-Asian dinner fare at sky-high local hotel spot Departure. But anybody who has followed the lanky chef for a few years knows his real superpower: dessert.

An ice cream obsessive with an insatiable sweet tooth, the chef’s yen for unexpected textures and tropical flavors (chiles included) has long been on display on Departure’s underrated dessert menu as well, as with his many restaurant collaborations. This is the dude who gave us one of Salt & Straw’s very best flavors, ever: coconut milk studded with cashew brittle, pandan, and spicy pineapple. (He likes to remind people it was also the ice cream shop's first vegan flavor.)

Now, Gourdet’s sweets are elbowing their way into the spotlight. The chef’s new summer dessert menu encapsulates all his best habits, crowned with his inky black, coffee ice cream-topped, Thai-inspired coconut ash puddingand luxe, house-made ice cream cone service starting July 1.

First up, that coconut ash pudding, which is already making a play for the Dessert of the Summer*. It’s not really pudding as we know it. It’s more a layered sundae, anchored by a tarry ooze made from rice flour, coconut sugar, and a powder extracted from the burnt husks of coconuts. Coconut ash is having a bit of a moment right now, with social media aflutter with photos of rolls oozing with black goo and tall, swirled cones of gothy ice cream. But Gourdet’s bowl is no gimmick.

Criminally creamy house ice cream, made with Stumptown coffee and coconut milk (and what tastes like a thousand eggs) tops the pudding while a snowfall of coconut ice crowns the whole bowl, fluffy and light, dissolving on the tongue with each bite. Keep excavating to reveal midnight boulders of baked coconut ash brownie croutons, whiskey-caramel sauce, crackly bits of puffed rice, and ribbons of toasted coconut. 

If you want to get real trashy about it, the dessert tastes a bit like a Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion-spritzed coffee-Oreo Blizzard. But way better. Every spoonful feels like a deeply satisfying mix of summertime nostalgia and travelogue discovery.

“I’m obsessed with coconuts, obviously,” explains Gourdet, who was inspired by Michelin-starred Bangkok restaurant Nahm’s more traditional take on Thai coconut ash pudding a few years ago. “I was blown away. It’s jet black, so striking, and the flavor is something I’ve never had before. I wanted to put our touch [on the dish] and I started thinking of summer iced coffees and coconut shave ice. It just really, really came together.” Bonus: The pudding is vegan. You can swap out Departure’s fermented rice coconut ice cream for the coffee scoop if you want a fully vegan version of the dessert.

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Departure's Frozen Strawberry Mousse with pickled rhubarb and Thai basil

The rest of Departure’s current dessert menu is a vivid treat as well, straddling the line between modernist compositions and fanciful flavor bombs over and over again. Standouts include domes of juicy, feather-light frozen and brûléed strawberry mousse surrounded by a salad of pickled rhubarb and strawberries “dried then marinated in Pok Pok Som, basil and strawberry leather and dust.” There's also a plate of carrot sorbet orbs adorned with tiny, glistening cubes of cooked carrot and pineapple, which tastes a bit like carrot cake, orange sherbet, and sunshine.

While dish ideas are clearly Gourdet originals, the busy chef developed many of his signature dessert methods (dairy-free ice cream to gluten-free flour blends) with Departure’s former pastry lead Erin Koroll, who now runs the pastry program in Departure: Denver. His new Portland pastry chef is Andrea Eubanks. “She makes the things in my head a delicious reality,” he says. "I have no pastry background whatsoever besides my relationships with pastry chefs and a huge sweet tooth. It’s all about contrast for me. I design desserts the same way I do a salad: Something creamy, something crunchy…it’s about textures and different flavors and different colors as well—you eat with your eyes.”

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A sneak peek of Departure's house ice cream cone program, debuting July 1. Koji (fermented rice) and coconut milk ice cream with marionberry sauce, pickled dried strawberries, and freeze dried strawberries. Cone garnished with flowers from Departure's rooftop garden and gold leaf, olive oil, and sea salt. 

The restaurant’s new ice cream service is a culmination of months of group kitchen R&D. Starting July 1, you’ll be able to walk right up to Departure’s bar and order two rotating ice cream flavors daily—fermented rice and coconut with berries to roasted banana caramel with miso powder and brownie crumbs—scooped into house gluten-free waffle cones. Throw in a cocktail order, and then lick and sip the afternoon away on the restaurant’s deck, which boasts a near panoramic view of Portland. Gourdet is aiming for $6–8 a cone, depending on the toppings. “We’re working on pea flower Magic Shell too,” says the chef with his trademark nervous giggle. “It’s periwinkle.”

Now…will the chef please just open his own dessert bar already? “I have a lot on my plate,” he giggles again. “But it’s definitely something on my mind.”

* PSA: I know a tag like the “Dessert of Summer” is pretty silly and contentious, but really, this sucker is great and you should go eat it. That said, it would be just terrible if you shared your own submissions for Portland’s best summer dessert in comments and, in the name of journalism, I was forced to eat them in the next few weeks and report back… just terrible.

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