The most imaginative dessert in Los Angeles is so understated it blends into the table — and that’s the point. At Nightshade, Mei Lin’s new restaurant in Los Angeles’s restaurant-saturated Arts District, the dish is listed on the menu as “guava, cream cheese, white chocolate.” It arrives in a small, deep marble bowl, with a round, marble-colored lid nestled on top. The lid is made of white chocolate and charcoal, and cracking it with the tip of a spoon reveals a pink-orange aerated guava sorbet, its color delightfully bright in contrast to marble’s austerity.
This dessert, seemingly so serious and minimal, is actually super fun, a hidden present of rich cream cheese, tart guava, and broken white chocolate. For something so small, it evokes so many kinds of pleasure: an elegant object, a visual joke, a thing to break, a technically sophisticated surprise, a creamy and nostalgic treat. In other words, it’s genius.
A small but potent menu of desserts just like this one distinguishes Max Boonthanakit, the pastry chef at Nightshade, whose playfulness, curiosity, and skill have made him a talent to watch, and an Eater Young Gun for the class of 2019. Boonthanakit says his inspiration for the guava dessert came from his habit of imagining people or personas he could inhabit as he was cooking — he says when cooking family meal, for example, he’ll imagine he’s a “Thai grandma that got stuck in Alabama” and mash up Thai and Southern flavors. For the guava, he imagined a Los Angeles native who loved to Instagram her food, especially on photogenic surfaces like marble tables — someone like his girlfriend, who also worships the guava and cheese pastries at Porto’s, a legendary local Cuban bakery. But instead of putting the pastry on top of the marble table, he put the marble table on top of the pastry.
Boonthanakit’s resume is a perfect mix of this high-low sensibility — he’s spent time in the kitchens of both Copenhagen’s Relae and a boba shop he really admired in Los Angeles. He jumped from savory to pastry during an externship at José Andrés’s Bazaar because he could not figure out how the pastry team did what they did, and the mystery intrigued him. “You have to really understand why certain things work,” he says. “Why did you put gelatin in this, or why do you put in dextrose instead of sugar? That’s like magic.”
The pastry world is much more open to manipulation and artifice than the savory side of restaurants, where the orthodoxy was that an ingredient should be showcased, rather than changed. Boonthanakit fell hard for liquid nitrogen and modernist technique — one dessert at Nightshade arrives in a custom-made coconut-shaped piece of pottery, the lime evoked by a mochi-like coconut mousse with a pineapple center, sprayed with passionfruit chocolate colored green. And his dessert of almond sorbet and tangerine ice is composed of three feather-thin, nested bowls of tangerine ice, created by freezing a ladle in liquid nitrogen and then dipping the bottom into tangerine juice.
Like head chef Mei Lin (and EYG ’14), Boonthanakit is dedicated to creating a menu built around his own memories, a nostalgia for flavors he encountered as a child of a Thai father and Taiwanese mother growing up in Atlanta. As a kid, he worked at his aunt’s restaurant from time to time, and many of his desserts start with a spark of family association, whether it’s his uncle’s affection for singing the phrase You put the lime in the coconut on family vacations or his love of both Creamsicles and bitter almond desserts as a kid.
And while his work is visually stunning, Boonthanakit says he avoids the culinary side of Instagram. On the pastry hashtags he follows, he’s watched too often as a new idea appears, and then is aggressively copied until the spirit of what made it so exciting is gone. Instead, he follows architecture and design hashtags — the tangerine dessert came from a photo of stacked bowls he wanted to re-create. “I think food is more fun when it doesn’t look like food, but I feel like when it looks too much like an actual real-life object it gets gimmicky,” he says. “I’ve come to the understanding food needs to have a sense of nostalgia no matter what you eat. There has to be some familiarity in order for it to be delicious.” His nested bowls of tangerine ice arrive looking expensive and precious, something to be displayed on a high shelf. But the dish’s pleasure comes in breaking the ephemeral bowls, crushing this beautiful object the way you would a Creamsicle on a hot summer day — because that’s what it tastes like, after all.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent.