There are certain desserts that some pastry chefs fall back on at a typical modern Asian restaurant. We all know them: the lychee sorbets, tropical fruit tarts, and matcha cheesecakes of the world. If I never see another chocolate spring roll it will still be far too soon.
There are usually two pitfalls for such dessert menus. If you're lucky, you might find a few watered-down versions of more traditional desserts, the chef likely hoping to temper some of the flavor profiles some diners may be unfamiliar with, like mung bean, anko (red bean paste), ube (purple yams), and the like. Otherwise you're likely to see desserts that incorporate Asian flavors pushed through the sieve of French technique, a formula that seems to be used as an excuse to not innovate further.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Enter Zen Ong, the head pastry chef of LA's modern Asian hotspot E.P. & L.P., who is turning out finessed desserts that are as carefully thought-out, unique, and delicious as their savory counterparts by chef Louis Tikaram.
The Australian chef is a relative newcomer to the LA restaurant scene. Having spent time at Coi and wd~50, and come up in the industry under award winning Australian chef Brent Savage at his restaurant Bentley, Ong went on to help with the opening of Savage's next restaurants, Monopole and Yellow. But after nearly six years of working in the fine dining scene, Ong reconnected with his Indonesian roots and decided to leave that world to explore the rich and diverse flavors of Southeast Asia in his cooking. So when the opportunity arose to open a restaurant with Tikaram in Los Angeles and explore just those flavors, Ong jumped at the chance.
Today you can find the 27-year-old in the kitchen at E.P., adding to the cacophony of Aussie accents from the Aussie-heavy kitchen crew behind the spot, usually with a giant spiky jackfruit at his station. Ong says he likes to mess around with it as much as he can in his desserts, from frying the seeds and fermenting its flesh to cutting it into velvety slivers for his dish. "Old Thai, New Thai." It's a beautiful vegan and refined sugar-free desert with warm black and white sticky rice, lush coconut custard with lemongrass, Thai tea ice cream made from soy milk, a wafer thin puffed rice cracker, and banana leaf dotted with bright orange morsels of tangy, sweet, fermented jackfruit.
"The coconut custard I left pretty plain and then infused with lemongrass, which funnily enough tastes a lot like Froot Loops," Ong tells me of the dish. "Which is what I'm guessing the secret ingredient to Fruit Loops is. It's identical, it's so weird. I hope I don't cost myself a lawsuit for saying that."
On a lighter note is the Cali Cloud, a halo halo of sorts: a cool, refreshing bowl of aerated pineapple cloud, cantaloupe melon shaved ice, a luscious house-made vanilla tofu, pineapple sorbet, fresh melon, and a bright dose of kaffir lime leaf. Oddly, the inspiration for this dessert came from being continuously denied dessert at LA's late-night temple to Thai cuisine, Ruen Pair.
"I don't want to call out Ruen Pair or anything," he chuckles, "but we eat at that Thai restaurant all the time after work and I'm a huge fan of desserts, obviously. And whenever Louis orders, he gets all this super-spicy stuff and then I want something light and refreshing after to deal with the spice. So Ruen Pair had this poster of a dessert up on the wall, called 'The Sweetie,' and it looked like shaved ice with jellies and I thought, That's perfect."
Ong asked for an order of four for the table, but was informed by the server that the kitchen was out of the dish. "I was like, 'OK, no worries," and we went back a week later and I asked again and the same thing happened again and again. I thought, This must be a joke. So I made my own adaptation from the picture and have told everyone in the restaurant that we absolutely cannot run out of it, ever. We use to call it the 'E.P. Sweetie' in homage, but people kept asking what a sweetie was, so it's called the 'Cali Cloud.'"
Ong's dishes are also inspired by his experience of coming to America to work at the restaurant, and the flavors and dishes he encountered when doing so. Just like the occasional non-Asian menu twists in the savory department by Tikaram, these dishes aren't trying to play with Asian flavors necessarily—they're just trying to redefine what you can have on an Asian restaurant's dessert menu without falling into the French technique trap.
Enter the "Applefritterol," the most non-Asian of the bunch: a beautiful, airy hybrid of an apple fritter and a profiterole (yes, choux paste is French, but it's all about the American flavors, OK?) inspired by Ong's first encounter with the iconic treat.
"The first time I ever had one was in America, and it was this caramelized, two-pound apple donut-thing of goodness, and it was so delicious I really wanted to put something similar on the menu," Ong tells me. "But to tie in with the food and the rest of the desserts, I wanted to lighten it up a bit, so instead of using donut pastry, I used a choux pastry, which is usually what you would use for a profiteroles."
After piping these bad boys out and deep-frying them, they get a nice roll in cinnamon sugar and then a dusting of fresh cinnamon to make them really brighten up. They are, in a word, delicious.
Among the other not-obviously-Asian offerings, there's also the "E.P & J," which swaps out peanut butter for little bites of roasted white chocolate, honeycomb, peanuts, and jewel-colored strawberry jelly—a beautiful combination of salty and sweet.
One of the best small bites is a secret off-menu item, a twist on a favorite snack from the Queen's Commonwealth for people who (like myself) grew up with them: the E.P. version of the British Crunchie bar, called the "Ginger Crunchie," which is somehow better than the real thing. Essentially it's a chocolate-covered bite of honeycomb, dusted in crystalized ginger for a welcome hit of spice. "It's actually inspired by a chef Louis and I both worked for in Australia, Brent Savage," Ong tells me. "He's an amazing chef and that was one of the O.G. things he had on the menu. I wanted to call it the 'Savage Bar' but didn't know if people would get it."
The most obvious combination of Asian and American flavors that Ong plays with is a unique take on the classic campfire favorite, s'mores. A house-made coconut marshmallow, hit with a blowtorch until blackened, gets sprinkled with a combination of fresh blackberries and liquid nitrogen-frozen berries that are quickly pulverized, graham cracker crumble, shredded coconut, a touch of milk chocolate, and sorbet made from young coconut. It's deconstructed appearance definitely doesn't scream "s'mores," and the strong addition of coconut and berries changes the flavor profile enough to call to mind the dish from which is was inspired while creating something new.
These particular dishes tap into a nostalgia that Americans have for certain dishes as interpreted by someone who hasn't grown up with that dish, creating something interesting and, most importantly, delicious.