The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.
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Bryce Does Chocolate One More Time [Chef Mixes Sweet With Savory]
Posted Nov 6, 2009 by Jeff Houck
Updated Nov 6, 2009 at 04:52 PM
In February 2004, Jonathan Reynolds wrote a travel piece for the New York Times about wintertime vacationing in the Berkshires at the posh Wheatleigh Hotel in Lenox, Mass.
The article, headlined “Cuckoo for Cocoa,” lauded a chocolate-themed tasting menu by the hotel’s then-executive chef, J. Bryce Whittlesey.
“Whittlesey took over the kitchen two years ago, and the quality and imagination shot up directly,” Reynolds wrote.
The story explained how Whittlesey grew up in Latin America before moving to Florida. He later graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and trained in France before moving back to the United States.
Reynolds wondered if Whittlesey’s chocolate menu was a gimmick, or whether chocolate could, “enliven unsweetened dishes without contrivance.”
The writer went on to rave about the dinner, which he described as a culinary adventure worth a visit to the hotel to experience. The article helped establish the chef’s reputation in the region.
Fast forward four years. Whittlesey now owns Chez Bryce on Davis Islands, serving an eclectic menu for a devoted, growing customer base. I started eating there two years ago after the Plant High graduate returned to Tampa to open the restaurant.
On the Friday before Halloween, Whittlesey revisited the chocolate dinner idea with a night dedicated to a seven-course tasting menu.
He started with a spear-caught hog snapper crudo with caviar and tempura fried salad complemented by white chocolate, which has a high cocoa-butter content Whittlesey uses to balance the lean fish.
Later came pan-seared diver scallops and seared foie gras with blood orange vinaigrette and shaved fennel with cocoa nib nougatine.
Much moaning could be heard by patrons.
More were elicited by the butter-poached lobster with candied endive, orange and coriander with orange chocolate, which gave it a more subtle flavor than the traditional lemon dousing.
My favorite course: an applewood-smoked, bacon-wrapped venison loin with a coffee and spiced poached pear and celery root puree with 70 percent espresso chocolate. It was the best venison I’ve ever eaten.
For dessert, he presented “Textures in Chocolate”; White chocolate mousse, dark chocolate souffle & milk chocolate-espresso pot de creme served in an egg shell.
It was crazy delicious.
It also was extremely difficult for Whittlesey to replicate, mostly because he had difficulty finding commercial-quality venison locally. Finally, a purveyor in Orlando came through.
Whittlesey told me during the dinner that the tasting was a one-time event, but he plans to cycle some of the dishes through the regular menu.
Here’s a photo gallery I put together with photos from the outstanding evening: