day 9 :
tuesday, 5 may
Another day, another croissant. No, we wouldn't let a breakfast in Paris be nearly so pedestrian. We hopped the Métro and two stops later were at the world-renowned Pierre Hermé boutique. One counter stretched the length of the store, and was covered end-to-end with macarons – big ones, small ones, in a dazzling rainbow of colors and exotic flavors. The wall opposite was neatly stacked with chocolates, confiture, and pastries. The air itself was an aroma of pure sweetness. How could we possibly choose from among all of these fantastic delights? To make the decision a little less pressure-filled (what if we missed trying something amazing!?), we promised ourselves that we'd come back for more later in the week. The salesperson filled our bag with a croissant, a pain au chocolat, a kouign amann, a small container of chocolate-covered candied grapefruit (like orangettes, but we call them pamplemoussettes), and six different macarons. There's no seating in the store, but just across the street is a park with a huge fountain, and benches sheltered by large trees. We each took a bite of croissant and pain au chocolat, and knew right then and there that we were in the presence of greatness. Dare we say these are the world's best croissant and pain au chocolat? The croissant was better than the one we sampled yesterday at Maison Kayser's, and that's no small feat; this one was buttery (but not too buttery), with perfect crunch, airiness, texture, and flavor. What we found even more interesting is that everyone raves about the macarons at Pierre Hermé, but nary a peep about the croissants. Well, that's fine; more heavenly croissants for us!
We walked back to our neighborhood via the Luxembourg palace, stopping at the open-air market around the corner from our apartment. The Maubert Market is open three days a week, but you can find an outdoor market nearly every day of the week throughout Paris. We bought some fruit, then ducked into the wonderful Fromagerie Laurent Dubois on the edge of the market square. The walls were lined with the most beautiful selection of perfect little cheeses we've seen. Dawn sadly skipped buying the soft, runny, unpasteurized cheeses, but all was not lost: we found a small jar of Mirabelle plum confiture (a variety of plum that Dawn saw mentioned in her French confiture book which we don't have back home), several small jars of fresh yogurt, and Jean Yves Bordier Beurre de Baratte Demi-Sel (one of the best butters to be found in Paris, according to David Lebovitz).
A bit after noon, we donned our finest clothes and took the Métro to the 8th arrondissement for lunch at Le Bistrol, the restaurant at the 5-star Hôtel Le Bristol. Our friends Eric and Kye had eaten here several years ago and highly recommended it, and in March, Michelin awarded the restaurant its third star. That was convincing enough for us! When planning our visit, we compared the lunch and dinner menus, and while dinner offered tasting menus with more courses and variety, it was also significantly more expensive. So, we opted for lunch to save a bit of money, and perhaps even more importantly, precious stomach space for all of the other food we wanted to try this week. When we exited the Métro station, we immediately noticed how nicely dressed everyone was – three-piece suits with beautiful silk ties, overcoats, long skirts, beautiful jewelry. Clearly a business district. We walked into the very formal hotel entrance, where everything that could be gilded was gilded, everyone was dressed immaculately and had perfect posture, and expensive jewelry was on display and for sale around the lobby. We bypassed these luxuries and found our way to the restaurant, where we were quickly seated by the maître d' at a corner table in the beautiful covered patio space. Looking around the room, we noticed we were the youngest guests there (aside from a seven-year-old girl!); the room was filled with businessmen, with an occasional table of women. As Kye had predicted, someone brought a small, ornate ottoman to our table for Dawn's purse immediately after we were seated.
We each ordered the three-course prix fixe menu. Each course had two options, so, like we often do, we ordered different dishes for each course so we'd have a chance to try everything. Our bread plates were filled with savory breadsticks, pain au cereal bread, and slices of traditional baguette, and we began our meal:
We're in debate over the salted butter caramel macarons. Eric thinks these were the best macarons of the trip, better than Pierre Hermé, with a slight crunch when you bit into it, and the softest creamy layer of caramel in the middle that oozed out slightly. Dawn says that the macaron itself was way better at Pierre Hermé: soft, silky, melt-in-your-mouth. But these are the types of disagreements we don't mind having. There's no debate about the spirits menu: it was quite impressive, with Armagnacs by the glass from 1900, 1904, and many other years throughout the twentieth century. Our assessment of Le Bistrol is that it's on par with Arzak, one of our favorite Michelin three star restaurant in San Sebastián, Spain. Every dish was perfectly executed, had interesting and unique flavor combinations, and had beautiful presentation. We'd put it in our top five restaurants.
It was hard to get up and leave after such a phenomenal meal, but we were really looking forward to visiting two shops on our list. First up was Les Caves Augé, opened in 1850, and the oldest wine store in Paris. Walking in, you have to be careful; the store has narrow aisles, and wine bottles are everywhere, precariously stacked at every height and in every nook and cranny. But this ever-present danger just added to the ambience of the store; this is the kind of place Eric could visit every week, in search of some new or unusual find. The store has 6000 different types of wine, and specializes in wines from small producers, many of them using organic or biodynamic practices. Eric was mesmerized by the wall of Armagnac bottles, which included vintage bottles from the mid-twentieth century to the present. Fortunately, many of these Armagnacs are available for mail order through D&M Wines and Liquors in San Francisco, so we focused instead on buying a few unique bottles of wine that we wouldn't be able to find in the States. The store's proprietor was very helpful, and made recommendations for several reasonably priced wines.
With arms weighed down, we were back into the Métro and headed up to the 9th, for a single purpose: to visit Denise Acabo's famous candy shop, A l'Etoile d'Or. Denise is the pigtailed, spectacled woman dressed in a schoolgirl uniform who owns the most revered candy shop in Paris. She carries hard-to-find candies from all over France, and has very high standards for what is allowed onto her shelves.
When we walked into the tiny shop, we were immediately greeted by Denise herself, speaking in rapid-fire French. She animatedly described everything that we showed interest in, and admittedly, we understood only a fraction of what she was saying. No matter, she enthusiastically hopped around the store, pointing here and there at the shelves, highlighting her favorite candies.
We found the famous CBS caramels (Caramel-Beurre-Salé, or caramel-butter-salt) made by Henri Le Roux, which were our main reason for visiting. We'd read that these were the best caramels around, and wanted to compare with our Roellinger caramels from Cancale. We piled handfuls of the Le Roux candies on a silver tray for Denise's assistant to package for us, and then Denise turned our attention to the Jacques Genin caramels sitting nearby. She said she started carrying these caramels fairly recently, and insisted that we try each of the six flavors, which she packaged into a sack to add to our purchase. Now we had the makings of a taste test!
When we later compared Roellinger vs. Le Roux vs. Genin, all were amazing. We both leaned toward Roellinger as our favorite, a soft, melt-in-your-mouth smooth caramel with the perfect amount of salt and burnt-sugar flavor, just like the ice cream. The Genin caramels were similar in size and texture, and also delicious. Dawn particularly loved the mango caramel. But the Le Roux was unlike any caramel we'd tasted before! That one had crunchy bits of salt embedded in the candy, an unusual texture that completely won Dawn over. Suffice it to say, that you can't really go wrong choosing any of these as the ultimate candy souvenir.
Before we departed Denise's store, she pulled us over to the table filled with Bernachon chocolate. Bernachon is a bean-to-bar maker in Lyon, who buys cacao beans and roasts and grinds them into amazing chocolate. Outside of the original shop in Lyon, Denise's store is the only place where you can purchase this chocolate. We bought a bar to bring back for our friend Lauren, owner of Chocolopolis in Seattle. Lauren later called it "the most interesting chocolate I've ever tasted." She gave us a nibble back in Seattle, and it was indeed unique: a complex combination of coffee, tobacco, and leather notes.
Denise wrapped our chocolate in her special paper, le papier d'Epinal, which is filled with comic-strip-like panels that each tell a different joke when turned upside down, and then we were on our way, with weary feet, back to our apartment.
Back at our apartment, Eric made dinner reservations for the next few nights, but no place on our list had availability for this evening. Fortunately, Dawn found Da Rosa in our most-used and trusted guidebook of the trip, Clotilde's Edible Adventures in Paris. Da Rosa is a gourmet food store and restaurant in the 6th arrondissement. The shop is open every day of the week, and we got there early enough that we found a table without a problem. Several cured iberico hams were hanging in their front window, with another dozen or so hanging in the public cellar. We noticed amidst their pantry items Jean Yves Bordier butter – the same sought-after brand we purchased earlier in the day, but here they had several different kinds and even smaller sizes, which would have been perfect for comparing had we not bought some already. Dinner was a relatively simple affair, which we were thankful for after our filling lunch: mixed green salad, risotto with jamon iberico and parmigiano, penne pasta with vegetables, and 30-year-old parmigiano reggiano with aged balsamic.
On our walk back from dinner, we tried to go to a recommended coffee shop along the route, but they had just locked up for the night. That prompted Eric to decide that the time had come to write down "the list" of things to see and do over the next few days. Vacation would be over before we knew it, and it will be a while before we're back in Paris, so we wanted to make sure we at least got to our top places. This isn't to say that there wasn't room for happenstance. In fact, just then, we noticed a side alley across the way lined with cute shops, so we wandered down it. British ex-pats were crowded into a bar on the street corner, cheering loudly for the UK Arsenal vs. Manchester football match on the television. With the sun just setting and the street lamps giving off a soft glow, the scene was unmistakably European, unforgettably romantic, and completely serendipitous.