Richard Peters was a Yankee transplant in Atlanta by way of Philadelphia, an assumed carpetbagger looking for forest-rich land with which to feed his fortune-building flour mill circa 1880. The newly-burned city of Atlanta was rising phoenix-like in the form of new buildings and a new generation of investors, and Peters bought a 400 acre tract of land now bracketed by the Georgia Institute of Technology campus and the Ford Factory Lofts. Ponce de Leon Avenue was the property’s through-line, and Peters built the family’s mansion around Ponce’s centrepointe.
The mansion was a rambling Philly behemoth wonderland of rooms and oakwood and lead glass windows, staircases, odd nooks and end crannies, where eventually, as a restaurant called The Mansion, one could find a tete-a-tete table eccentrically-placed in some long hallway all of a sudden somewhere in the maze amid one’s travels through the massive residential edifice. As a restaurant, the mansion as The Mansion boasted eleven dining rooms, a lobby, a spacious gazebo, an enormous old bar with entertainment accompaniment, and a courtyard overlooking a Gatsby-esque fountain, where wealthy weddings unfolded throughout an enchanted couple’s gloriously special evening amid the middling Atlanta night air.
In 1987, a newly European-trained chef by the name of Victor Saarela won a “Best Dessert in Atlanta” award for his creation, “The Mansion’s Chocolate Pate”. Chocolate Pate belongs in the pastry family of the Buche de Noel and the rolled Gateau de Glace, basically chocolate creations with the involvement, one way or another, of heavy cream as part of its interior. Chocolate Pate differs from mousse and ganache preparations in its simultaneous simplicity and intensity. It’s an unwavering, head-on chocolate assault, hitting its consumer with its full shameless purity and wholeness. Its uncorrupted solitary ingredients rely crucially on the good quality of the pastry’s chocolate and cream substance.
The usual chocolate pate is a mixture of melted chocolate, whipped heavy cream, and liquor, often liquer, but sometimes rum, and even sometimes scotch whiskey or zinfandel. Saarela chose brandy with its Moxie ability to evoke classic essence. When one looks upon Atlanta chef recipes of the 1980s, one can see a nouvelle cuisine influence not quite in charge of (and still in service to) an old South restraint, and Saarela graces his recipe with brandy’s formal taste.
Most chocolate pates mix whipped cream with chocolate (usually bittersweet) that has been melted with butter in a double-boiler. Saarela’s pate is distinct in its blatant omission of heavy cream in the main body of the dessert. Half of the melted dark chocolate, butter, and brandy mixture is poured into an oiled bread loaf pan and allowed to cool to room temperature. At this point, a spoon-scooped ditch is created in the cooled chocolate, then filled with a melted white chocolate-brandy mixture, which is then drizzled with mint jelly. Saarela must have the Buche de Noel in mind when including mint jelly, with Buche’s customary green food coloring-tinted chocolate buttercream filling. The balance of the dark chocolate mixture is then added, surrounding the white chocolate, giving the pate a refined jelly roll look.
Most chocolate pates are smooth creations, but Saarela reaches for the nearby Georgia pecan, grinds it fine, and whips it into the dark chocolate. The pate ends up a flavorfully and fiscally decadent production in its reliance on pure solid Eidelweiss or Lindt white or dark chocolate, white in the middle, dark with pecan specks on the outside. Though most chocolate pates call for a raspberry coulis either underneath or atop the sliced round, Saarela recommends a fresh fruit topping or whipped cream as counterpart to the heavy, dense base of the dessert.
The Mansion (the restaurant) is long gone, but its spirit of good food and grand evenings reside ghost-like in the historic architecture’s halls and ballrooms, where life was lived more majestically in an age when the moment was never taken for granted. Saarela seems to have not taken his diners for granted either, as the city’s best dessert must have drawn electric moans from the brandied mouths of intown dames and gents with burning alive eyes in the clear moonlit nightshade of stars.