Though barely open for two years, Design District restaurant Oak has experienced a reboot that has made the place all new again. Chef Richard Gras replaced Jason Maddy in 2013, but the bright new face is in the pastry shop, where chef Lucia Merino rules.
Merino, who came on board in October, moved to Dallas from Miami specifically to join the staff. This 27-year-old native of Puerto Rico comes with a long and interesting resume that includes a degree from Johnson & Wales in Miami, as well as stints at the St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort and the Ritz-Carlton in Key Biscayne.
"They're my babies. Nobody messes with them," Merino says of her lovingly-crafted macarons.
At the Ritz, she worked with master pastry chef Frederic Monnet, who gave her a foundation in classic French techniques. She followed that with a residence in Spain, where she immersed herself in the European bakery/pastry/chocolate scene.
She loves her job at Oak. "I've never been so happy in my life," she says. "Chef Richard pushes the envelope; he doesn't settle for less than perfect. It's a good thing for me to be that much better."
Her approach in pastry is to start with the classic desserts she loves, then give them a unique spin. She works with fruits of the season, which right now means citrus: blood orange, grapefruit, lemon. But her favorites are the tropical fruits she grew up with: mango, pineapple, guava and passion fruit.
Every restaurant must have a chocolate dessert. Hers is the jasmine-tea chocolate mousse cake with toasted rice ice cream, a complex invention that looks like a little miniature table covered with a chocolate tablecloth.
"I wanted to do something with chocolate mousse but it couldn't be plain chocolate mousse," she says. "We have a nice series of teas at the restaurant. I started smelling them to see which would go with chocolate, caramel and the sweetness of toasted rice. I liked the idea of having an Asian theme."
The dessert has a base of chocolate cake, topped by a thin layer of salted caramelized white chocolate ganache, which itself is topped by the mousse that's been infused with the essence of jasmine tea. Then comes her "chocolate veil," a thin sheet of chocolate and gelatin, which is draped over the mousse. Sprinkled on top are caramelized toasted cashews.
Oak's goat cheese and citrus dessert is her version of a cheese plate. It has olive oil citrus poppy seed cake, goat cheese mousse, lemon thyme and grapefruit sorbet, and segments of fresh mandarin and blood orange.
"It's a savory-but-sweet type of thing," she says. "With desserts, I always keep in mind my dad and my sister, who are not big dessert people. I keep in mind that I'm going to make a dessert that is so good and well balanced that you want to go back for a second and third spoon."
Perhaps her most stunning construction is her Forelle pear, filled with almond cream and served with almond cake and burnt honey ice cream. Fortified with a dose of almond paste, the cake is moist and profoundly flavored. Perched on top in perfect symmetry are three crystallized almonds.
As for the pears, she carefully peels and cores them, then cooks them via the sous vide method, which makes them soft yet allows them to keep their perfect shape.
But it's the macarons – now for sale at Oak, $15 for a half-dozen in flavors such as salted caramel, passion fruit and hazelnut – that have become her favorite thing to do. She enumerates the steps involved, from folding in the meringue to piping them to letting them rest to final assembly.
A life-long crafter who made and sold bracelets when she was young and who relaxes at home by painting with acrylics, she's also a believer in the power of love in food.
"My mom always taught me that the love you put in can make a difference," she says. "When I make them, there's a part of that. I have to focus. It makes me feel good when I do them. You have to be gentle. You have to take care of them."
When she's making them, she puts a sign on the oven: DO NOT OPEN.
"They're my babies. Nobody messes with them," she says. "And they're a lot of fun to make the fillings, all types of colors. I think that’s why I like them; you can play around with them. It's something so small and simple, but the work behind them is so big."