Pick-Me-Up Artists: Local chefs revive the intermezzo

“I’m afraid that the intermezzo has gone awry,” said Larry Forgione. To the chef-owner of An American Place, what should be a tart, slightly sweet, tiny offering served midway through a multicourse meal has become “sickeningly sweet,” thus wrecking its intention as a palate re-energizer.

“It’s supposed to be neutral,” said Annie Gunn’s executive chef Lou Rook III. “And it’s not just a free scoop of sorbet. There is a purpose for it. It is meant to accentuate the meal, to give maximum flavor back to the guest.”

But a few area chefs are bringing the palate cleanser back on track, banishing the sweet in favor of creative combinations, trendy ingredients and playful presentations to ready diners for the next course.

Not-so-standard sorbets
Intermezzi, as Rook alluded, commonly take the form of sorbet, since the coldness is part of what helps to revitalize the palate. Sorbets also lend themselves to the lighter, refreshing flavors of things like fruit and citrus. The challenge, however, is to make a sorbet that is not “gooey and sweet,” as Forgione feels the majority of sorbet intermezzi have become.

Nate Bonner, a chef-instructor at Schnucks Cooks Cooking School, created a not-too-sweet version perfect for use as an intermezzo: an onion sorbet that achieves what he calls a balanced “tug of war” between sweet and sour. “It tastes like really good homemade lemonade,” said Bonner. His recipe originally used Evermild onion, a product introduced this year to bridge the gap when Vidalia onions are not in season. “It’s the only one that lacks potency,” said Bonner of the Evermild. “It has a similar level of sugar [to Vidalia], but it’s not as sweet. It’s fun to work with because it is so mild.”

Bonner noted that, although the onion’s aromatics stood out, the onion flavor in the sorbet was subtle. He also liked the unique textural quality of microplaned onion in the sorbet since this frozen dish is usually smooth.

Bonner’s other flavor profiles for sorbet intermezzi include grapefruit and sorbets with wine or Champagne, such as a carrot-Champagne sorbet that sports a pretty pale orange color and an earthy, mineral taste.

Granité and gelée
But sorbets aren’t the only way to serve a chilled intermezzo. Before sorbet, recalled Forgione, grated ice (granité in French, granita in Italian) was the conventional intermezzo. The icy mixture is made with water, sugar and a flavoring like fruit juice or wine, and is stirred frequently while freezing, giving it a grainy texture.

Forgione touted a granité made from the juice of tart Granny Smith apples, white celery hearts and mint, an ingredient combination he said also works well as a gelée, or jelly. Essentially, gelatin is added to the apple-based liquid and the contents are stirred with a fork as it sets so that they resemble little gelatinous blobs. Since an intermezzo is served in a very small portion – just a bite or two is all that’s needed to wipe the palate clean – Forgione suggested serving the gelée on an Asian serving spoon.

Similar to Forgione’s gelée, Kevin Sthair, executive chef at Balaban’s Wine Cellar and Tapas Bar, will serve petite fruit jellies as an intermezzo during a five-course Italian wine dinner at the Chesterfield restaurant later this month. The jellies are essentially a spin on an aspic, which is a clear savory jelly made with clarified meat, fish or vegetable stock and gelatin. Sthair reduces the juice of a fruit such as pomegranate or berries, adds pectin, lets it set, then cuts it into dice-sized cubes and serves three to four jellies per guest. The pieces could be dusted with a bit of sugar, but not too much. “I’m gearing more toward intensity of the flavor that is within and not the dusting of the sugar outside,” said Sthair.

Comic relief
But although too sweet a flavor profile should be avoided, a sense of playfulness need not be. After all, the culinary use of the term “intermezzo” is borrowed from the name for an interlude or dramatic performance between acts of an operatic performance; in 18th-century Europe, the intermezzo took on an element of comic relief, which contrasted with the seriousness of the bigger opera.

Steven Caravelli, new executive chef at Araka, embraced the intermezzo’s comedic role during last month’s Bennett Lane wine dinner at the upscale Clayton restaurant, serving traditionally kid-friendly frozen ice pops to the adults working their way through the marathon meal. Caravelli first puréed fruit and then diluted it with water, adding a touch of sugar so that the liquid resembled a sorbet base. He then filled small plastic pouches, about 4 or 5 inches in length, with the fruity liquid, sealed the bags in a Cryovac machine – the hulky equipment that restaurants use to vacuum-seal portions of meat, fish or other foods in plastic – and froze them. Caravelli has played with invigorating flavors such as roasted peach and cantaloupe, but his honeydew-mint was especially refreshing and palate-cleansing.

“It’s a whimsical thing. We came from a generation where we ate them as kids. It’s funny to make adults suck on Fla-Vor-Ice,” said Caravelli with a smirk. He did counter the folly of the food itself with a refined presentation, filling a round-bottomed martini glass with crushed ice, and then inserting into the glass enough servings of flavor ice to feed the entire table.

The Szechuan button sensation
But intermezzi need not be fruit-based, and more and more chefs are experimenting with the trendy Szechuan button as a palate cleanser. Szechuan buttons are a flowering herb in the sunflower family that contains a natural painkiller called spilanthol. Consuming just a few tiny petals from the small yellow, strawberry-shaped Szechuan button flower bud will impart a tingling, effervescent-like numbing sensation on the tongue. It’s that sensation that chefs – and cocktailians – are after when they play with the slightly bitter, herby-flavored bud.

Justin Leszcz of Yellow Tree Farm is growing Szechuan buttons precisely because they are in vogue. “I’ve seen them in New York City and San Francisco – $9 for two on a plate,” he said. For an intermezzo, the trick is to integrate the button to enhance, rather than kill, the sensory experience (not to mention avoid annoying a diner because he won’t be able to enjoy the remainder of his $100 bottle of wine), Leszcz explained.

Bill Gideon, executive chef for River City Casino’s Lewy Nine’s, 1904 Beerhouse and Burger Brothers, will be using Szechuan buttons with frozen grapes as an intermezzo for this month’s beer dinner at 1904 Beerhouse. To prepare Szechuan grapes, Gideon dries the buttons and leaves, which also contain the numbing agent, and then grinds them into a fine powder. Meanwhile, he places small clusters of frozen green grapes inside martini glasses and lets them begin to thaw. As soon as condensation appears on the globes, he lightly sprinkles them with the Szechuan button dust, which promptly sticks to the fruit. As far as the eating experience, “You get this popping kind of thing going on, this numbing thing … and then you’ve got the grape, so you get this fresh, clean palate cleanser,” said Gideon, who added that he uses both green and red grapes for this application in order to maximize the “citrus and acidity.”

Though he’s not currently using the idea at his downtown restaurant, Forgione suggested using Szechuan buttons as part of a drinkable palate re-energizer. Rim a small champagne flute or port glass with a bit of lemon juice, roll one edge in petals pinched from Szechuan buttons, then fill the glass with crisp Champagne or sparkling water. When guests’ lips touch the Szechuan button, they will get a bit of a citrus zing followed by the flowers’ signature tingling effect.

Liquid interlude
Forgione’s suggestion of Champagne or sparkling water (with or without the Szechuan button petals) isn’t the only way to use liquid as a culinary interlude. Forgione’s chilled green apple “soup” – which features the same ingredients as his granité, only in liquid form – will be incorporated into the five-course and the eight-course tasting menus beginning mid-month at An American Place.

Rook offered another beverage-based intermezzo: fresh soda. Guests’ glasses are filled partway with homemade fruit juice; tableside, servers fill the remainder of each glass with soda from a seltzer spritzer. Rook has prepared fresh soda in a variety of flavors, including pineapple, melon, peach, apple and pear. “Apples and pears have so much good juice to them,” he explained. For apple soda, he prefers tart Gravenstein apples from Sonoma, though Granny Smith will do. Rook noted, however, that it is important to ascertain the ratio of juice to soda “so you don’t bury [the fruit juice] with soda.” Look for fresh soda during the Sept. 15 wine dinner at Annie Gunn’s featuring wines from Benziger Winery of Sonoma.

Silky sorbets, jiggly substances, grainy ices, fruity liquids and even tongue-teasing plants – there are a lot of options for an intermezzo. But if you find yourself at a multicourse, formal dining affair and all else fails, “get up, grab your drink and go for a walk,” said Forgione.