A Flan for All Seasons

Michael Nagrant / 04.10.06


Lelolai bakery’s coconut flan

I hate champagne.

Well, I used to. On a preposterous whim, I asked my folks to get me a bottle of Dom Perignon to celebrate my college graduation. My dad took me seriously and came through with the trademark bottle – a dark shade of green, almost black, bearing the golden shield marking the house of Moet. I stared at it reverently for almost a year, in two separate apartments, as an unmistakable talisman of the fine things to come.

After I realized I would not have to loot local groceries at the stroke of midnight, I broke down and opened it to celebrate my Y2K fortunes. After a toast, giddy with overblown anticipation, I took a sip. Today, I’d probably say something intelligent about mouthfeel, fruit, terroir, or whatever the budding wine literati spew, but then, I hated it.

The champagne probably suffered in my apartment moves and the fact that my kitchen counter wasn’t exactly a “cool dark place”, but at that point I hastily figured if didn’t like Dom, I probably didn’t like champagne. I could have tried Cristal, but it had become such a gangster rap video cliché, and I had no hot tub or booty shaking groupies.

It took four years, a journey to Paris, and a reluctant seven dollar glass of Marguet Bonnerave to convince me of the merits of bubbly. Champagne is now my favorite style of wine.

This pattern repeats itself throughout my culinary life. A cauliflower fondant served at Chicago’s Everest restaurant is responsible for my descent into gourmet obsession, yet I hated it as a kid, and detested it until the moment I gulped down that amuse. So many people hate Brussels sprouts because of the overcooked putrid versions served by unwitting mothers aping Julia Child.

One example is never enough, but I still haven’t learned that lesson. My champagne of late is flan. I have had so many bad ones, the culinary atrocities committed against my palate innumerable: scrambled grainy texture, acrid burnt caramel, hockey puck custards fused with gelatin. You couldn’t get me near a flan, even if it were lying on Angelina Jolie’s otherwise naked body.

Fast forward to last Saturday. After a visit to Cleveland’s culinary jewel, the West Side Market, I had a few hours to kill, and about twenty magazine subscriptions I hadn’t kept pace with. I headed down the street to Lelolai bakery, on the recommendation of Cleveland Scene food writer Elaine Cicora, to waste away the afternoon.

Even with my predisposition, like custard sirens, the Lelolai flans, glistening under the bakery case lights, called to me. Lelolai offers cheese, almond, and vanilla flans. Savory preparations of eel flan appear in medieval texts, but alas Leloai has no eel. They do have coconut. Aiming for an early case of arteriosclerosis, that was my choice. Cream, eggs, and sugar weren’t enough. I needed rich fatty coconut too, but, then again, I believe deep fried Twinkies and bacon rank along side the light bulb in the annals of human discovery. Bacon coconut flan, anyone?

One bite of Lelolai’s coconut flan, and I entered a Taster’s choice International Coffee moment. Unlike the old commercials, I did not wistfully remember a long lost French waiter named Jean Luc, but instead gazed through the plate glass window out on to 25th street and regretted the wasted flanless years I had spent thus far.

Lelolai’s version was smooth and rich as a sublime crème brulee, firm like a lemon pie, and pulsing with the tropical essence of freshly hulled and grated coconut. The coconut flavor permeating every bite comes from the bakery’s clever decision to substitute coconut milk and cream for basic heavy cream. The caramel layer of the flan offered a slightly bitter counterpoint to the sweet custard, and once again my food perceptions shifted. Custard paradise was regained.

Lelolai is located in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood at 1889 West 25th Street. Phone is 216-771-9956. www.lelolaibakery.com

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