March 17, 2008
Update: The pastry shop mentioned in this post is now closed, but it has been replaced by Conticini's new pastry shops, called La Pâtisserie des Rêves.
I'm sure there are people out there who step inside a new pastry shop, glance at the display, order what they want, and walk out. I have no idea how they do it.
Take, for instance, Philippe Conticini's recently opened boutique, which I visited last month, before I left for Australia. It is a tiny thing, just a small room with stone walls, a wooden door, and a window that looks out onto Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, one of the prettiest squares in Paris (for best effect, visit on a weekday afternoon in early February, when you have the whole place to yourself).
For those of you who went "huh?" when I mentioned Conticini's name in the previous paragraph, let's just say he is a prominent French pastry chef who used to work at La Table d'Anvers, at Pétrossian, and at the legendary but sadly defunct Pâtisserie Peltier. He has published a number of books(including one that's so large it could be used as a tent for hobbits) and has created his own consulting/catering company.
Exceptions Gourmandes is also the name of the shop Conticini has just opened in the Marais. To people who are interested in such things, it is a momentous event, for this is the first time* his stuff is made available to the general public since Peltier closed a few years ago. And it is only the dawn of a new era, as there is talk of him opening another, larger pastry shop this October, which, in Parisian parlance, means sometime before 2012.
But this new boutique is tiny, as we've established. It is tastefully sparse -- a dark wood counter by the window, a few shelves along each wall, a table at the back -- and it holds, all in all, a relatively narrow range of products, from which it would have been easy to choose, you'd think.
There was nougat and pain d'épice, there were individually wrapped caramels and variously flavored pâtes à tartiner (sweet spreads), there were thick sablés (butter cookies) made with Isigny butter, financiers and spéculoos -- all goods that can be safely transported from the lab where they're made (the boutique has no kitchen) and, more importantly, can be eaten out of hand easily, while sitting on a bench beneath the trees, a few steps outside the shop.
And, incredibly enough, those are all things I dearly love. I would have bought one of each if I'd listened to my heart, but that is not a viable strategy in the long run (I currently have six pastry shops on my to-visit list) and the Voice of Reason said, "Thou shalt limit thyself to three items."
So I got a box of eight macarons ("Hah!" I said to the Voice of Reason), a kouign amann (this butter-rich, flaky, caramelized confection from Brittany**), and a piece of chocolat au marteau (a large slab of chocolate from which a section is broken off with a hammer).
The macarons came in eight different flavors -- that day: vanilla, raspberry, lemon, chocolate, pistachio/caramel, walnut/coffee, salted butter caramel, coconut/caramel -- and among those, the lemon and walnut/coffee were the unexpected winners. They were a tad too sweet for my taste, as is often the case with macarons, but technically impeccable. (They were also a bit banged up from my carrying them in and out of fitting rooms and on the bike ride home, but that's hardly Monsieur Conticini's fault.)
When the time came to taste the kouign amann, I had a bad feeling. I knew it was bizarrely shaped -- it rose very high, whereas the typical kouign amann is a flat disk, like the Earth -- and this unusual figure was part of the reason why I'd wanted to give it a try, but I hadn't expected it to be so light, almost as if it was a hollow shell. I sliced it in two with a bread knife and indeed, the inside had large pockets of air, and looked nothing like the typical kouign amann. My heart sank.
My heart sank, but not my appetite; the proof of the kouign is in the eating. I took a bite -- I had to open my jaw very very wide to manage a top-to-bottom bite, much like with burgers -- and smiled with relief. It was simply a mislabelling issue: this was not a kouign amann at all, but rather an outstanding brioche feuilletée (brioche dough that's been rolled over itself into several layers, so it becomes flaky like puff pastry), buttery and flavorful, its bottom enameled with a crackly layer of extra thin caramel.
But the real champion was, indubitably, the chocolat au marteau. I am a supporter of unconventional chocolate formats -- the thickness and shape of a piece of chocolate has noticeable effects on the taste experience -- and anything that requires a hammer to serve gets my vote, but this slab was really something: very thick, very dark, and very studded with roasted and caramelized nuts, it offered a superb mix of smooth and crunchy, of sweet and aromatic and nutty, and just enough bitter to keep you on your toes.
Take a look at what Pierre and David sampled on their visits. The offerings seem to vary slightly from one day to the next, so repeat visits are in order, and I've read the plan is to sell ice cream as well, later in the spring, I imagine (the French eat ice cream only when it's warm; odd, I know).
* Not counting the few special events he's been involved with since then, such as La Table Nutella in 2005.
** In the Breton language, kouign means cake or brioche, amann means butter, and you can probably get away with pronouncing it queen-ah-man. I've never made kouign amann myself, but David offers a recipe.
Exceptions Gourmandes / map it!
4 place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, 75004 Paris
Mon-Sat 11am-1pm and 2pm-7pm
01 42 77 16 50
Alain Ducasse Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Paris
Where to buy organic foods in Paris
Twelve Hours in Paris