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Sweet pleasures of Paris

She was hungry for a tryst with something luscious and layered. Where better than the city of light?

June 01, 2008|Betty Hallock | Contact Times assistant Food editor Betty Hallock at betty.hallock@latimes.com.

This one calls to me from behind the glass at patissier Pierre Herme's thronged Paris shop on the Rue Bonaparte. It's a study in elegant, precise strata: layers of hazelnut dacquoise; crunchy praline mixed with crushed hazelnuts, Piemontese hazelnut paste and La Viette butter; and chocolate ganache and milk chocolate Chantilly cream sandwiched between fine sheaves of chocolate. One of Herme's classics, it's an over-the-top dessert aptly named "plaisir sucre."

Which is exactly why I've come to Paris--for all of its plaisirs sucres, or sweet pleasures. Because what is Paris but pastries?

Call it an obsession: I seek out vanilla-flecked custard, chocolate ganache, dense little cakes soaked in orange-blossom-scented syrup and rolled in coarse sugar, slabs of griotte cherry clafouti, macarons filled with peach-apricot-saffron buttercream. It's a spur-of-the-moment trip, an I-need-good-brioche-and-I-need-it-now sort of a trip. And because of a canceled flight, I have only a few days. But the moment is right--the city is enjoying a new wave of patisseries. Herme plans to open not one but two more Paris boutiques by the end of the year. Famed patissier Philippe Conticini is back on the scene with a tiny new shop, Exceptions Gourmandes, in the Marais district. Upstarts such as Herme alum Claire Damon (Des Gateaux et du Pain), Fabrice Le Bourdat of Le Bristol (Ble Sucre) and former Pierre Gagnaire pastry chefs Didier Mathray and Nathalie Robert (Pain de Sucre) have launched their own patisseries.

My strategy is to focus on the patisseries of the Left Bank because the highest concentration of the best and the most inventive are in the 6th and 7th arrondissements. I'm traveling alone because I don't want to be slowed down; for maximum efficiency, I map out clusters of pastry and chocolate shops. You can keep your art, your fashion, your history. I'm here for the gateaux.

For the most part, I won't need the Metro, a cab or even one of those Patrick Jouin-designed Velib' (for velos libres--"free bikes") that are all the rage. I'll walk to (and off) my pastries, which makes me fearless in the face of butter, cream and sugar-induced calories. I've chosen a hotel with an ideal location at the edge of the 7th, on the Rue de Verneuil (the street where French pop legend Serge Gainsbourg once lived). I say ideal because it's about equidistant from Boulangerie Kayser down the block and oh-so-popular-in-the-19th-century chocolatier Debauve & Gallais around the corner on Rue des St.-Peres. That means easy access to a breakfast of brioche or petit pain mendiant (a small loaf of bread studded with dates, almonds and hazelnuts) and cafe creme at Kayser, as well as one, or maybe two, of D&G's gold-foil-wrapped, chocolate-covered praline and nougatine pearls (its chocolates are very ancien regime chic).

St.-Germain-des-Pres' winding, cobbled streets are lined with antiques stores, galleries and hard-to-resist boutiques (shoe-aholics, stay focused and avoid turning down the Rue de Grenelle). I plan a route between the Bon Marche (my favorite Paris department store, thanks to its extravagant Grande Epicerie food market) and the Jardin du Luxembourg. It's a course that roughly follows the unassuming Rue d'Assas, a veritable chocolate-and-pastry row. Not far from the Bon Marche is La Maison du Chocolat, the house that Basque chocolatier--a.k.a. "sorcerer of ganache"--Robert Linxe built. I already know what I want: a box of seasonal, mellow Marroni chocolates filled with a delicate candied chestnut mousse and a few chocolate-covered, candied griottes, those French dark-juiced sour cherries that are everywhere these days--in cakes, compotes, macarons--popularly paired with pistachio, as in a tart smeared with pistachio paste and dotted with griottes.

At the legendary boulangerie Poilane, tucked into the north side of the Rue du Cherche-Midi, the morning crush jostles for croissants (better than at Kayser--they're more buttery-tasting), little apple tarts and sourdough batons.

I want the punitions, or "punishments"--fine-textured, scallop-edged cookies made with three kinds of butter. I love that they're called punishments. For what offense? I take samples from a basket--they're buttery (of course), not too sweet and melt-in-your-mouth tender--and I buy a box for later, along with a miniature sourdough loaf studded with walnuts.

After lunch at Helene Darroze around the corner, in the restaurant's salon (where I'm less impressed by several courses of tapas than by dessert--Armagnac-soaked baba with citrus sorbet and chestnuts from the Ardeche mountains), I stop at Christian Constant for gianduja-filled chocolates and at the shop of Jean-Charles Rochoux, protege of master chocolatier Michel Chaudun. A couple of well-coiffed ladies are cooing over his detailed chocolate sculptures--round-headed babies in various poses, a bust of Moliere, teddy bears in embrace, the Arc de Triomphe, a crocodile with its head reared and tail curled.

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