An explosion of innovative pâtisseries in Paris is answering the desires of a public freed from the privations of the pandemic. Jennifer Ladonne licks her lips…
In the world epicentre of pastry, Parisians have never been so spoiled for choice. The humble pâtisserie, once a fixture in every neighbourhood, where you could grab a reliable (often industrial) offering for a dinner party or Sunday brunch, has morphed into a destination. The new temples to sweets inspire cross-town pilgrimages, endless Instagram and TikTok videos and often raise their pastry chefs to the status of rock star.
Pastry, perhaps even more steeped in tradition than cuisine, is freeing chefs to express themselves. Paris pâtissiers push the boundaries of the beloved classics as a way to both refine a house style or distinguish themselves from the ever-growing roster of A-list chefs opening in an ever more layered Parisian market. Claire Damon, at the excellent Des Gâteaux et du Pain, limits herself to a dozen pastries, and her unparalleled Absolu Citron – a sort of a capsized lemon-meringue pie, with the delicate crunch of meringue below topped by an exquisitely tart lemon cream – literally turns the mainstay on its head.
Ditto Carl Marletti’s sublime Lily Valley, a riff on the classic religieuse. His version builds from a buttery sablé base, topped with tart blackcurrant coulis and vanilla-ganache-filled chou pastry, to an ethereal nimbus of violet-flavoured cream. Philippe Conticini’s classic creations include a robust version of the beloved Paris-Brest that contrasts a crunchier pâte à chou with a delicate almond-hazelnut cream, which you can savour with coffee on site at his café-boutique in the Haut Marais, near République, along with a stellar line of viennoiserie (croissants, pain au chocolat, brioches, pain au raisins). His Chignon Praliné, filled with an insanely delicious homemade version of Nutella and topped with roasted hazelnuts, redefines the breakfast pastry.
It’s probably no coincidence that the rise of designer pastry parallels the proliferation of barista coffee shops around the city (not to be confused with cafés, where the coffee is largely to be avoided). The new pastry shop-cum-salon de thé, a very recent and welcome pairing, allows you to take your time over coffee and a dessert. Before, you had to take your boxed goodies home or risk Parisians’ snotty looks while you’re scarfing one down on a park bench.
At Jardin Sucré’s Rue de Courcelles boutique in the 17th, you can discretely sample the whole menu while barely getting up. Which you will surely want to do, so delicious are these seasonal gems that are as delightful to look at as they are to eat (do not forego the Pistache et Fleur d’Oranger, a signature pastry perfumed with orange blossom, or the basil-lemon tartlet). In subliminal resistance to the Starbucksification of Paris, these in-boutique tearooms tend to offer limited seating that’s at a premium. For instance, at Tapisserie, the stellar new pâtisserie from the owners of Septime, one of Paris’s most sought-after tables, you’re lucky to nab a spot at one of two miniscule café tables tucked between the kitchen and counter. Here, pastry chef Fanny Payre, who creates the pastries for the restaurant, answered an addict’s need for her sublime maple tart or chou pastry filled with luscious hay-infused cream (believe me, it is so much better than it sounds) at any time of day (or six days a week from about 8.30 am until 7pm).
Small, self-contained and finite, pastry is the perfect guilt-free way to satisfy a craving or cheat on a diet. But pâtissiers are not turning a blind eye to our more health-conscious lifestyles. Land&Monkeys and VG Pâtisserie specialise in a range of delicious vegan goodies that contain no ingredients of animal origin (eggs, dairy, gelatine, honey). On the high end, François Perret at the Ritz offers gluten-free versions of his already less-sweet pastries at teatime or at the Ritz’s beautiful new Le Comptoir café, alongside the hotel at 38 Rue Cambon, where you can sample the full range of Perret’s stellar creations. It’s always best to buy your pastries before lunchtime, by which time everything is sold out.
Most pâtisseries do their baking on-site in the wee morning hours and keep them fresh in refrigerated cases. So once they’re gone that’s it. To try out a bunch of pastry chefs in one place, head to Galeries Lafayette, which gathers the stalwarts of the Parisian pastry scene together on the bottom floor of Lafayette Gourmet, including Pierre Hermé, Jean-Paul Hévin, Philippe Conticini, Alain Ducasse, and a bunch of pop-ups that this month included the wonderful Jeffrey Cagnes.
Hotels at Teatime
Some of the city’s most visible – read Instagrammable – creations are coming out of Paris’s palace hotels. In February, Michelin awarded its fourth Prix Passion prize for pastry, honouring six pastry chefs, all from luxury hotels, and Paris has had two out of the last five World’s Top Pastry Chefs: Jessica Préalpato of the Plaza Athénée in 2019 (she’s now at the Carlton Tower Jumeirah in London), and in 2018 Cédric Grolet of Le Meurice. Capitalising on an underused asset, Paris’s most exclusive lodgings now give pâtisserie the same weight as cuisine, spotlighting top talents who train the next generation in their kitchens, often before striking out on their own.
Both the Ritz Paris and Le Meurice have recently opened dedicated boutiques to offer their in-house pastry chefs’ cakes to the masses. Or at least those masses willing to shell out up to €20 for a rarefied flavour and the perception that what you’re consuming is one-of-a-kind.
And in the case of Cédric Grolet’s fruits, it is. Grolet works as much like a sculptor as a pastry chef, and his famous handmade fruits and nuts – larger-than-life trompe l’oeil recreations of nature’s originals moulded in white chocolate, airbrushed and filled with flavoured ganache – are so much the rage among foodies that there’s a perpetual line in front of his sleek boutique on the Rue de Castiglione and his café boutique around the corner at Opéra. At the former, you’re spared the agonising choice posed by other pâtisseries as there are only two pastries to choose from: his “cookies” – plate-sized, crispy-chewy delights topped with seasonal fruit or berries – and the famous sculpted fruits. Presented in a magnetised, gold-lined box that snaps open like a jewel case, they’re almost too precious to eat.
High Tea in Paris
Teatime may be your best bet to sample the entire oeuvre of a particular chef and be treated like royalty in the process. And at Christmastime, you’ll be treated to each pastry chef’s personal version of the traditional bûche de Noël, the new barometer for creativity and artistry in the Paris pastry world. One of my top addresses whose exceptional chef makes it worth the splurge, especially for a holiday or special occasion, is Le Salon Proust, Ritz Paris. There surely isn’t a cake in the world as famous as Proust’s madeleine, and, as a regular in the Ritz, the author is immortalised not only in the sumptuously gilded salon that bears his name, but on everything from the plates to the tip of the gilded teapot lid – a tiny madeleine.
François Perret, a breathtakingly talented pastry chef, innovates in both subtle and spectacular ways. His prize-winning madeleines come in several flavours, but the most famous is the chocolate version, made with earthy chestnut honey and an exquisitely airy mousse. The all-sweet, French-style teatime follows the hallowed 4pm gouter, a mainstay of every French childhood. Guests are treated to at least ten different pastries, each more delicious than the last, plus exclusive TWG teas from Singapore and Bacha coffees blended just for the Ritz. A good choice for a holiday splurge (high tea, €68, with a flute of champagne, €88).
Meanwhile, at Le Meurice, Le Dalí, teatime is served in a palatial but pleasingly cosy room designed by Philippe Starck and his daughter Ara Starck and named after the eccentric artist who lived at the hotel (with his pet ocelot in tow) for some 30 years. Teatime is somewhat less idiosyncratic, served on the obligatory tiered tray and starting with a selection of elegant finger sandwiches, followed by breathtaking scones with clotted cream and jam, all the while anticipating that first bite into whatever sculpted fruit Grolet has proffered for that day (each person gets one, along with two other Grolet pastries).
It’s a lot nicer than waiting in line, especially if you opt for the champagne version, which pairs nicely with Grolet’s inventive creations (teatime €68, with champagne, €90). Teatime at Café Antonia, Le Bristol Paris strikes a fine balance between British formality and French flair. Here the traditional English tea is observed to the letter, with four kinds of savoury sandwiches on meticulously cut white bread, but the pastries by relative newcomer Pascal Hainigue, a veteran of the Four Seasons George V and the Burgundy, make it feel more like a splurge. His excellent scones (one version came with hazelnut and candied lemon), classic canelés, delicate fruit tarts and ganache-filled chocolate opera cakes are French to the core. If you’re lucky enough to go in fine weather, you’ll be seated in the hotel’s famous French gardens (€65, with champagne, €85).
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : Jardin Sucré’s Tarte Pistache © Jardin Sucré
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