The Art Of French Pastry
Where: Paris, France
The first master is the late Gaston Lenôtre, the legendary pastry chef who in 1957 opened his shop in Paris at 44 rue d'Auteuil, near the Bois de Boulogne. As its success took off, Lenôtre was never shy about expanding his business; he published cookbooks, started a cooking school, opened restaurants, and cloned his Paris bakery several times. (Other more centrally located branches are at 10 rue St Antoine, on the edge of the Marais and near the Bastille; and 35 av. de la Mot Picquet, near the Champs des Mars in the 7th arrondissement). The Lenôtre chain now has 16 sleek, stylish shops in France, plus branches around the world from Tokyo to Las Vegas.
The quality of the pastries remains impeccably high, if perhaps a little too correct, and any visitor to Paris who's interested in food should stop in at one of them to view the extraordinary assortment of frilly mille-feuilles, feather-light meringues, dense chocolate mousse cakes, glossy fruit tarts, plump éclairs, jewel-like chocolates, and smooth ice creams -- the craftsmanship is simply extraordinary.
As is so often the case, the master was eventually challenged by his apprentice. Pierre Hermé began his career at age 14 as a Lenôtre trainee, but 25 years later, in 2001, opened his own jewel box-like pastry shop in Paris, on the artsy Left Bank at 72 rue Bonaparte. Now he has a space-agey second shop at 185 rue de Vaugirard as well. The dramatic decor of these shops is quite different from the glossy corporate look of the Lenôtre shops -- which is not surprising, given Hermé's avant-garde flair.
He's known for surprise combinations of ingredients, for arresting sculptural effects, and for intriguing "themes" that organize each season's pastry collection almost like a couture collection. You can see this in signature items like the raspberry layered Ispahan tart, the trompe l'oeil effect of his vanilla infinity tart, or the whimsical cake mosaic with its flaked pistachio topping looking like a miniature Zen garden. Visiting the Hermé shop is almost like strolling through an art gallery -- no wonder Vogue dubbed him "the Picasso of the pastry world."
Which begs the question: Whose pastries would you rather eat: Lenôtre's classic flaky delicacies or Hermé's inventive, modern take on patisserie? Why not try both and judge for yourself?
Lenotre, 44 rue d-Auteuil; metro: Michel-Ange-D'Auteuil; 16e; tel. 33/1/45 24 52 52; www.lenotre.fr.
Herme, 72 Rue Bonaparte; metro: St.-Germain-des-Pres; 6e; tel. 33/1/354 47 77; www.pierreherme.fr.
De Gaulle (23km/14 miles); Orly (14km/8? miles).
Where to Stay:
Hotel Luxembourg Parc, 42 rue de Vaugirard, 6e (tel. 33/1/53-10-36-50; www.luxembourg-paris-hotel.com). Hotel Saintonge, 16 rue Saintonge, 3e (tel. 44/1/42-77-91-13; www.saintongemarais.com).