Although more commonly known as the City of Lights, the Yellow Pages for the city of Paris contain nearly two full pages of listings for
, organized alphabetically by arrondissement. Even this lengthy list is not complete (several very well-known players are not included), often because they are best known for their pastries and not their chocolates and are therefore in another part of the directory. Complete or no, one thing the Yellow Pages can't tell you is which of these chocolatiers is worth visiting. There is a truism in Paris that "you can't get a bad meal." That may be true, but it is possible to get mediocre meals (I had several, unfortunately), and it is possible to get mediocre chocolate. Although this trip was meant to be a family holiday, I did plan to visit as many top chocolate spots as possible, asking friends, colleagues, and complete strangers to make recommendations.
I arranged to rent a private 3-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath apartment off the rue de Rivoli on the border of the 1eme and the 4eme through
. Just before leaving, I was reading a magazine and a picture of Notre Dame caught my eye. Reading the accompanying article, I discovered that it profiled a person with the same name as the owner of the apartment we were renting. A quick e-mail to Paris confirmed we were staying in the apartment of one of the world's most highly regarded sopranos (and we're not talking Tony). To make it even more interesting, the apartment is located on the rue Nicolas Flamel, who, as any true Harry Potter aficionado knows, was the wizard behind The Sorcerer's Stone. (It turns out Flamel is a real historical figure - and was a sorcerer to boot.)
We took an overnight flight (Friday to Saturday - coach), Virgin Atlantic from JFK to Heathrow. The plane was so full that it took an extra hour just to get everyone seated. As a result, we had to rush to get through immigrations and customs to catch the car I'd reserved to take us to Waterloo Station where we caught the chunnel, arriving on the platform a scant six minutes before departure (whew!). The train ride itself (first class to compensate for flying coach) was very nice and included champagne and a three-course meal served at our seats. Arriving at Paris Nord we changed some dollars for euros (ouch!) and my wife bought the girls Haagen Dazs milk shakes before grabbing two taxis to the apartment. Word to the wise: take the taxis unless you have a lot of people or you're traveling a long way. The minivans for hire have a flat rate in central Paris of 80 euros (before tip). Our two taxis cost us 20 euros total, including tips.
After unpacking we explored the neighborhood, we had a mediocre meal, and then we returned to the apartment where the girls watched MTV (The Osbournes is only slightly less moronic in English with French subtitles because you can learn the French for your favorite cuss words and phrases) until far too late because of the seven hour time difference. Fortunately the seven hours became six as the US changed to Daylight Savings Time on Sunday morning.
Sunday was a very slow day as everyone slept really, really late. Well, that's not quite true. My wife is a runner and Sunday was the Paris marathon. Coincidentally, a colleague from her work was in Paris to run the marathon and Adrienne (my wife) figured she should join the marathon to try to find her friend. What would normally be a 45-minute run stretched into over 2 1/2 hours, and I was just trying to decide if I should go to the police when she returned. She'd made it all the way to the Bois du Boulogne in the 16eme before realizing how long she'd been gone. Although she left without any identification, she did have enough money to buy a metro ticket. While she was getting ready I took two of the girls to explore and ended up getting them a cone of
Queueing up for Berthillon on the Ile St Louis.
We finally made it out the door en famille around 16h00 and wandered through the 4eme into the 3eme through the Marais to the Place des Vosges, one of my favorite places in all of Paris. On the way, we passed a Cacao et Chocolat
on the rue Vielle du Temple. Although we did not stop in, it was apparent that the company had changed its image since the last time I visited in 1996, and has adopted Central American imagery as its motif. Although there are about half-a-dozen stores in Paris alone, I was unable to stop in any of them. After exploring the park and the arcades with the kids we had dinner at Ma Bourgogne, although my lamb was, in a word, mediocre. The creme brulee was quite good, but a flaming tarte tatin soused with eau de vie was just misguided as the eau de vie, even after the alcohol burnt off, overpowered the apples.
Even late as it was as we walked back, the Marais was bustling and we wandered past a huge crowd in front of what looked like a British pub. Closer inspection of the crowd revealed that it was all male and we were looking at Cox
- a gay bar.
Monday was an early day as we were meeting Shelley Vincent, who offers custom private tours. We met across from St Chappelle on the Ile de la Cite and spent the next several hours in the presence of a woman who clearly loves what she does and goes to great lengths to ensure that her charges are happy.
After St Chappelle we toured Notre Dame and learned fascinating histories and stories that few visitors ever learn about. From there we crossed over to the left bank for lunch and the end of our first tour, which was punctuated by a parade for Queen Elizabeth by the Republican Guard. We walked back to the apartment across the Isle St. Louis when it started raining and we hurried back to get ready to go to dinner - at Altitude 95
, one of the several places to eat in/on/near the Eiffel Tower.
Standing in front of Notre Dame.
Cafe Panis is where we had lunch.
Altitude 95 occupies one corner of the first level of the Eiffel Tower - 95 meters from the ground. Although one can walk to develop the appetite, taking the ascenseur (elevator) is recommended. Decked out to resemble the interior of a dirigible, Altitude 95 with its panoramic views of the city is a dramatic place to dine. The shrimp in the entree were overcooked and came with their heads intact, much to the horror of the kids. Despite warnings that the French always undercooked their meat, I ordered my cote du boeuf rare and it came to the table on the medium side of rare. I am afraid that no manner of good cooking could make up for the toughness of the cut, however. Dessert included a mi cuit
a molten chocolate cake that was very, very good, and the first time I'd had a decent thing made with chocolate in the 48+ hours that I'd been in Paris. I knew that traveling with the family might get in the way of my doing any serious chocolate research, but I was just beginning to wonder if I would get any time at all.
The Eiffel Tower at Night.
Tuesday was another late start, followed by shopping. While my wife took the two older girls (DeeDee and Erica) into Printemps, I took the youngest, Alexandra, on a chocolate shopping adventure of the 2eme and 9eme. The adventure began at Maison Steiger
on the rue des Capucines where I'd heard they made some of the best hot chocolate in Paris. Unfortunately, the store was understaffed when we got there and the salon de the
was closed - so no chocolat chaud
. We consoled ourselves with a small bag of dark chocolate fritures
(molded fish, turtles, and hens) and I picked up a bar of the house brand (Valrhona, actually) to tide me over.
Maison Steiger on the rue des Capucines.
Alex eating friture in front of Maison Steiger.
From there we headed back to the Boulevard de la Madeleine past La Maison du Chocolat
(window shopping as there is an LMDC here in NY) into the Place Madeleine.
La Maison du Chocolat on the Boulevard de la Madeleine.
The Place de la Madeleine sign.
Here we wandered through Fauchon
, window-shopped the Marquise de Sevigne, and detoured through Hediard. By this time Alex was hungry and she was in dire need of a crepe.
Window shopping at Fauchon.
Window shopping at the Marquise de Sevigne.
Our search took us up the rue Tronchet (past Salavin
) to rue du Havre and the Passage du Havre (a kind of mall) where I was told I had to visit l'Atelier du Chocolat du Bayonne
Salavin on the rue Tronchet.
Chocolate bark "bouquets" at Atelier de Bayonne.
I picked up a box of truffles (Ordinary on the rating scale) and their uniquely packaged "bouquet" of various chocolate barks. The barks come in many flavors and are made on sheets of acetate. The presentation is quite wonderful, actually, although the barks themselves only rate Good. While Bayonne is literally the first city of chocolate in France, l'Atelier du Chocolat du Bayonne
is quite a large chain. The concept is better than the product - but if you are looking for something truly unusual as a gift that is not too expensive, I can recommend the bouquets.
I finally found Alex her crepe, met up with the rest of the family, then headed off to the Musee d'Orsay to catch some impressionist culture before heading back to the apartment to get ready for dinner.
Coincidentally, we knew three people in Paris at the same time we were to be there, and although my wife missed seeing her colleague in the marathon, we had dinner reservations with the others. This night we were at a local (4eme) country French restaurant known to be reliable and 'authentic' - Le Coude Fou
(literally, the crazy elbow; 12, rue du Bourg-Tibourg).
The menu was classic country French with the consensus win for the appetizer being the crottin (warmed goat cheese and frisee salad) and for the entree the duck confit (manchon, literally the elbow of the duck). However, the menu is fairly adult and it is not a good place to take young children who are not adventurous eaters. Also, the restaurant is quite small and smoking is still allowed if not encouraged in Paris, making the tight quarters of the eating environment unpleasant when seated right next to several tables of smokers (as we were).
Wednesday was another early day as we headed down the rue de Rivoli to meet Shelley at the Louvre. We did the highlights tour, catching the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Mona Lisa before heading across to take a look at Napoleon the 3rd's private apartments. What with the crowds and bathroom breaks, by the time we got done with a light lunch in one of the cafes in the museum it was time for me to head out for a meeting with the organizers of The Chocolate Show. Although time was tight and I had no real way to estimate how long it would take me to get from the Louvre to the Passy metro stop near Trocadero, I was in the neighborhood and decided that I had to stop in at Angelina
, on the rue de Rivoli near the Tuileries metro stop, for hot chocolate.
The exterior of Angelina.
The presentation of the hot chocolate at Angelina.
I think the waiter really was flustered when I asked if I could get a cup a'chaud to go (muttering "silly American" under his breath), but I decided that as long as I was there I had to get a cup, even if it made me late for my meeting. At 6+ euros, it was not inexpensive, but it is easy to see where it gets it reputation. Thick but not syrupy, dark and rich without being overly sweet, served at just the perfect temperature - hot but not so hot that it burns the tongue and tastebuds, Angelina was worth every centime; I am just sorry that I did not have more time to savor it. One thing to note is that they do sell chocolates out of a case at the front of the store, but all of the items appear to be made by Michel Cluizel.
I made it to my meeting only about five minutes late, and managed to stop at a la Reine Astrid
on the rue Washington off the Avenues des Champs Elysees (overall rating Ordinary).
The exterior of Astrid.
The assortment at Astrid.
I was only a few minutes late meeting up with my family at the Place de la Concorde to make the trip by metro out to Issy-les-Moulineaux, where my wife [ed: who worked for Yahoo! at the time] had arranged a meeting. (And we were supposed to be on a vacation!) We never did find the person we were supposed to meet with, but there was a great market in the town square and we picked up some salmon, salad fixings, and great bread to make dinner in the apartment.
Thursday was the day I'd made an appointment to have an interview with Jean-Paul Hevin
(near the Ecole Militaire metro stop), one of the only two chocolatiers to receive 5 bars from the prestigious Club des Croquers de Chocolat (CCC - the other is Robert Linxe and La Maison du Chocolat). After finishing up, I could either dash to meet my family at the Musee Picasso (which I've been to) or I could take my time and meet them after.
The exterior of Hevin's shop on the Ave de la Motte Piquet.
Some pastries in the case inside.
Wanting to take advantage of every moment available to search out chocolate I took the metro from Ecole Militaire to Sevre-Babylone and visited the shops of Christian Constant
(rue d'Assas), Sadaharu Aoki
(rue Vaugirard), Pierre Herme
, and Laduree
(both on rue Bonaparte). This is one of the great things about Paris and why I call it the City of Chocolate. Both Pierre Herme and Christian Constant are 4-bar awardees of the CCC and they are literally only five minutes' walking distance apart.
's store was small and disorganized and not the sort of place I think you'd linger, but it was one of the only places that smelled of chocolate. I picked up a box and a bar. The ganaches tended to be quite dry (high chocolate to fat ratio) and so not as "tender" and silky as others. Enrobings are thin, and some of the flavors are so subtle as to be nearly impossible to detect (the ginger, for example). The weight of the box was filled out with some rather ordinary aiguillettes that were leaking on the wrapper. My favorite pieces were the Jasmine and Green Tea ganache and the Tahitian Vanilla.
Very Good to Superior with surprising disappointments.
The exterior of Constant's shop on the rue d'Assas.
Some pastries in the case inside.
Next up was Sadaharu Aoki
, who'd been recommended on the eGullet pastry and baking forum and has been praised elsewhere for its combination of classic French pastry techniques and Japanese flavors. The store is a little jewel box with a very small case for pastries and chocolates. I picked up a slice of green tea opera cake that was one of the finest examples of this type of cake I have ever eaten. Many layered with several different textures and consistencies harmoniously blended with the herbal pungency of the green tea lending a pleasantly vegetal taste that complemented the sweetness of the cake. I picked up two small packages of pave, one ganache in cocoa powder (Pave de St-Germain) the other ganache in green tea powder (Pave de Kyoto). The St Germain is the more successful of the two and is highly recommended. The green tea flavor, which works well with the more complex textures in the opera cake, overwhelms the flavor of the chocolate ganache, which also appears to be much sweeter than the ganache in the St Germain).
Good (Pave de Kyoto); to Very Good (opera cake and Pave St Germain).
The exterior of Sadaharu Aoki's shop.
Some of the cakes for sale at Aoki.
is sort of right around the corner from Aoki and the tiny store (which is very masculine in its decoration and color scheme) was full - about 10 people. The prices for the pastries here seemed significantly higher than in Constant's or Aoki's shops, with the individual servings starting around 5 euros (about $7.00) instead of about 3.50 euros. One quite small cake cost more than 70 euros ($85.00)! I selected a box of chocolate from the case and a selection of macarons. Herme's ganaches are fairly wet (a high butterfat to chocolate ratio) and are therefore very creamy, almost silky. Unlike some other French-style chocolatiers at this level, all of the flavors were clear and easily distinguished, though none overpowered the chocolate. Favorites include Lou (milk chocolate ganache with ginger, ginger confit, enrobed in dark chocolate); Mogador (milk chocolate ganache flavored with passion fruit enrobed in milk chocolate); and the unusual and unusually tasty Mathilda (almond praline with lemon zest(!) in milk chocolate with toasted almond pieces). The only slightly off note was in the Chloe where the initial intensity and acidity of the raspberry was out of character with the refinement of the other pieces. The macarons, two biscuits separated by a layer of flavored ganache were marvelous in their simplicity, clarity of flavors, and texture.
Superior, even at the price.
The exterior of Herme's shop on the rue Bonaparte.
The cake with the cherry costs 70 euros!
provided the only shopping disappointment of the trip as the staff were fussy and rude in the way that only Parisians seem to be able to be (towards Americans, anyway). The store itself is divided into three salons - a chocolaterie, a patisserie, and a salon de the
. The chocolaterie was the prettiest I have ever visited and photography is discouraged (but here's a picture anyway). Overall the flavors are very clean and distinct but not overwhelming, but some require concentration to find the flavor in the finish. Favorites include the salted butter caramel and the rum-raisin; the passion fruit macaroon covered with milk chocolate had an unpleasant texture.
Ordinary to Good with a Poor for the shopping experience itself.
The exterior of Laduree on the rue Bonaparte.
Some chocolate in the case inside.
As if all this was not enough for one day, I backtracked slightly and went to the Cafe de Flore
(172 Boulevard St Germain a few steps west of les Deux Magots) for lunch and a chance to taste hot chocolate that I'd heard was in a league with Angelina's. At 7 euros (about $8.50), the chocolat chaud at Cafe de Flore was easily the most expensive non alcoholic beverage I have ever consumed. Thinner than what is served at Angelina, it was nonetheless tasty. Think of the hot chocolate at Cafe de Flore as a stepping stone up from Swiss Miss and real French hot chocolate, something you'd use to wean someone off lower-quality stuff before exposing them to something stronger and more intense.
Lunch at Cafe de Flore: green bean and magret salad.
The presentation of the hot chocolate at Cafe de Flore.
Having sat out a rainstorm during lunch I decided to walk across the Ile St Louis in search of La Charlotte de l'isle
(24, rue St Louis en L'isle). Here, I was told, I would find hot chocolate nirvana. The store is very small and quirky with an upright piano tucked into the front room. The area is a favorite for opera performers and, in fact, the only other customer in the place was an American opera singer who was good friends with the owner of the apartment we stayed in. While waiting for my hot chocolate I started noticing the other items in the store. Many were objects, especially fish, made using a technique that looked like the tempered chocolate was spread into shapes on top of acetate. Although simple in idea and execution, they were at the same time compellingly beautiful. This impression set a perfect stage for the chocolate when it arrived. Imagine drinking warm chocolate ganache or eating the center of a molten chocolate cake without the cake.
The exterior of la Charlotte de l'isle.
The presentation of the hot chocolate - classic.
Afterwards, the owner showed me back into the very small kitchen, which included a selection of beautiful antique molds.
One of the beautiful chocolate fish.
The kitchen and the proprietress at la Charlotte de l'isle.
Dodging rain drops on my way back to the apartment, I collected the family and we headed out to join other friends to take a boat ride on the Seine followed by an early (for Paris - first seating of 8:00) Moroccan dinner at one of the hottest [ed: then] new restaurants in town, 404 (69, rue des Gravilliers). Consensus was that this was, to this point, the best meal we had all week. We ordered a round of mixed appetizer plates followed by several tajines and varieties of cous cous. All were exceptionally good, even for Paris, where Moroccan food is of generally good quality. The restaurant is quite small with a tiny open kitchen and by the time we started our desserts (the Herme macarons, actually) the place was full I am sure with Parisian celebrities for whom the restaurant is known and about whom we were blissfully unaware. A stroll down rue Renard past the Centre Pompidou brought us back to the apartment.
Friday morning was the last morning in Paris and we'd scheduled Shelley for the afternoon, beginning at the Cluny museum. We'd polished off the special Easter praline eggs I'd picked up at Jean-Paul Hevin the day before, and my wife wanted me to pick up some more of those, the ginger confit in dark chocolate, and some items for the kids' Easter baskets when we got back home. We decided to meet at Cafe de Flore (a short walk down the Boulevard St Germain from the Boulevard St Michel, which is where the Cluny is). I grabbed the Metro at Chatelet and took it a couple of stops to Tuileries where I jumped out to try to locate Jean-Paul Hevin's store on the rue St Honore. I got turned around by the numbers (note to self: next time, remember that the numbers on one side of the street can be hundreds off from the numbers on the other side of the street). So, I ran into La Fontaine au Chocolat
, the Michel Cluizel store in Paris. Inside I said hello to Catherine Cluizel and picked up a relatively inexpensive assortment of Easter basket items, then headed out the door the wrong way (again!). When I finally realized I was heading in the wrong direction I reversed myself, found the Hevin store and picked up the required items.
The exterior of la Fontaine au Chocolat, the Michel Cluizel boutique in Paris.
Facing my next dilemma: All of my trip I had harbored the secret desire to visit a store in the 9eme called A l'Etoile d'Or
- the Golden Star - operated by Denise Acabo. I was told that it was the place to buy the best caramels on the planet (from Le Roux in Quiberon) and that it was the only place outside of Lyon to buy Bernachon. Well, I resolved the dilemma in about the time it takes for good chocolate to melt in your mouth, figuring I would never forgive myself if I did not go, and took the Metro to Place Blanche, which is also the stop for the Moulin Rouge. A l'Etoile d'Or
(30, rue Fontaine) is chocolate heaven, a welcome antidote to the pristine fussiness of my Laduree experience. Echoing the style of Ms. Acabo, it is warmly inviting, slightly messy in a way that Miss Pigglewiggle would approve of - but maybe it's just that chocolate was piled everywhere with the center of the space dominated by a display cabinet. Bernachon, Bernard Dufoux (an assistant of Bernachon), Bonnat, Le Roux, and others were there. I introduced myself and we were rescued from my bad French and her bad English by another customer who translated for us. I had only stopped by to pick up a small box, but I ended up spending close to an hour (and close to 100 euros) exploring the shop, providing a fun education for a growing group of customers who were graciously patient.
The outside of A l'Etoile d'Or.
The interior of A l'Etoile d'Or.
The main chocolate case at A l'Etoile d'Or.
The verdicts? The Dufoux
bar was like fruitcake with the batter replaced by chocolate; if all fruitcake tasted like this there would be no regifting of fruitcake and no family legends of fruitcakes being handed down through generations.
Kalouga bar is what every Cadbury Caramello dreams it will become in heaven: an unctuously rich and smooth salted butter caramel in 55% dark chocolate.
Hacienda el Rosario (75%, single-estate Venezuela) grew on me over several tastings. There is a definite fruitiness with very mild acidity that clears out to a clean, clear, very agreeable chocolate taste on the finish. The mouth feel is good, though there is a slight grittiness that I find in most Bonnat bars. Bonnat is unusual in that it does not use either vanilla or lecithin in its bars (which are now certified Kosher and parve). Vanilla is to chocolate what salt is to most food, and I find I don't miss the vanilla in this bar.
The box I got was packed with a mix of Le Roux, Bernachon, and Dufoux, and by the time I got it open, it was impossible to tell what was what with perfect accuracy, so it was a perfect Forrest Gump experience—you never know what you're going to get. If I do this again, I will take pictures of everything and get a selection of smaller boxes, one company per box, and write it on the lid.
A dark chocolate rocher of bittersweet chocolate ganche with whole roasted hazelnuts was easily the finest rocher I have ever eaten by a wide margin. One piece I did recognize (but not who made it), was half a candied Clementine dipped in milk and dark chocolates—slightly messy but divine. The Le Roux caramels were soft, chewy, slightly salty, covered with a perfect selection (and amount) of dark chocolate, and right up there in the pantheon of great caramel flavors. Even at prices of around 90 euros/kg (then about $50/lb) these chocolates represent Superior value: every piece in the box met or exceeded expectations: flavors were clear, clean, and easily discernible, in delicate balance with the chocolate neither overwhelming nor playing second fiddle.
Superior to Extraordinary (the rocher, the clementine, the caramels)
I was so late I grabbed the Metro to St Germain and met up with my family who'd just about finished their hot chocolate.
The Cluny is the museum of the Middle Ages (moyen age) and, apart from being in a 14th century particulier
(private house), goes to great lengths to ensure that items in the collection can be viewed close-up. There are original window samples from La Chappelle for example, that you could not ordinarily get within 5 meters that are right at eye level and you could press your nose against, enabling you to see the extraordinary detail. Highly recommended and one of my favorite museums in all of Paris.
Because of the cold weather we stopped at a bistro for warm beverages and then traveled back through time down the Passage du Commerce, the home of Danton, the place where Dr Guillotin perfected the Guillotine, the Paris home of Diane, the mistress of Henry the 2nd, and the restaurant Procopio whose patrons included Robespierre, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and others, and is the first place coffee was served in Paris.
After leaving the Passage du Commerce we walked about St Germain, eventually finding ourselves at what would be our penultimate chocolate experience in Paris - the shop of Gerard Mulot
at 76, rue de Seine. The place was very busy on the Friday before Easter and had the feeling of a real neighborhood institution, the kind where everybody goes all the time, not just for special occasions. In part this is because it is a traiteur (essentially, a deli with ready-to-eat items such as quiches) in addition to being a boulangerie, chocolaterie, and patisserie.
We ended up buying some macarons that were very good (with cream, not ganache fillings), some chocolates as a gift (I did not taste them), and a baguette (very, good, even by Parisian standards). The older girls went shopping for handbags at Chappelier while Alex and I fed the pigeons in front of St Sulpice. With some time to occupy before dinner, my wife took off with one of the girls for some time alone. I took the two other girls window shopping down the rue St Andre des Arts until it was time (early, 7:00) to go to the restaurant where wed reserved our final dinner: La Rotisserie d'en Face on the rue Christine - Jacques Cagna's simple grill (3-course set menu 39 euros) right across (or, d'en face) from his eponymous more formal (3-course set menu 85 euros) restaurant.
The rotisserie is inviting and informal, with attentive service by waiters knowledgeable in English. Appetizers were very good (the kids all got house-smoked salmon which was served with a terrifically fresh horseradish cream), my wife got the foie gras, and I had quenelles
of pikefish mousse in a crayfish cream sauce. The mousse was perfectly smooth, resisted the bite very slightly, and then melted in the mouth. My entree was rotisserie rack of lamb, done rare as asked, and easily the best serving of meat I have ever had in Paris. Desserts included a walnut vacherin
that was astounding, an apple tart without any pastry that was very good, and a moelleux chocolat
(molten chocolate cake) that redefined the very meaning of that dessert for me.
We got back to the apartment in time to do the majority of the packing and put on one final load of laundry. We were up early the next morning with not too much grumbling, finished getting everything together, walked to the Chatelet metro to catch taxis to Paris Nord to catch the Eurostar back to Waterloo in London, where we hoped to have some time to sightsee (no such luck, the day before Easter) before heading back to Heathrow to catch the plane home.