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Molten Chocolate Cake: OG’s Viral Food Sensation

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I came for the cake. When Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened his namesake dining room on the ground floor of the elegant Trump International Hotel and Tower in early 1997, it was the most coveted reservation in Manhattan. The release catapulted the Alsace-born chef to stardom and soon after garnered a four-star acclaim from restaurant critic Ruth Reichl. Every night, limousines lined the sidewalk in front of the front door, while celebrity sightings and opulent flourishes were delivered tableside. Poached foie gras and creamed morels, rack of lamb in a green garlic crust, musky duck with Chinese five spices, all tempered with Vongerichten’s signature broths and vegetable emulsions.

When I first sat down on one of the fancy leather banquettes overlooking Columbus Circle, Mike Tyson and Donald Trump were in the house. (The combover was weirdly bad even back then.) I don’t remember much about the food, although luckily someone else picked up the tab. But the end? The dessert menu piece de resistance had such a disappointing name. “Hot chocolate cake.” He arrived at the table embarrassingly underdressed for a restaurant with a no-jeans dress code. A fluted mold well baked, dusted with icing sugar. A quenelle of vanilla ice cream on the side. And yet, a flick with a dessert spoon released Valrhona’s molten flow of bittersweet chocolate, which erupted from the soft center like lava escaping from Kīlauea on a moonless night. No wonder everyone ordered it. Luxe in a fin de siècle Y2K style. He may have licked the plate.

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Like any viral culinary creation, this cake came with its own disputed origin story. In 1981, French chef Michel Bras invented coulant au chocolat (cookie dough with a creamy ganache center) inspired by après ski hot chocolate. Vongerichten also claimed ownership, after he accidentally pulled a brownie out of the oven too early in 1987, during his residency at Lafayette restaurant at the Drake Swissôtel on Park Avenue. Eventually, variations appeared on menus across the city, and then around the world. One bastardized version even ended up trademarked as Death By Chocolate at Bennigan’s, the fast-casual Irish-themed pub chain. Another one can be heated in the microwave in a coffee mug. Sadly, the warm chocolate cake soon lost its exclusivity, and by the turn of the millennium other glitzy desserts sang a sweeter siren song.
It’s been enough time that I almost miss that retro cake. It’s not like I’m asking again, or getting caught dead in a diner owned by a chef who admitted in a recent memoir that he lost his cool and knocked over a sink in the hall. But maybe I’ll bake my own, minus the sticky dark story.

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