Hey peeps! It appears that spring has finally sprung in Paris and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve resumed my loose-skinned, loping runs at the Promenade Plantée, which should officially be filed under “one of the most awesome things about Paris that nobody seems to really use.” Not that I’m complaining. But FYI, dearest reader, the flower beds on the elevated section are filled with daffodils right now, so if you are looking to get a springy fix, get to it. I’ll be the one shuffling along in a sad, out-of-shape, half-run, half rich-Orange-County-lady power walk.
But who cares about my fitness! This website is all about exercising your inner fat kid! To those very ends, our NUMBER ONE FAN has established a FAN PAGE on Facebook. Our dearest M has created a “Incarnations of Clarence” group where she is posting various guises that Clarence has assumed through the ages. Even better, friends of Clarence are now beginning to post delightful chronicles of delicious things they have eaten lately. We’ll use Incarnations of Clarence as a way of posting new updates to the blargh and foodie meet-ups over the next few months in Paris. So please join the fun, if wasting time on Facebook is your bag (and if you are a reader of this blargh, I strongly suspect it might be).
Okay, I know you’ve been waiting around for a HUNGERDOME! That’s right, today we have another installment of everyone’s favorite segment here at The Beargarden (We’re thinking of shortening it! What do you think?!). Two restaurants enter, only one leaves. Need a refresher course?
Okay, now that your day has immeasurably improved from a dose of Tina, let’s get to it. Today, we pit two mega-bobo Breton crèpe joints in town in a head to head battle. If you read food blogs—or design blogs, or Paris blogs, or any of the other kinds of blogs that make you look around your own sad apartment wistfully and wish that you had some truffle oil or midcentury Danish furniture—you’ve likely heard about Breizh Cafe (109 Rue Vieille du Temple, 75003 Paris, Métro Saint-Sébastien Froissart) and West Country Girl (6 Passage Saint-Ambroise, 75011 Paris, Métro Saint Maur). If you want a greasy, drippy street vendor crèpe filled with supermarket cheese and salty lunchmeat for less than five euros, these are not the establishments where you should be headed. But if you want a full meal of inventive crèpes of spot-on consistency, a fantastic cider list, oysters in season, and a bit of see-and-be-seen, then these are the restaurants for you.
Breizh Cafe, with additional locations in Cancale and Japan, is on quite possibly the most bobo street in all of Paris. John Galliano’s anti-Semetic fiesta at La Perle took place just a few blocks down the road. Rue Vielle du Temple is chock-a-block with achingly hip bars, interesting restaurants, and the kind of clothing stores that are so expensive that they give you a tote bag when you manage to buy something (Surface to Air, I’m looking at you). Oh, and the perpetually-under-renovation Picasso Museum. It’s cool, Paris. I didn’t expect that in living here for two years I might be able to visit. No worries.
Breizh, which has a suprisingly warm and comfy interior full of bright paintings and wood furniture, is right in the thick of it all. There can be quite a crowd come brunch or lunchtime, but late afternoons and early evenings it’s a great place to take a load off if you’ve been doing some consumerist combing of the streets in the Marais. At the center of this enterprise is chef/restauranteur Bertrand Larcher, winner of a 2010 Prix Fooding d’Honneur.
Larcher’s concept is Brittany and Japan by way of Paris, focusing on the best artisinal products from around France. Le Fooding informs us (I’ll translate for those of you who wish that Le Fooding should hire me as their English-language correspondent) that the andouille sausage at Breizh is from Guémené, cheese and salted butter by Bordier, jams and preserves by Raphaël de Saint-Malo, and the oysters by Saint Kerber of Cancale. If this means anything to you, I suggest that you check out a more sophisticated food blog. In addition, various Japanese ingredients find their way into the Breton crèpes at Breizh, including a variety of mushrooms, green tea ice cream, red bean paste, and kuromitsu, a revelatory (to me) bitter-sweet Japanese black sugar syrup. The cider list is extensive and the tea is properly brewed, as you would expect.
On a recent visit, we split a bottle of cider that the carte described as “supple and fleshy” (Le P’tit Fausset brut, Paul et Gilles Barbe, Merdringac 22) and each ordered a savory gallette de sarrasin and a sweet crêpe. Standouts from the savory end of things included the Normande (camembert au lait cru, jambon de Savoie, salade verte) and the Savoyarde (Reblochon au lait cru, poitrine grillée, pomme de terre, salade verte). While the cheese was especially lovely and molten, the gallette themselves at Breizh aren’t my favorite consistency, as they verge on chewy and tough. Perhaps this is a real Breton thing and I am just missing the boat, but I like things on the less fleshy side. The sweet crêpes are really where Breizh shines, in my opinion. We ordered a classic citron (lemon and sugar), a green tea ice cream and kuromitsu, and a salted caramel with vanilla ice cream. Holy mother of caramel, Batman. I could eat that last one all day long and never be satisfied. And the slightly-smoky, slightly-bitter combination of kuromitsu with creamy green tea was positively genius. If this battle were totally dessert-based, we would have a winner.
West Country Girl, a (relative) newcomer to the scene, is in a bit more up-and-coming area of town. I like it now, and suspect it will become increasingly chic over the next ten years. Right now, it’s a bit out of the way for this Maraisienne, but well worth the trip. The cozy interior, friendly staff, and well-priced menu all make for a lovely experience, but the real draw is owner/chef Sophie Le Floc’h gorgeous, perfect-consistency gallettes and crêpes. When we visited, we were given a table that allowed for me to gawk at her industry in the kitchen. The woman is a machine. We started—as per David Lebowitz’s blog’s recommendation—with the sardine rillettes, a creamy, fishy, citrusey concoction that we devoured like hungry wolves.
It provoked a sardines rillettes mania around our house for nearly a week, as I experimented with fromage frais / canned sardine / lemon juice proportions. Let’s just say we got more Omega-3 that week than we have in our entire lives previously. I settled on something I like (which includes raw shallots and chives), but it is nothing compared to the light, fluffy perfection at West Country Girl. So make sure and get it, okay? Paired with their house AOC cider (Manoir and Kinkiz Cornouaille), it was a great way to start a meal.
Next came our savory gallettes, which included bacon/mushroom/Camembert and egg/spinach/Mimolette combinations, both expertly cooked and delicious.
But, far and away, the winner of the evening was my gallette topped with boudin noir (blood sausage) and a whole roasted apple. I’m going to completely out myself as a competitive only child here, but isn’t it the best feeling when you order the best dish of the meal and everyone is envious? I used to do it all the time, but when I priggishly declared it aloud about six months ago, karma came around and bit me on the ass and I’ve been on a losing streak ever since. But me and boudin noir, we go waaaay back. I knew it would be amazing. One bite of the creamy, crumbly sausage paired with the sweet, earthy apple and I was dunzo. West Country Girl, with your crooked smile and heart-shaped face, you’ve won my heart.
For dessert, we split a classic citron and an amazing whole roasted apple, salted caramel, and vanilla ice cream extravaganza. I’d read in numerous foodie blogs about the beauty of Le Floc’h’s salted caramel, which is apparently stored in a giant bucket in the kitchen. I’d like to steal it and eat all that caramel out back with a giant ladle. It’s that good. I know that salted caramel is sort of like what sundried tomatos were in 1992 to the foodie landscape, but man oh man, what a bandwagon to hop on.
So without further ado, let’s tally up the Hungerdome results:
1) Restaurant ambiance. A close call, but I have to say this one goes to West Country Girl, which feels like the house of that super-cool older artist girl who you can’t believe actually wants to hang out with you. She lives a bit out of the way, but in a neighborhood you know is going to be super-cool in a couple of years.
2) Cider list. This one goes to Breizh, which has a far more extensive selection of ciders and very knowledgeable servers on this subject. The servers at West Country Girl are far more knowledgable about other things, including movies by the Cohen brothers. I’d take the latter anytime, but that isn’t the category, now is it?
3) Staff and servers. West Country Girl. They are really sweet and know about all-night screenings of classic Cohen brothers films.
4) Gallette and crêpe consistency. West Country Girl. The ones at Breizh—while delicious!—are a bit too tough for my taste. Purists and/or French Provincials should feel free to school me in the comments section.
5) Ingredient quality and creativity. A tie. Both have a far more inventive selection of ingredients and clever combinations than you see at most run-of-the-mill crêperies in town, and both have boudin noir on the menu. They both also obviously prioritize finding the freshest and most ecologically responsible sources possible for their food, which is something you can taste.
It was a close race, but if we make those sardine rillettes into a lightning round, West Country Girl is our clear winner. I can’t wait to go back, and hopefully this time M will order her own damn apple and boudin noir gallette and keep her dirty mitts off of mine. Clarence isn’t a big fan of sharing.
LEAVING THE HUNGERDOME: WEST COUNTRY GIRL!
First of all, I want to welcome any new readers that have arrived here thanks to my dear friend D’s (entirely undeserved) praise of my blog. D, whom my regular readers I’m sure remember as the gracious host who fed me oh-so-well in Berlin, is really one of the best people I’ve ever met and I’m lucky to call her a friend.
One feature that new readers might not be aware of here at Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background is the Hungerdome, where two culinary contestants enter and only one leaves the victor. The first Hungerdome was held in August and put three Parisian macaron bakeries head-to-head in what became a vaguely nauseating and startlingly mathematical battle. My regular readers will surely suspect that I have forgotten entirely about the second Hungerdome, where I meant to evaluate the meagre Mexican offerings available in the City of Lights.
Here’s the deal. Even though I did enjoy my evening at Hacienda del Sol, I’ll admit that the experience left kind of a bad taste in my mouth. How bad? Ninety euros bad, people. In absolutely no universe should that kind of food cost that much money, France or not. Many people had recommended that I visit Anahuacalli and evaluate it in comparison to Hacienda del Sol. A real live Californian even said that he had the best enchiladas verde of his life at Anahuacalli (an admission that makes me question his standards more than anything else). But the idea of spending another hundred bucks or so on a meal that I could probably make better myself left me cold, especially with a visit to the States on the horizon in which I plan to eat Mexican food until I burst at the seams.
Moreover, I don’t want to brag here, but I’ve started to really get cooking Mexican food here in my miniature Parisian kitchen down to a science. The discovery of a basement Portugese section in a Monoprix in the first arrondisement means that our pantry is well-stocked with black beans. B and M together are a ferocious tortilla-making machine. We even discovered an errant batch of fresh jalapeños a little while ago that had somehow mistakenly ended up in a French supermarket, which we purchased in bulk and froze. The result of all this legwork was that few weeks ago we hosted a carne asada taco night, one that was roundly received as one of the yummiest dinner parties on record. I can whip up some pretty killer Mexican food any night of the week here, so any restaurant claiming to do the same better bring their game face and not cost a week’s salary.
Two Parisian newcomers do just that. The first, El Nopal (3 rue Eugène Varlin, 75010 Paris, Métro Colonel Fabien), is as close to a Mexican taqueria as you are going to get in this town. Run by super-friendly Alejandro from Monterrey and some lovely Ecuadorians (whom B seems to think are Alejandro’s in-laws), El Nopal offers up a limited but tasty menu of tacos and burritos out of a shoebox-sized shop just off Canal St. Martin. Regrettably, there is practically no space whatsoever to eat inside, but I suspect that El Nopal will be the place to be come summer when eating by the Canal is de rigueur for all of the cool kids.
B, M, and I ventured there on a cold and rainy night, and squeezed in to the tiny space. We quickly made friends with Alejandro, who obviously realizes that it is the Americans who are the bread and butter of any Mexican joint in this town. We each ordered a basket of three tacos. Alejandro keeps the selection small, and the night we came in all he had available was an Ecuadorian spicy chicken and vegetable and beef and potato taco regional to Monterrey. Both were quite good, especially when served on the corn tortillas that Alejandro makes to order with an enviable little tortilla press and spread with refried beans. Best of all, he serves his tacos with a genuinely spicy and flavorful salsa, which we greedily doused ourselves in (and more of which was quickly provided). Washing down our tacos with bargain-priced (for this town) Bohemia beers, we were three happy campers. So happy, in fact, that we commandered the tiny space for another round of tacos and beer and a delightful Ecuadorian coffee-flavored dessert. While we ate, Alejandro shared with us secrets of where to buy spicy chiles in Paris (Asian markets) and how to keep our homemade tortillas from sticking to our remedial press (plastic shopping bags, not cling wrap). We left, aglow with booze and good cheer.
I quickly posted the image above of our tacos from El Nopal on Facebook, so that my Parisian friends of past and present would know that there was now a decent taqueria in town. The responses were mixed, including several from past inhabitants of this fair city that amounted to “That’s nice for you, and it would have been nice for me a year ago.” Another Paris resident and a loyal reader of this blog (hi L!) suggested that I should also try Rice and Beans (22 rue Greneta Paris, France 75002, Métro Etienne Marcel), a new burrito joint run by Americans that has just opened in the former space of much-lauded Rice and Fish, a sushi shop that has changed locations. Thus a new Hungerdome was born.
Rice and Beans, from which ate takeout last night, is a bit of a different animal from El Nopal. While both have a kitsch-filled aesthetic, Rice and Beans’ Luchador-centric decor feels a bit affected. The menu is quite extensive, offering a variety of tacos and burritos, as well as tamales and the restaurant’s namesake black beans and spanish rice. We arrived at the restaurant right when it was supposed to open and were told that the kitchen wasn’t running yet and that we should come back in a half hour. We acquiesced and browsed a lousy used bookstore nearby to kill some time. When we arrived back, we ordered a variety of things from the menu, including two chile colorado tamales, a carnitas burrito with all the fixings, and a selection of three tacos (chipotle chicken, fish, and chorizo). The (white) guy behind the counter was obviously an American, and the ever-affable B quickly struck up a conversation. He revealed that he was from Portland, which I regretted knowing, as I can officially say that the second worst Mexican food I’ve ever eaten was in the Pacific Northwest (the titleholder was in Berlin and wins due to the morale-annihilating case of food poisoning that accompanied it). Nevertheless, we tried to make conversation with this guy about the pitfalls of making Mexican food in Paris, having had a rousing conversation with Alejandro of El Nopal to the same effect. Rather bizzarely, he immediately became suspicious when we described the various places we had successfully located dried red chiles and corn masa for tortillas, and asked in a rather bullying tone if B intended to start his own Mexican restaurant in Paris. B laughed and explained that he was a scholar of medieval literature and would be returning to the states in less than a year, but you could tell that this guy’s guard was up. When B shared his (in my opinion, amazingly brilliant) idea of opening a taco truck on the gravel pit in front of the Louvre, the guy scoffed with the kind of disdain that one can only muster for a really good idea that one wishes he had thought of first.
Our rather chilly reception aside, I was still excited to get our Rice and Beans food home. I immediately dug into the burrito and was generally quite pleased with the results, as it tasted like a decent (if somewhat bland) burrito from anywhere on the West Coast. I’ll give extra points to anything that involves good guacamole, and this burrito certainly did. The tamales were moist and well-handled, despite the fact that nothing resembling red chile had ever touched their filling. The beans and rice were fine, in the way that unspectacular black beans and spanish rice are always fine. But the tacos quickly veered off course. It was entirely unclear what kind of substance was being billed as “chorizo,” but it certainly didn’t resemble any kind of chorizo I’ve eaten on this or any other side of the Atlantic. The deep-fried fish was good, if fishy (these guys did run a sushi shop, after all), but the “chipotle” chicken was as sad of a heap of limp, flavorless, dried-out chicken breast as I’ve ever seen. The worst offender was the homemade salsa, which was glorified marinara sauce in a tiny plastic cup. It was the culinary equivalent of squirting ketchup on your meal, and we quickly trashed it in favor of our own smuggled-in bottle of Tapatio for flavor and heat. They did have a variety of bottled hot sauces available at the restaurant, so perhaps that is more of the go-to condiment at Rice and Beans than the salsa, which seemed like a bit of an afterthought.
I guess I wouldn’t be so sour about the actual quality of the meal, which was totally decent by Paris standards for Mexican food, if we hadn’t been accused of being spies eager to check out the competition and steal their culinary secrets. To be honest, should B and I ever decide open up our taco truck, we’d give those guys a hell of a run for their money.
So, let’s Hungerdome this beast, shall we?
Round 1: Food
There’s really no contest. On one hand, you have a Mexican guy running a genuine taqueria with his family’s recipes. He understands what salsa is supposed to taste like and that Corona is not the only beer that one can import from Mexico. On the other hand, you’ve got some American guys running a burrito joint largely modeled on other European burrito joints that are modeled on Chipotle. While Rice and Beans does have a more extensive menu, El Nopal makes sure their small list of offerings are all perfect. As a fan of quality over quantity every time, this one goes to El Nopal. Lest I sound like the mean girl, however, I do want to say that Rice and Beans makes quite a good burrito, the likes of which you will be unable to find elsewhere in Paris.
Round 2: Booze
Mexican beers at both El Nopal and Rice and Beans are both a rather steep 4 euros a bottle, but that’s change compared to the cost of those beers anywhere else in Paris (B and I both had a seizure when we realized we were being charged 8 euros a pop for Negro Modelos at Hacienda del Sol). El Nopal serves Bohemia, however, which is my Mexican beer of choice. Thus this round goes to our friend Alejandro, who also knows a thing or two about beer. We’ll forgive him for regarding Tecate as “a fancy beer,” as apparently it was for him growing up in Monterrey.
Round Three: Price
A key factor, especially since I’ve already (rather dictatorially) decided that Hacienda del Sol and Anahuacalli are out of the running for the best Mexican food in Paris due to their high price tags. Tacos are a euro a pop cheaper at El Nopal than at Rice and Beans (two versus three euros), which can really mean something when you are eating in bulk. Thus, round three goes to again to Alejandro, who knows how much you can actually charge for a taco, in Paris or anywhere else for that matter.
Round Four: Restaurant Space and Ambiance
El Nopal is delightfully decorated and immaculately clean, but the size of the average American walk-in closet. Rice and Beans wins points for being an actual sit-down restaurant chock-a-block with kitsch, but their hygiene standards left both B and me a bit unsettled. It wasn’t dirty, per se, but it wasn’t exactly clean either. Moreover, El Nopal is a block from the Canal, whereas Rice and Beans calls the (cough) atmospheric area of Reamur-Sebastopol home. Come summertime, Alejandro will be able to call one of the coolest picnic areas in town his dining room. For this reason, and the general friendliness of the owners, El Nopal also takes this final round.
There you have it, people. Two Parisian Mexican places entered the Hungerdome, and El Nopal emerged victorious. Seriously, people, El Nopal is a brand-new, family-run business trying to make its way in a tough restaurant scene that doesn’t look kindly on anything spicy. If you find yourself on the Canal and hungry, please give it a shot. I want this yummy taqueria to make it through this long winter until next summer, when I anticipate having to fight my way in to get a plate of tacos for a picnic dinner.
I bet you thought I forgot all about you.
I won’t bore you with a tedious account of what I’ve been up to, other than to say, man, writing a dissertation is really hard. Once I’ve stared at the blinking Word cursor for hours doing that, it’s really tough to get motivated to write a blog entry that isn’t just like “whine, whine, whine, woe is me, I’m the pitiful scholar.”And is there anything more grating than listening to a graduate student bitch about their “work”? It’s annoying whenever anyone complains about their deadlines and their stress level, but there is something uniquely agitating about it when that person is a graduate student. I slept until eleven today, people. I don’t get to complain about my life, like, ever. So I won’t, and anyway, I’m sorry to be such a deserter.
ON TO BRIGHTER THINGS:
We’ve been eagerly awaiting the French release of Carlos Cuarón’s Rudo y Cursi, starring the überdreamy Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. A quick gander at IMDb suggests that everyone in the entire world who has wanted to see this movie has probably already seen it, as the French release date was the very last one in the list of international premieres. That said, if you haven’t seen it, you really should. It’s fantastic. We’ve been giddily anticipating it, being big fans of everything Gael García Bernal does, from his acting right down to his face sweat. Seriously, I love that man like a sickness. Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control left me with months of sweaty Mexican cowboy dreams. Recently, I rather uneasily discovered that B’s enthusiasm for Gael rivals my own, and couldn’t help but wonder who both of us imagined we were making out with after the movie last night.
At any rate, we decided that Rudo y Cursi demanded a fully Mexican-themed evening, so we made reservations at Hacienda del Sol (157 bd du Monparnasse, 75006 Paris, Métro Vavin), one of two Mexican restaurants in Paris that receives a fair amount of gastronomical acclaim. I had first read about it on the New York Times’ In Transit blog, where it was lauded by someone who was supposedly originally from California (had it been a New Yorker, I would have ignored it entirely). It’s kind of a trek from our place in the Marais down to Montparnasse, but this is the way that Gael would want it, we reasoned.
I’ll cut immediately to the chase: the food is pretty good! If you are a European, you’ll probably totally dig it. If you are an American in Paris, or god forbid, a Mexican, I’d give yourself about a year in Paris until you start checking out restaurants that advertise themselves as “la vraie gastronomie mexicaine.” By then, you’ll be so psyched to see Bohemia and Negro Modelo on the menu that you won’t even blink at the fact that they cost as much as a few six packs in the States.
I guess that part of my problem stems from the fact that Mexican food seems like it shouldn’t ever be fussy, and Paris isn’t particularly good at doing anything that isn’t fussy. There are a few (wildly popular) exceptions to this rule, including the abysmal Ave Maria (1 rue Jacquard, 75011 Paris, Métro: who cares, the food is terrible), where huge sloppy platters of the equivalent epicurian value as “world music” are eagerly gobbled up by the “sophisticated” palates of the French hipster public. Hacienda del Sol is marketing itself as a refined take on Sonoran food, and I suppose that is how you’d have to market yourself if you wanted to make a living in this town. But for an American accustomed to big bottomless baskets of hot chips and sloppy bowls of spicy salsa, the tiny dish of cold chips and the miniature spoon that accompanied our little puddle of hot sauce felt, well, heartless. As did our kindly server’s warning that our salsa was “dangerously spicy,” which I suppose it is, if you’re French.
For our entrées, we shared a serving of (rather bland) guacamole and some beef chimichangas. The presentation cracked me up, because, really, chimichangas? This is a food item that I associate most clearly with the microwave at a gas station. They were pretty good, I guess.
I’m terribly homesick.
For our main course, I got the pollo en salsa de mole poblano and B got the tamale plate. My chicken in mole was quite good, even if the mole wasn’t quite as spicy as I’m used to it being. The flavor was nuanced with that medley of sweet and smoky that I love, and the corn tortillas were fresh and homemade. Yes, those are bananas, not plantains. Sigh.
Even better were B’s tamales, one filled with tomatoes, cheese, and roasted chiles in a banana leaf, and one filled with red chile cooked beef in a corn husk. I was immediately overcome with jealousy when they served our plates, and wished that we had both ordered tamales and been done with it. They were tender, flavorful, and moist, and I wished that the two bites B generously doled out could have been bigger. In an ideal world, I could have smothered them in Chimayo red chile sauce and made a glorious feast, but we’re in Paris, and they got the job done admirably.
For dessert, we shared a dish of ice cream, which our server proudly noted is made in-house. We selected scoops of tamarind, hibiscus, and lime, and the combination was perfectly sour and refreshing.
The only thing that soured the meal a bit for me was the check. Look, I get it. Many of these ingredients have to be imported from across an ocean. The 29€ menu of entrée + plat + dessert is indeed the magic number in this town. But 76€ for a meal that involves chimichangas and Mexican beer? That’s $96.32 as of today’s conversion rate. When I pointed out to B that were spending about a hundred bucks on this dinner, he turned slightly pale. Sometimes it’s best if you can dwell in the stupidity of the unconverted tab.
Anyway, why am I calling this a Hungerdome? Well, because now we are on a quest, and date night next week will be at Anahuacalli, the other Mexican restaurant that everybody can’t say enough good things about. We even had a Real Live Californian say that their enchiladas verdes were the best he’d ever had, immediately rousing my suspicions about him as a human being. But at any rate, it’s on, and while two Parisian Mexican restaurants may enter this battle, only one leaves.
Finally, I’d like to give a Cinéclub shout-out to Le Nouveau Latina (20 Rue du Temple, 75004 Paris, Métro Hôtel de Ville) where we saw Rudo y Cursi last night. I’ve kind of abandoned the Cinéclub theatre review section of this blog, probably because there are only so many things you can really saw about a movie theatre (There are seats! And a screen! Sometimes they play movies you might want to see!). But in addition to the fact that it is literally next door to my apartment building, Le Nouveau Latina is really one of the more charming Cinéma d’Art et d’Essai in Paris. Specializing in Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American, and Italian films (though they also show a healthy dose of other classic and contemporary independent films from France and the US), Le Nouveau Latina reliably has a lot of great stuff showing on any day of the week on their two well-maintained screens. It’s also a darling place to hang out, with a large café and a well-edited selection of books and DVDs for sale. I’ve even heard that they sometimes give salsa lessons upstairs. I have a personal soft spot for this theatre, as it was the site of both my first date with M (we saw Antichrist together!), as well as a midnight screening of Alien that was one of my first “ah-ha” moments about B. He held my hand during the scary parts and seemed only mildly amused by my histrionics. As I’m widely acknowledged as the most annoying person in the world to see movies with, B’s seeming cool made me suspect that he might be a good person to keep going to movies with for a long time.
Dearest reader, I’ve missed you. I hope your autumn is shaping up splendidly.
The idea: Two men enter, one man leaves. Need a refresher course?
You remember now. Man, I miss Mel Gibson circa 1985.
Today in the Hungerdome, three Parisian macaron stalwarts go head to head in a pseudo-scientific tasting battle.
Ladurée (16 rue Royale, 75008 Paris, Métro Madeleine). Ostensibly the inventor of the double-decker macaron that we know and love, the Ladurée bakery first opened its doors in 1862 and is undoubtedly considered the purveyor of classic French macaron. With the largest selection of our competitors, Ladurée sprinkles in seasonal offerings (lily of the valley, Granny Smith apple, grapefruit rose) with the classic macaron battery of flavors (lemon, chocolate, vanilla, coffee, pistachio, and rose). Long lines cue outside of the various pastel-signed Ladurée locations for cookies, chocolates, and massively overpriced brunches. Most guidebooks would call Ladurée a must-do Parisian experience. The décor is totally over-the-top, with baroque brocades and gilded everything. The kinds of women I don’t particularly like make a point of eating here. Not for the claustrophobic or sociophobic. Definitely not for the overweight tourist phobic.
We chose: lemon citronella, pistachio, salted caramel, mimosa, cassis violet, and rose.
Fauchon (24-26 Place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris, Métro Madeleine, though if you need to take public transportation, you probably can’t afford to shop at Fauchon). Operating in Paris since 1886, Fauchon is perhaps the most rarified of the fancy food markets in Paris, though for my money overpriced and overplayed (I would recommend real foodies go to La Grande Epicerie instead). The smallest selection of flavors of our competitors, Fauchon keeps their macaron selection tight and mostly classic (apricot and lemon mint were the most adventurous flavors available today). Fauchon is worth a gander if you enjoy looking at food that is too beautiful to eat or if you need a gift for that one person you simply can’t figure out a souvenir for.
We chose: lemon mint, coffee, bourbon vanilla, apricot, salted caramel, and raspberry rose.
Pierre Hermé (4 Rue Cambon, 75001 Paris, Métro Concorde). The newest kid on the block, Pierre Hermé (the pastry chef) defected from Fauchon in 1996 to start his own mecca for the sophisticated sweet tooth. A particular favorite of He Who Will Not Be Named and No I Don’t Want to Read His Blog Dammit, Pierre Hermé has wowed critics with his adventurous flavor palate. Much-hyped seasonal flavors in the past have included ketchup, foie gras and dark chocolate with gold leaf, strawberries and balsamic vinegar, strawberries and wasabi, white truffle, jasmine tea, and olive oil vanilla. Pierré Herme stores are clean, minimalist, and much easier on the senses than our other competitors.
We chose: lemon, praline hazelnut, olive oil and vanilla, peach apricot and saffron, chocolate, and rose.
A few caveats:
I’ll ‘fess up. If I saw someone doing this exact same thing on the internet, after I stopped being jealous I would immediately be inclined to tell him or her to get a job. Or a hobby. So let me defend the decadence for a moment. It’s my boyfriend B’s birthday and we decided to do this in lieu of getting a cake. He doesn’t particularly like cake, and this was more suited our love of competition, grid-making, and egg white based cookies. I would never spend this much money on macarons otherwise. No matter how you slice it, these little buggers are expensive (around 1.50€ apiece). And there’s no savoring your booty. Macarons turn stale remarkably quickly – most purists will tell you that macarons must be eaten the day they are made. I made a point of giving horrified looks to all the tourists that were buying dozens of macarons that would be stale in 24 hours. Thinking about the fact that we spent 30€ on cookies in one day is kind of making me nauseous. Or maybe it’s the 15€ worth of macarons that are sitting in my gut.
Moreover, let me make it clear (as I’m anticipating all the heated responses): macarons are a highly subjective affair. Within an hour of my posting on Facebook that I was doing a macaron face-off, a half dozen different opinions from various corners of the globe arrived on my status update. From what I can tell, the real armed camps are between Ladurée and Pierre Hermé (the classicists and the avant-gardes, the oldest story in the book). Nobody really seems to assert Fauchon as their favorite, though the Fauchon store certainly has its fair share of admirers. For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll admit to being a die-hard Ladurée fan in the past. I like buying myself a few Ladurée citron macarons when I’m having a lousy day. Despite excellent word of mouth, I’d never stepped foot in Pierre Hermé until today. On the contrary, B is a big Pierre Hermé fan and avoids Ladurée as waiting in lines makes him want to unzip his skin and run. Neither of us had braved the terrifyingly slick world of Fauchon before today.
Finally, it’s important to note that the freshness and selection of flavors vary from day to day, even in the same stores. Macarons are fragile, temperamental little beasts! Moreover, sometimes these companies make horrible (but hopefully short-lived) mistakes, like MESSING WITH THE CLASSIC CITRON MACARON. I’m looking at you, Ladurée. I think this whole thing could have gone down differently on a different day, or at a different location, or with a different set of flavors.
You might ask then, why do it? Why did man go to the moon? Because it was there. Why sample eighteen different macarons in a single sitting and spend the next few hours tabulating and calculating highly subjective results and contemplating the onset of type two diabetes? Because we can. And because it was my boyfriend’s birthday wish.
As we were both avid science fair competitors in our youth, we tried to introduce some standardization to the proceedings. We sampled the lemon and rose flavors at all three locations (although the aforementioned MUCKING AROUND meant that at Ladurée we sampled the lemon citronella and at Fauchon we sampled the lemon mint and the raspberry rose). Moreover, B and I do differ a bit in our macaron preferences (he would argue I like the stale ones), but our combined scores should counteract slight differences in predilection.
Each macaron was scored by each judge in four categories: looks, flavor, mouthfeel, and inspiration. By “looks,” we mean the aesthetics of the cookie, which is as absolutely important as anything else when you are dealing with this überfussy whatsit. “Flavor” encompasses taste, smell, and fidelity to the original concept (meaning a mimosa-flavored macaron should taste like an actual mimosa). “Mouthfeel” is an excellent word that beer connoisseurs use to describe how something feels when it’s in your mouth. Here, we mean the texture of both the cookie and the filling, that is, how tender and pillowy the combination. Finally, by “inspiration” we mean a variety of things, including creativity, originality, execution, and the generally ineffable “wow” factor of the macaron. Each category could receive up to five points from each judge, thus each macaron was scored out of 40 possible points.
After about an hour and a half of careful tasting, discussion, consultation with M over Skype, and rolling around on the couch moaning in agony about how much sugar we had eaten (okay, maybe that we just me), we arrived at this:
The final tally for each macaron:
Our individual favorites were the cassis violet and salted caramel at Ladurée, the rose, praline hazelnut and peach, apricot and saffron at Pierre Hermé, and the apricot at Fauchon. I spit out the olive oil and vanilla flavor from Pierre Hermé and the lemon citronella (WHY LADUREÉ, WHY?), as I thought they tasted respectively like handcream and mosquito repelling candles. I discovered that my boyfriend will happily eat my regurgitated cookies in lieu of wasting a buck or two. While the Ladurée and Pierre Hermé macarons were both consistently well-textured to our tastes, we really disagreed about the Fauchon texture. I found their slight crunchiness a welcome contrast from all the pillowy gooeyness, but B thought they were stale.
If you were just a simpleton like me, you’d be content to tally the six scores for each contender, add up to 10 bonus points for in-store experience (retail space, macaron packaging, wait time, staff kindness, general claustrophobia induction, etc.), and call it a day. So for all the simpletons out there, that would mean the following:
Ladurée: macaron score 127 + 1 point for in-store experience = 128
Fauchon: macaron score 121 + 3 points for in-store experience = 124
Pierre Hermé: macaron score 133 + 9 points for in-store experience = 142
Taking additionally into account that Pierre Hermé won each of the individual flavor battles (lemon and rose), Pierre Hermé is the clear winner. Can we have a cocktail now?
Unfortunately, my boyfriend is no simpleton.
Long after I had eaten all the crumbs and begun complaining about my bellyache, B was still calculating how exactly he wanted to assess our raw data. After much talk of the importance of each category, in-store experience, and rankings in the individual flavor battles, he eventually settled on this equation:
(Ia(Fa+Ma)2+(La+S/2)+T+B)/P = likelihood of enjoying a random macaron from the store
where a is average, I is inspiration, F is flavor, M is mouthfeel, L is look, S is in-store experience, T is number of macarons in top 10 ranking, B is flavor battle wins, and P is price.
Using this (batshit crazy) rubric, Pierre Hermé receives a 7.6, Ladurée a 6.2, and Fauchon a 3.7. While the ranking is still the same, this illuminates the disparity between Pierre Hermé/Ladurée and Fauchon a bit more clearly (as in, don’t even waste your time with Fauchon for macarons). Finally, B notes that according to his calculations (and this is a man who just spent the better part of his birthday evening creating an ultimate Hungerdome macaron equation), Ladurée has better quality (that is, taste and mouthfeel) on average.
As we’ve now crossed over the 1500 word mark, I’ll leave it up to you what you choose to do with this information. I suspect that the classicists and short-timers will still be going to Ladurée, the avant-garde foodies will hit up Pierre Hermé, and everyone will continue to not bother with Fauchon. Me? Well, despite the close race between my old standby Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, my eyes are now open to the delight that is the latter. I’m on pins and needles in anticipation of the release of their white truffle and foie gras macarons. That is, if I’ve recovered from this stomachache and sugar high by sometime this fall.
LEAVING THE HUNGERDOME: PIERRE HERMÉ!