Pastry chef sweet on whimsy creates desserts to savor at Congress Austin restaurants
In Plinio Sandalio's corner of the kitchen, the building blocks of dessert are lined up like a lab researcher's inventory: candied hazelnuts, pecan brittle, Campari-flavored pop rocks. Yes, pop rocks.
Sandalio is no ordinary pastry technician, and his lab is the trio of new Austonian venues known collectively as Congress Austin.
Sandalio, 29, is known for his playful style, putting whimsical twists on familiar classics — for example, his take on the ever-popular molten chocolate cake.
Instead of a hot cake with melted chocolate on the inside, he has concocted a chilled bittersweet chocolate terrine that, when sliced into with a spoon, oozes a white chocolate center. It's like a grown-up, sophisticated Cadbury Creme Egg.
Or, the oatmeal sandwich cookies with foie gras buttercream and the bacon ice cream currently in the freezer, highlighting Sandalio's penchant for incorporating meat into his desserts. Yes, meat.
Sandalio's new boss is executive chef David Bull, who heads up all three restaurants. Bull hoped to find a pastry chef whose technical skills were top notch enough to fit the standards of the new dining spots, which include the sleek and modern Second Bar + Kitchen, focusing on value-driven comfort food; Bar Congress, a classy artisan cocktail lounge; and Congress, an elegant spot with a seasonal American daily-changing menu and a chandelier-laced interior.
When hiring a pastry chef, Bull said he wanted someone who could create "a seamless transition between savory and sweet" as well as someone whose personality was a good fit. When Bull started staffing the new team, he and Sandalio, then the pastry chef at Houston's critically acclaimed Textile, had not met in person but were friends via Facebook. Bull e-mailed Sandalio to ask if he knew any good pastry chefs in Austin. Sandalio replied, "What about me?" Interviews and tastings followed, and Sandalio got the job.
Sandalio, who is from Bolivia and described himself as not having much of a sweet tooth, didn't intend to study pastry. After graduating from culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston in 2005, he dove into the city's restaurant scene with a sous-chef gig at Rickshaw Far East Bistro. But one of his pastry chef friends seemed to be having more fun.
He realized that pastry might offer more opportunity for creative play because "you have more time to prep, to mold things," he said. "And I love making ice creams."
Many pastry chefs these days like to pair sweet and salty, but Sandalio takes it a step further by creating desserts that are frequently clever inversions of popular appetizers or entrees.
Take, for example, his sticky toffee pudding with bacon ice cream at Second Bar + Kitchen, which was inspired by the popular appetizer "devils on horseback," or dates wrapped in bacon.
For another dessert, Sandalio began by thinking about mole, a rich Mexican sauce often tinged with chocolate, spices and chiles. His mole-inspired dessert? A bittersweet brownie infused with smoked paprika, topped with cumin pecans and caramelized white chocolate.
Though inspired by a few pastry chefs who employ molecular gastronomy, which uses scientific techniques to transform ingredients, Sandalio is hesitant to use that term when describing his cooking. "I use some of those techniques when it benefits the dessert," he said. "But it's not for show."
Sandalio's food has earned him notice. While working at Textile, Sandalio was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award last year.
His choices of the two best desserts he's ever eaten show what he values as a pastry chef. A reconstructed bread pudding (crusted bread on the outside, a gooey pool of caramel on the inside) from pastry chef Alex Stupak at New York's WD-50 represents Sandalio's love for whimsy and experimentation.
His other favorite — raspberry sorbet with unsweetened whipped cream from Austin chef Jesse Griffiths at the Dai Due Supper Club — shows Sandalio's appreciation of simplicity and pure, unadulterated flavor. "The berries were so ripe," Sandalio said. "It was simple but so amazing."
After months of testing new recipes, Sandalio spent the first few weeks the restaurants were open putting in 16-hour days, though lately he works slightly less crazy 12- to 14-hour days. He's gotten to explore his new city a bit and said he likes Austin's farmers markets and supper clubs, and the way people here "push each other to be more creative."
That creativity, that sense of play, is what Bull likes best about his new pastry chef.
"He cooks in a way that has no boundaries, no limitations," Bull said. "There are no rules to what he creates."
Speaking of playfulness, remember those pop rocks? You'll find them at Congress, paired with Sandalio's fresh grapefruit sorbet, ready to crackle and snap when the spoon hits your mouth.