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French cuisine may have a reputation for being (too?) well-lodged in the past but a wave of creativity has taken over the pastry scene in Paris. Chefs are now looking outside the périphérique, and outside France, for inspiration.
While there’s nothing wrong with the classic canon of French pastries – who can say no to a croissant au beurre or a palet d’or? – I’m excited to discover that in Paris they are evolving in unexpected and delectable directions.
Dessance, an “all-dessert” restaurant in the Marais, opened last year and was immediately the talk of the town. While desserts are certainly a draw in Paris, only a supremely confident pastry chef would be audacious enough to open a restaurant that serves nothing but multi-course dessert menus.
Christophe Boucher, formerly of the Michelin-starred Ledoyen and Grand Véfour (and probably the most organised person in Paris), presides over an expansive slate counter in the sleek yet comfortable dining room, working with sushi-chef-like precision, wielding spoons, powders, graters, tweezers and scissors, snipping herbs from little growing pots, shaving off kaffir lime zest to flavour a libation, and rolling fruit jellies into fanciful ribbons. Unlike other chefs, who appear tortured by perfectionism, Boucher is always smiling, clearly happy to be the sweet master of his own domain.
On a recent visit, the four-course degustation menu began on a savoury note – raw tuna paired with tangy orbs of red and white currants, droplets of peach purée, avocado sorbet, and a red onion emulsion that was so good I’d like to suggest they sell it as a condiment. (If so, I would have taken a container home.)
A drinks menu can also be paired with the meals: I opted for the non-alcoholic, to see what the mixologist conjured up. Wine pairings are rife in Paris; less so chilled lychee juice blended with Peruvian maca, or sparkling Yerba mate elixir blended in Berlin.
Next up, bold, chunky slices of Scamorza (smoked mozzarella) served in a rustic pottery bowl were too thick to cut with the soup spoon provided. And while I enjoyed the mini mirabelle plums and delicately feathered red mustard leaves on top, I would not bring a container of the accompanying mustard leaf sorbet home. The earthy taste was a bit obtuse, though it was balanced by a hunk of tangy, bien cuit sourdough.
Finally, a tumble of strawberries and pickled black radishes with frozen parsley and fromage blanc with wisps of rose-coloured meringue segued nicely to the last course (I was stuffed at this point): a duo of ultra-dark chocolate croustillants with spongy “clouds” of burnt caramel, along with a delicate pot of black tea, infused with cocoa beans, which made the bittersweet ending a little sweeter.
Dessance 74 rue des Archives, 3rd, +33 1 42 77 23 62; dessance.fr (from €42 for four courses)
The first time I walked into Aki boulangerie, I was a bit stunned. Not by the crusty breads lined up behind the counter, or the rows of pristine eclairs and gâteaux on display, but by the service. They were so happy to see me! (Not something that happens all the time when you walk into a shop in Paris.) As part of the mini Aki empire (they own a small Japanese restaurant just across the street), the bakery is one of my favourites in Paris.
The seeded baguettes and levain boules (sourdough rounds) hone closely to French tradition but the viennoiseries (morning pastries) mingle the best of both cultures. Matcha (green tea) and red bean purée are swirled into a spectacular brioche, browned butter enriches pains aux raisins, and tart yuzu cream is piped inside deep-fried beignets – all are popular snacks in the bustling seating area.
Although I’m addicted to the green-tinged “cookie”, a riff on American chocolate chip cookies with white chocolate chunks providing creamy contrast to the salty matcha, the fancy desserts offer more elegant indulgences. Particularly good is the Aki Brest, an eclair oozing with caramelised praline and dusted with green tea. Other pastries are flavoured with mangoes, strawberries and chestnuts, depending on the season.
Aki Boulanger 16 rue Saint-Anne, 1st, +33 1 40 15 63 38; akiboulanger.com
Another Japanese-inspired address is Pâtisserie Ciel, across town in the Latin Quarter, a few blocks from the Sorbonne, and one of the few pastry shops in Paris that’s open until 10pm, when most other shops have shuttered. Anyone in need of a sugar fix will find a sweet surprise when opening their spectacularly folded origami boxes. The specialities here are delicately flavoured chiffon cakes with a button of thick buttercream when you reach the centre.
If you choose to eat your cake in the austere café, you don’t need to be a stressed-out student to appreciate the serenity. The gentle beauty of cakes baked with everything from passion fruit to black sesame – and being Paris, chocolate – are as soothing as the neutral surroundings. But in case you need a little fortification, there’s a selection of Japanese whiskies and clever cocktails on offer.
Pâtisserie Ciel 3 rue Monge, 5th, +33 1 43 29 40 78; patisserie-ciel.com
Aux Merveilleux de Fred
I’ve usually had to drag people kicking and screaming to Aux Merveilleux de Fred, when they hear I’m taking them out for meringues and whipped cream. Well, they’re not really screaming (or kicking) but they do insist, “I don’t like meringues.” That is, until they get a taste of a Merveilleux, the elusive pastry from Lille that has been reinvented by Frédéric Vaucamps, who began making pastries at 14 and is now the toast of Paris.
Slathered between two crunchy meringues is a rich cream filling, precisely thick enough to hold the meringues together. The individual cakes are spread with a whisper-thin layer of cream and encrusted with a blizzard of shaved chocolate. The first time I tasted one, I bought a box to share with a friend. But I made the mistake of tasting one before he arrived (or he made the mistake of being late) and by the time he got there, all that was left were a few crumbs of meringue.
The shop has proved so popular that it has expanded its flavours to the “Incroyable”, with spicy Speculoos cookie filling, and the “Impensable”, with coffee inside, then coated with coffee-caramelised meringues, which is not as impensable (unthinkable) as it sounds. In fact, it’s amazing.
Aux Merveilleux de Fred 94 rue Saint-Dominique, 7th, +33 1 47 53 91 34; auxmerveilleux.com; for details of the four other Paris branches see website
‘My Paris Kitchen’ by David Lebovitz is published by Ten Speed Press
Photographs: Kate Fichard