Cutting-edge chefs have long used trompe l’oeil — French for “to deceive the eye” — to convey a sense of unexpected delight. Here’s what looks like a ripe avocado, but you cut into it, and aha, the fatty flesh is really lime purée. The technique, equal parts magic trick and artistry, elicits wonder, with the chefs often molding, tempering, spray painting, and carefully brushing jellies or white chocolate shells until they mimic everyday objects. France’s Cedric Grolet is famous for his fake apples, painted so shiny they could pass themselves off as high-end Christmas ornaments. But at Lysée in New York, a French Korean pastry shop that offers both traditional viennoiserie and more complex sweets, a prominent faux produce practitioner is doing something particularly neat with trompe l’oeil.
Her name is Eunji Lee and she crafts a masterful corn on the cob — of sorts.
The pastry chef builds this sweet a bit differently than most trompe l’oeil affairs. She doesn’t construct it with an eye toward eerie realism, the way she did with her famous, fake banana at Jungsik in Tribeca. The kernels on her corn aren’t shiny and smooth like they should be; they’re more fat, textured, and puffy, with a husk that’s not quite green or wispy enough. It’s almost as if she’s building a stuffed doll of knitted corn. Then, when you take a swoosh with your fork, the wonderful insides reveal themselves: corn mousse, crunchy sable, and grilled corn cream. It tastes like a walk through a field of crops on a sunny day, albeit one where the soil and plants are made of dairy and sugar.
Modern Korean restaurants in New York are known for pushing creative boundaries, but the fantastic Lysée might be the peer group’s most experimental bakery. The venue refers to itself as a “gallery of confections” and the design team puts all pastries on the “our collections” sections of the museum-like website. Folks line up for sit-down dining a half hour before opening (or earlier), while patrons ordering takeout ascend to the second-floor “boutique” where pastries sit on long white tables the way a Prada handbag might. True to form, Lee’s desserts are priced accordingly. That corn is $18, which is a lot more than what you’ll pay for, say, a faux-green apple at the French Japanese Patisserie Fouet or elegant cakes at Dominique Ansel.
Lysée also indulges with simpler viennoiseries like the classic kouign amann, albeit with their respective tweaks. At competing shops, the laminated dough pastry flaunts a hearty, satisfying crunch and a gooey, sugary center. Lee, who runs the shop with fellow chef and husband Matthieu Lobry, has a more airy take, making the treat so light (albeit rich) it almost feels like an under-baked croissant that’s been dipped in sugar syrup and gently fried.
I recommend pairing that kouign with Lysée’s “signature milk,” or cow’s milk steeped with vanilla bean and toasted brown rice. The result, served from an old-fashioned glass bottle, tastes something like drinking Grape Nuts cereal milk — a far more savory, salty analogue to Christina Tosi’s majestic Milk Bar mainstay.
Those browsing around the second-floor boutique might notice a small, off-white object whose patterned top is meant to evoke traditional Korean roof tiles. Lee says the symbol reminds her of dessert, though the larger item reminds me more of an ottoman upholstered in cream-colored leather. Like most home decorations, it does not appear to be remotely edible, but indeed, it is cake. This is one of the venue’s signature desserts, the so-called Lysée. The exterior is brown rice mousse, packing the same toasty flavor as the flavored milk, while the inside contains crisp layers of sweet pecan sable.
It all serves as a fine argument of how wonderful — and weird — trompe l’oeil can be. With the trick corn, what appears to be a cob is really a sugary, childlike exaggeration of a summertime vegetable. Pretty straightforward stuff. With the Lysée, however, things are more artistic and interpretive, as if you’re taking a bite out of someone’s living room furniture and somehow it tastes like crunchy, milky breakfast cereal. As in the case of a Vogue photo shoot, this isn’t about practicality; this is about art as pure fantasy.
For a less technical and more accessibly priced sweet, try something more straightforwardly earthy: the $6.70 cornbread. Lee stuffs classic brioche with cremeux and tops it with dehydrated corn crumble. The flavors here are powerful and rustic; the corn cream interior sports a punch that is both sweet and vegetal, while the topping exudes a more complex and maize flavor, like pulverized popcorn. Mexican and Colombian panaderías have long centered corn in their sweets and beverages — one also recalls the corn husk meringue at Cosme across the street — but it’s a more uncommon star of the show at fancy bakeries with French leanings. Lysée is here to change that. And while Lee’s brioche will disappear as the seasons change, the trompe l’oeil corn will stick around.