Gâteau Marjolaine at Christopher's

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Phoenix isn't exactly a culinary hub, and the Valley's restaurants don't always get the kind of attention as those in New York, L.A., and Seattle. But we have our fair share of star chefs, and if there was a leader of the pack, it might just have to be Chef Christopher Gross. He and his restaurants have earned countless awards, most notably the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest back in 1995. (He talks casually about his big win here.) He's worked and studied in top restaurants in France -- including a patisserie and a Michelin-starred restaurant -- so it's no wonder that he's earned a reputation as an expert in all things food.

Add in the fact that Chef Gross was a fellow judge at this year's Caramelpalooza (and is clearly a practiced sugar connoisseur), and what all of this boils down to is that my expectations for dessert at Christopher's were very high. It was a tough choice between a simple Warm Berry Tart and the Gâteau Marjolaine, but our server steered us toward the latter, which he described as a layered mousse cake enrobed in rich ganache. It's hard to say no to something that sounds so decadent.

And, decadent is definitely the word for this dessert. First of all, most people are not going to make Gâteau Marjolaine at home because it requires a lot of steps and careful assembly. The closest you might get is the Sara Lee frozen chocolate mousse cake, which is only going to be about 10% as delicious as this cake -- not that there's any real cake or pastry anywhere in this dessert. So if it's not cake, what is it, exactly?

This Gâteau Marjolaine has three layers of mousse separated by wafer-thin almond meringue. Each layer of mousse is a distinct flavor: hazelnut, praline, and coffee. Then the whole affair is topped with thick, rich chocolate ganache. The chocolate borders on being too much, nearly overwhelming the delicate mousses, but instead it manages to meld everything together into one incredible silence-inducing flavor. This is a dish that commands attention while being eaten, and you'll want to savor every second of the experience.

As delicious as it is, the Gâteau Marjolaine wouldn't be quite as good without Dark Chocolate Sorbet by its side, served in a small tuile bowl, which is satisfying to crush apart with the tip of the spoon. With the crispy tuile and wafery almond meringue, this dessert has just enough texture to not be boring. The sorbet is incredibly soft, more like gelato, and melts pretty quickly, evolving into a thick chocolate syrup that the last bites of cake can be coated with. It's a nice trick. The sorbet is chocolatey without being as intense as the ganache, enabling it to lend a lighter chocolate note to the overall layering of flavors.

Chocolate lovers -- particularly fans of Nutella -- who are looking for a new way to enjoy their favorite indulgence should grab a bite of this Gâteau Marjolaine. A special treat, it's magnificent enough for a black tie affair, yet perfectly appropriate as an everyday pick-me-up (ok, maybe not every day). The only thing that didn't make sense was the strawberry on the plate, which felt out of place. Fruit definitely has a place in dessert, just not in this one.

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