| Sweets |

Garlic Zeppole and Foie Gras Ice Cream: Challenging the Idea of Traditional Desserts

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We entered through the back door into the labyrinthine kitchen of Textile. It was our third time at Scott Tycer's restaurant (although the first in its kitchen) and we were glad to be back: The desserts were the best part of our first two visits, and we were eager to repeat the experience.

For such a small restaurant, the size of the kitchen is overwhelming until you remember that they share the space with Kraftsmen Bakery. The bakery, which is also owned by Tycer, works day and night to produce the bread that graces the tables of many of Houston's best restaurants. In one corner, hundreds of warm, fat, little loaves stood waiting to be whisked away as we walked past yards of stainless steel counters, enormous sacks of flour and a glowering picture of Marco Pierre White tacked to a cabinet, standing guard with an intensity that smolders even from a simple black-and-white photocopy.

We were in the kitchen for one of Plinio Sandalio's famed dessert tastings. Sandalio, the pastry chef at Textile, is a quiet, kind, unassuming young man with a fondness for Zooey Deschanel's quirky pop music and Eddie Murphy's "Party All The Time." Not at all the brash character you'd expect behind what is simply the most inventive and creative food being crafted in Houston right now. With his chipper girlfriend Erica serving as both sous and expediter last night, Sandalio took the four of us through a crash course that challenged all our ideas of what the dessert station could (and should) be.

The evening started out with several savory dishes. The Western sweet tooth usually mandates something with enough sugar to induce a diabetic coma for dessert. But Sandalio challenges the notion that pastry chefs can only make sweet dishes with a roundup that engages the senses and sparks your palate.

Up first was a garlic zeppola with parmesan ice cream and tomato sauce. Savory ice creams -- no, they are not sweet -- are one of Sandalio's signature moves, as are the little spherical pastries: "I just realized the first three courses are all in ball shape. Hope y'all like balls," he laughed as he set the plates down in front of us.

Next was a personal favorite: sweet potato beignets with bacon ice cream. The bacon ice cream was just as we remembered -- meaty, rich and smooth, pairing perfectly with the doughy, cinnamon-enhanced beignets.

The long-awaited "corndog" corncakes with mustard ice cream and ketchup were the third course. And after all the build-up of hearing about this dish, it didn't disappoint -- it was our second favorite of the night.

This was our favorite: taleggio-filled "hot pockets" made from flaky phyllo dough with pert quince jam that oozed cheese when you cut into them. Hot pockets are a new favorite of Sandalio's, who's also experimenting with apple and cheddar as another flavor. Sure, this dish could be construed as more of an appetizer than anything else, but we loved it regardless of useless classifications.

With the fifth course, halfway into the tasting, our savory dishes came to an end and the sweets were on full display, starting with this tower celebrating the hazelnut: Nutella with a hazelnut crisp that wasn't overly sweet -- a perfect start for the sweet side of things.

Continuing the "fair foods" theme that started with the corndog and mustard ice cream earlier, Sandalio presented a lightly battered and fried pumpkin cupcake on a stick with buttercream ice cream on the side -- and sprinkles, of course. "Being from Texas," he explained with a grin, "means that everything is better fried and on a stick."

With the second to last course, Sandalio dipped just briefly into the savory side again with a decadently rich foie gras ice cream paired with pistachio pound cake and roasted figs. The moist, thick bites of figs perfectly offset the light, nutty cake and the fatty ice cream.

The last dish was so rich that we sadly couldn't even finish it: a sticky toffee pudding topped with ricotta ice cream and garnished with tart grapefruit pieces. Our companion across the table, a fellow pastry chef, admitted with a sigh, "His sticky toffee pudding is way better than mine," before tucking back in to finish it off.

Between courses and bottles of wine and peals of laughter, we reflected briefly on the inspired and carefully calculated whimsy behind Sandalio's creations. This is a man who's having fun with his food, while at the same time taking his craft very seriously. This balance pays off in spades for diners who are rewarded with some of the best desserts in the country -- even if some of them can't technically be called desserts.

Want to have fun with your food? Dessert tastings start at $50 for six to 10 courses (before tax and tip). To book a dessert tasting with Sandalio, contact him at psandalio at yahoo.com.

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