Friday, April 8, 2011

Patisseries, Boulangeries and Epiceries, Paris France

In 1998 I made my first and only trip overseas – a class trip to Paris. I was 18 years old, a senior in High School, and while my cultural knowledge was actually quite good for my age my knowledge of food most certainly was not. Sure I may have been the only member of our group capable of identifying various artists in the Louvre or Musee D’Orsay but I was also the guy who planned a late night trip to McDonalds to find out of the QPC was actually called a Royale with Cheese (it was) and the majority of our meals on that visit consisted of the burgers, pizza, The Hard Rock Café, and my buddy freaking out when he ate a piece of salmon on a salad that he thought was a carrot. How bad was it – well, my best food memory of that trip was our chaperone biting into a crepe and drizzling a few tablespoons of liquid chocolate all over her shirt.

With the above noted and myself now thirteen years older, many times wiser (at least I’d like to think so,) and with hundreds of great meals under my belt I vowed that it was time for remediation and that this time I was going to do it right and with the right person – in this case with my sister, a young art student who deferred all planning to me and thereby ended up finding herself on a whirlwind tour of nearly thirty museums and landmarks, seventeen restaurants, nineteen patisseries/boulangeries/epiceries and twenty six Michelin Stars over the course of 9.5 days – to say the least the trip was memorable, but to say more it was nearly perfect and between the weather, the sites, the food, and the people I could not have asked for more.

Taking into account our aggressive agenda it goes without saying that our days began early and ended late yet each day one thing held true – every single one began with visit to one of Paris’ most well regarded boulangeries, patisseries, or epiceries for takeaway goods en route to the day’s first destination…and many of the days also included a later visit to another for a snack. From the 1st to the 20th and from old school to new our selections at each generally consisted of a few personal favorites and that which looked best or came most highly recommended. Which place was best? I can’t be sure – all save a couple were better than 95% of what I’ve tasted in the states and as such I feel the only way to describe such an experience is en masse – a simple list of what we ordered, how it looked and tasted, and notes on the location and service if warranted.

Beginning first with the only unplanned stop, Fauchon, a choice that was based more-so on curiosity than a recommendation – or perhaps it was too big, gaudy, and convenient to pass up. Located at La Place de la Madeleine and open early with big glass windows featuring all sorts of jams, pastries and Easter goodies to lure us in I can only say I wish more “chains” in America were this clean, pleasant, and nicely stocked. After browsing the myriad counters of meats, seafood, and confections a quick stop at the bread counter followed by the coffee counter (the only place in the city save for Starbucks where American style coffee was on the menu) found us at the table with our bounty – a Croissant, an Almond Croissant, a Canele, a Kugelhopf, and a Madeline – each quite tasty compared to my American reference point but only the Canele a true standout; the best of a trip where I sampled many with its golden exterior crisp and the interior an eggy custard with hefty notes of vanilla.

Sticking with the 8th, another stop during our visit was perhaps the most famous patisserie in Paris – the Laduree location at 16 rue Royale. Small, cramped, and consistently with a line when we walked past on subsequent days it was with good fortune that on the day of our visit the store was largely empty and the dining room perhaps half full. With the staff both pleasant and patient as we browsed the selections I’ll note that I was never once hassled about taking pictures and as a matter of fact we were even asked if we wanted to take a seat in the dining room to enjoy our pastries after our purchase – an offer we graciously declined, instead opting to take our breakfast with us to the Gardens of Tuileries while we waited for the Louvre to open.

Still full from the night before our Laduree choices were regrettably few, but of those we sampled each was amongst the best of the trip. Beginning first with the famous Macaroons, our selections consisted of Pistache, Chocolate Citron Vert, Cassis Violet, and Petale de Rose – each with an immaculate crispy shell crackling on bite and giving way to lovely creams and ganaches; all in all the best macaroons of the trip save for the Vanilla mignardise at La Bigarrade. In addition to the Macaroons Laduree also excelled in delivering the butteriest croissant of the trip and a St. Honore with dense choux balanced against creamy almond custard, smooth whipped cream, and crunchy caramelized sugar.

Sticking with the theme of fame, a later mid-day stop during our travels in the 6th was to the home of Pierre Herme at 72 rue Bonaparte, a shop that makes Laduree seem large and a line that made all but Jacques Genin seem mild. Waiting patiently after being adamantly advised that pictures were not allowed our selections were this time large and varied – each taken to the park across the street for consumption while watching some elderly gentleman play bocce ball. Beginning first with his (self described) famous macaroons our selections would consist of six - Pistache, Rose Petal, Milk Chocolate and Passion Fruit, Olive Oil and Vanilla, Carrot/Orange and Cannelle, and Reglisse and Violet. More chewy and less crisp than those at Laduree I will first note that two of the flavors were total failures – the rose petal tasting like perfume without sweetness and the Milk Chocolate and Passion fruit tasting somewhat akin to bile – while the others were merely decent and only the Olive Oil and Vanilla presented something truly novel, tasty, and worth the price.

Moving on to the Herme’s less famous but far more successful creations there were five – a Croissant, an Ispahan Croissant, a Canele, an Ispahan Paris Brest, and a Caramel Mille Feuille – and all but the Canele (too soft, too bland) were quite impressive, with the croissant airy and crisp, the Mille Feuille the best pre-made version of the trip, and the two Ispahan options finding success where the Rose Petal Macaroon failed – flawlessly marrying the accent of rose with the butter, sugar, and raspberry tones.

With the area around the Gardens of Luxembourg and the Latin Quarter particularly fruitful for shopping, pastry, and sightseeing another of our early morning stops would be to Gerard Mulot, a large shop where the largely English-naïve staff was surprisingly skilled and navigating my high-school French but rather unimpressive in their delivery of quality baked goods. Arriving just moments after the doors opened our order would be five items – a Croissant, a Pain au Chocolate, a Canele, a vanilla Mille Feuille, and a cafe St. Honore – yet despite our early arrival nothing was warm, the croissant was too dense, and quite frankly I wonder if some of what we received was left over from the day prior, particularly a chewy sponge of a canele, a soggy Mille Feuille, and a St. Honore that was dense with intensely flavored but largely lacking in style or choux.

Continuing with breakfasts in the 6th and greeted with a lovely butter cookie the best croissant and pane au chocolate that my mouth has yet to experience were delivered by the skilled team at Poilâne. A small storefront well deserving of its considerable accolades our early wake-up call was rewarded by a room chockablock full of warm yeasty breads and stellar customer service that delivered a croissant featuring the perfect balance of crisp shell and fluffy interior alongside a similarly textured pane au chocolate with its core still slightly soft. With lunch and dinner plans for the day I’m remiss to say that we did not order any of their famous breads but instead finished our sampling with a warm tart full of caramelized cinnamon apples juxtaposed against a crispy golden shell.

Continuing our tour of the 6th and 7th would be snack at Hugo and Victor – a small and glitzy patisserie that seemed more style than substance on the exterior but actually turned out to deliver excellent flavors despite sub-par textures…or perhaps excellent flavors and textures despite inferior customer service. With all the pastries presented behind elegant glass display cases and boxed up out of sight in the back I will note that although the service girl at the front was quite helpful, the back of the house did a horrendous job of boxing the jewel box creations and as such both were in shambles after a mere five minute walk to a public bench to sit down and enjoy. With the Caramel Fleur de sel Mille Feuille a flaky pile of custard and the St. Honore a smooshed amalgam of choux, coffee, and Chantilly I can only say the flavors were quite tasty while the macaroons - Chocolate, Tahitian Vanilla, Praline, and Cassis were all a bit chewy but very intense in their respective flavors.

Remaining in the 7th, this time for a late breakfast after finally sleeping in one day, our stop at La Patisserie des Reves was perhaps the best breakfast of the trip – largely because there was really nothing breakfast about it. With an elegant collection presented under glass domes and the pastries still warm from the oven the store purporting the best Paris Brest in the city delivered on its promise – unless of course you take into account the version at Le Pre Catalan that costs nearly 4x as much. Flawless choux – crisp on the outside and nearly hollow within – thick praline cream, and a touch of confectioner’s sugar – lovely, balanced, and not overly sweet.

Additional selections from La Patisserie des Reves included a densely packed apple croissant, a light and flaky pain au Valrhona chocolate, an enormous lemon accented Madeline, and a uniquely presented St. Honore with Chantilly Cream atop one finger of Vanilla Custard and Coffee Custard laden balls of Caramelized Choux resting atop a second – it was beautiful, it was delicious, and while such generalizations are always hard to make it might have been my favorite non-restaurant item of the entire trip.

Taking into account our planned trip to Versailles the final notable epicurean stop in the 7th was La Grande Epicerie de Paris – an enormous market featuring an endless variety of French foods and confections; it was there that we would pick up Butter, Peppered Brie de Meaux, and a jar of Christine Ferber’s incredible White Cherry Jam to take on a picnic with pastries collected from Vandermeersch the following morning – a Sunday.

With the small shop located in the 12th, our apartment just outside the 19th, and the RER-C connecting closer to the center of the city I’ll admit that Vandermeersch was perhaps the most “out of the way” selection of our trip, but it was also one of the most rewarding as a quick trip via Metro would land us outside the doors in a line of approximately ten before the doors would even open – having done my research I knew what the people were there for and I was there for the same – their famous Kugelhopf, a $12Euro 1+ kilogram yeasty cake loaded with sugar, golden rum-soaked raisins, and notes of vanilla and honey – a cake alone that would justify the trek.

Never one to be satisfied by just one selection our additional samplings from Vandermeersch would consist of a crunchy baguette that went nicely with the cheese, butter, and jam, a butter croissant and pain au chocolate only slightly less impressive than those of Poilâne, and an almond croissant with a crunchy exterior that shattered on mastication, a fluffy interior not unlike that of the standard butter croissant, and a thin layer of frangipane that added plenty of almond flavor without weighing the whole pastry down – along with Julien it would be the best Almond Croissant of our trip.

Bearing in mind the above it seems only logical to discuss Jean Noel Julien’s patisserie in the 1st next – given its central location there was certainly an aspect of convenience in this visit, but it was also recommended by a couple of well respected palates and the rather large and densely packed storefront would actually provide two stunning croissants – one butter and one almond – along with a respectable Coffee St. Honore and Paris Brest, a fantastic Cinnamon Custard Éclair…and another soggy Canele. Specifically focusing on the croissants both versions were crispy on the exterior – literally shattering to the bite, with a spacious and buttery interior as light as I’ve ever found. With the butter croissant sporting a golden tan and the almond only touched with frangipane I only wish we’d have gotten there earlier to taste them warm because in all honesty under those circumstances I imagine they could have been the best of all we managed to sample.

Taking a break in the pastry department two additional diversions during our visit to The City of Lights were for ice cream – a topic I know a bit more about than authentic French pastry given my home-base in one of America’s supposed ice cream capitals. With advice coming from many angles and supposed authorities our eventual stops would be two – Philip Constant near the Gardens of Luxembourg and Berthillon on the ile de Saint Louis. Beginning first with Constant, a man whose café we would visit days later I have to say I was not impressed – perhaps we arrived too late in the day, perhaps we ordered wrong, or perhaps it just did not fit my palate but the two selections - Chocolate Rum Raisin and Praline were both overly sweet, minimally nuanced, gummy, and overpriced. All things considering I rather wish I would have ordered some of their chocolates instead.

Faring much better than Constant would be Berthillon – a location perhaps as famous as Laduree and Herme where an hour long line seemed present each day we passed by the outdoor scoop-shop – at least until one day a lovely young waitress informed those of us standing in line that there was no wait and no minimum order if we would like to sit inside instead. Taking a seat and browsing the flavors I’ll admit the decisions was a difficult one, but in the end I opted for three tastes – ice creams in the form of Nougat au miel and chocolat noir plus a scoop of sorbet poire. Served with a crispy tuille and each dainty and loaded with flavor my only advice to anyone going would be order whatever you like – but make sure you try the pear – the texture is velvet and the flavor is like that of a pear at its peak of ripeness; it is exquisite.

Two additional quick stops during our travels would be des Gâteaux et du Pain for a cake to take to a friend’s dinner party and to Patrick Roger for what some consider the best chocolates in the world. Arriving at des Gateaux rather late in the day (literally 10 minutes before they were scheduled to close) the selections were largely picked over, but what we managed to come away with was actually quite tasty – a Chocolate Caramel Fleur de Sel Cake featuring buttery caramel dough with a slightly liquid center of salty caramel topped with crunchy caramel and chocolate crisps, large flakes of fleur de sel, ans subsequently coated with a dark chocolate shell. Great on its own and great with coffee I vowed to return to the shop on a subsequent date to try more of their selections but we unfortunately ran out of time.

Moving on to Patrick Roger – all I can say is that their customer service was unparalleled and both young lady’s had a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of the “artist’s” works. Admitting my unfamiliarity with the line I was treated to three chocolates while in the store – one cocoa truffle, one black mini-rocher, and one citrus ganache – and subsequently asked them to pick out the two bars that they felt represented the best of Roger’s line. After much debate the selections included two tablets at $9EU each; the 65% Madagascar and 70% Equateur with the first featuring a smoky and lightly fruity taste and the second a sharp citrus with a peppery finish. All in all I have to say I understand the hype but all things considering I’d be hard pressed to pay the price again – I love chocolate, but like wine there seems to be a degree of diminishing returns when comparing the price of the “best” with something simply “vastly better than average.”

Getting back to the pastries, another morning stop during our travels was one of the older and more well respected boulangeries in Paris - Stohrer Pâtissier Traiteur, a rather large store open seven days a week in the 2nd. With a large variety of breads and pastries both sweet and savory plus multiple demi portions our selecting here were myriad and ran the gamut from a mini Croissant, Almond Croissant, and Pain Au Chocolat, to full sized Canele, Pain Framboise, Baba Au Rhum, and Mille Feuille. Largely unimpressed by the croissants and pains au chocolate and Strawberry – not crispy, not flaky, and far too dense – it was here that we would find the second of three excellent Canele on the trip and a pair of nicely executed pastries in the form of a crunchy pre-made vanilla Mille Feuille and a buttery Baba with whipped cream that held up nicely to a full shot of spiced rum.

Moving further out from the center of Paris on the day of our early morning visit to Sacre Coeur we were fortunate to find Arnaud Delmontel open bright and early with an entire store full of warm products on our arrival – as a matter of fact, the croissant and almond croissant were so fresh that we had to wait for them to come off the wire rack and were gifted a pair of Macaroons (Cassis and Lemon) “for our patience.” With each golden and crunchy I very much enjoyed the Croissant and lightness but found the Almond Croissant to be a bit too full of Frangipane – tasty, but a bit soggy. Additionally opting for yet another Coffee St. Honore and a Paris Brest both were spot on with the Brest crunchy yet hollow and the St. Honore’s filling by far the most bitter and bold of any we tasted.

With the rest of these comments in no particular order the last two stores in this longwinded review were indeed the last two we visited – one for a pre-dinner dessert on our last night in Paris and the other for items taken to the airport while we awaited our plane. Beginning first with dessert, the location was one of the most hyped (by “foodies” and friends both) and therefore came with high expectations – some met, some not. Owned and operated by Jacques Genin and considered by many to produce some of the best products in Paris, I will first notice that if you want a seat, good luck – we waited nearly an hour and that was with only two small parties in front of us. Secondly, if you want a good selection I’d recommend getting there before 5:00 because by the time we were seated at 6:00 they were already sold out of multiple items.

Getting past the logistics and moving on to the experience I will note that everyone at Jacques Genin including Monsieur Genin himself was extremely friendly and while my sister waited for the table I took the time to do some shopping for my mother and aunt – a box of chocolates (I was gifted two, a lovely honeycomb dark chocolate and a café milk chocolate) and twelve of the famous Caramels (call me crazy, but the Mango Passion fruit did not wow me nearly as much as the traditional and pistachio.)

With the flow of traffic no fault of the restaurant and patrons taking time to enjoy desserts, coffees, and teas it is notable that although there was only one young woman working the room once we were seated the service remained exquisite – orders taken promptly, gifts arriving in the form of four basil chocolates, and finally the desserts – the famous Mille Feuille (Vanilla since Chocolate and Caramel were sold out,) a flawless Paris Brest as thick with luxurious cream as with choux, and a pitcher of hot chocolate so intense that I cannot imagine one person consuming it on his/her own. Made to order and considered by many to be the best Mille Feuille in the city I must say it was a stunning specimen with the pastry literally exploding into shards on pressure. Was it the best in the city – well – it was the best we sampled from a patisserie (or under $10EU.)

Moving on to our final taste of Paris the decision was made to check out something close to the apartment – first the Market at La Place de Fetes and then La Boulangerie par Véronique Mauclerc – a tiny boulangerie reported to be one of the few in the city still using a wood burning oven. With excellent customer service and most options available in “normal” or “well done” (apparently due to temperature variations throughout the oven as best as I could ascertain from my limited French and the clerk’s limited English) we selected here the crispiest and lightest Croissant and most crunchy baguette of our trip, both from the “well done” section and both very…pardon the play on words…well done. Additional orders included a rather average Paris Brest, a lovely Pistachio and Fig Snail loaded with halved figs, a nearly cake-like chocolate Almond Croissant, and a perfectly made cinnamon Canele – many of the items things we’d not seen anywhere else in Paris and all but the Brest well worth a visit.

So there you have it – call it gluttony, call it crazy, or call it a typical Mike vacation – I never claimed to be an expert, just the sort of guy willing to go out of his way to have a great time. I’d do it again in a heartbeat – or at least as soon as I can fit in pants fit for leaving the house again.


Zephram said...

Mike, what a staggering and impressive list. It's a great report and I already sent it to my Mom; she is enrolled in the pastry program at FCI and will love this. Looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip.

kiya-and-louie said...

Thank you so, so much for this amazing documentary - with pictures too! - of Paris' patisseries. Really, you are a god-sent.

uhockey said...

...I don't know about all that. Just a guy who likes to eat and has been fortunate enough to do it well from time to time. Really - I write this blog for me, but it is really awesome when others find it useful. :) Glad to help.

ParisBreakfasts said...

utterly fabulous post!!
taking notes of future mastications