Monday, August 8, 2011

Why the French Don't Suck: Patisseries, Bakeries, and Boulangeries

The two things I did a lot of in Paris: sightseeing and eating pastries

In the first episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain set out to prove his thesis of "why the French don't suck." In support of Bourdain's thesis, one need look no further than the myriad patisseries, bakeries, and boulangeries dispersed all throughout the City of Light. While most people generally associate the French with fine dining and opulent, grandiose cuisine, my short stay in Paris has led me to believe that perhaps what sets the French apart from the rest of the world is not in their fine dining and skill in preparing "regular food" (read: food that you would eat for a meal) but rather in their ability to bake breads and pastries. During a whirlwind three-day trip to Paris last weekend where each day began by 7:00 am and lasted until well past 1:00 am, I still found the time to fit in stops at several of Paris' finest patisseries, bakeries, and boulangeries to sample some of the best breads, vienoinoiseries, and pastries that I have ever eaten. What follows is an overview of the places that I went to in my quest to sample some of the best Paris has to offer and to ingest enough butter in three days to necessitate an angioplasty.

Now of course, as an American, my point of reference for croissants and Paris-Brests is admittedly not of the highest quality, and it's likely that even the most mediocre pain au chocolat in Paris trumps what you would find in 90% of bakeries in the US. Sure, I've had a good experience with a French bakery, but for the most part, the US is devoid of very many places where you can find anything comparable with regards to quality. But all the same, trust me: these baked goods were off the hook and are the standard bearers for what all bakeries should aspire for. And to think that Paul, which had probably been my best patisserie experience prior to coming to Paris, doesn't come anywhere close to matching the quality of what these bakeries produce. Before I begin, a hat tip to this guy for providing me with a good resource and primer on which places I should hit up (and major respect for him, too, because the amount of eating he pulled off on his visit to Paris is absolutely ludicrous; what a champ). Also, thanks to Robyn for some useful tips and suggestions. Be forewarned, this is a pretty long post and there are lots of pictures. You could always skip my text and instead just gawk at all of the food porn, but then, that would mean that I'm just wasting my time writing all of this, so please, don't make me feel like I'm wasting my time haha.

Croissant aux Amandes

With a visit to The Louvre scheduled for my first full day in Paris and feeling the carryover hunger from a rather disappointing and unfulfilling dinner from the previous night (the subject of my next entry), I paid a visit to Paris' most famous patisserie: Ladurée. After making my purchase, I walked over to The Louvre and ate my breakfast seated beside a fountain in the famous Cour Napoléon overlooking the museum and its enormous glass pyramid. My (admittedly large) purchase consisted of a Croissant aux Amandes ($2), a Canelé ($4), a St. Honoré ($8), and six macarons ($14). The best way to describe Ladurée's Croissant aux Amandes is to say that it is the foil to a plain croissant in the same way that a glazed doughnut is to a plain doughnut, except that there is a blob of frangipane inserted into the almond croissant. Tasty without any hint of sogginess, this was a very nice and light version of the almond croissant.


St. Honoré

The Canelé was a bit spongy and soft, but flavor-wise was fine. My first ever St. Honoré was, simply put, delicious. Basically a round of choux pastry topped with a layer of caramelized sugar, almond custard cream, ultra-light pastry cream, and small Munchkin-like orbs of more caramelized sugar-covered choux, this was more like a dessert item than something that you'd eat for breakfast, but surprisingly, it wasn't too sweet. Even though I am not someone who really likes whipped cream or frosting on most desserts, I happily polished off the entire mountain of pastry cream in this St. Honoré. It's a mess to eat, and your face will undoubtedly get covered with cream (cue the crude jokes), but it really is a delicious mess of a treat.

Clockwise from top left: Raspberry, Coffee, Strawberry Mint, Pistachio, Fluer de Sel Caramel, Bittersweet Chocolate

As for the macarons, I tried Raspberry, Coffee, Strawberry Mint, Bittersweet Chocolate, Fleur de Sel Caramel, and Pistachio. Texture-wise, these were a bit more crisp than I remembered Pierre Hermé's as being, and their flavors were quite bold and straightforward. It's hard to choose between Pierre Hermé and Ladurée, but if you're looking for the traditional flavors, Ladurée may be your best bet.

Pain au Chocolat


Between The Louvre, Opéra Garnier, and a couple of other stops that afternoon, I didn't have the time to stop by another patisserie on Friday, so I picked things up again on Saturday morning prior to checking out Notre-Dame Cathedral and Sainte-Chapelle with a visit to Jean-Noël Julien. Walking in just as the doors opened, I walked out with a warm Pain au Chocolat ($2), Croissant ($1.25), and a chocolate chip-studded bread ($1) that I don't know the name of. All three were fresh and delicious, with the Croissant and Pain au Chocolat exhibiting perfectly crisp exteriors that yielded to airy layers of innards that proved to be the best versions of each from my three days in Paris.

Mille Feuille

As an afternoon snack, I dropped by the Pierre Hermé on Rue Bonaparte. If Ladurée is the New York Yankees of the French pastry world, then Pierre Hermé is the Boston Red Sox; the rival big-name, world-renowned pastry shop. Having sampled some of Pierre Hermé's famous macarons from the London location just a couple of weeks ago, I decided to forego the macarons in favor of a Mille Feuille ($9.80). Basically a classier (and more expensive) version of the Napoleon that is sold at seemingly every Chinese bakery, this Mille Feuille is basically layers of caramelized puff pastry sandwiching hazelnut-studded chocolate cream, praline cream, and hazelnut cream. Quite a mess to eat, but a true standout. Who needs macarons when you can have one of these? Seriously, given the choice between a couple of macarons or a pastry like a St. Honoré or a Mille Feuille, I'd take the pastry every time, though I'm probably in the minority who feel that way.


For my last day in Paris, I planned to make daytime visits to the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, having visited both in the evening hours. Waking up bright and early on a Sunday morning could have been problematic since it seemed like many patisseries and boulangeries were either closed or opened later on Sundays, but thankfully, the well-regarded Arnaud Delmontel boulangerie and patisserie is open early even on Sundays, and conveniently enough, there was one location just a couple of blocks away from my hostel. Arriving once again to a just-opened bakery and greeted with warm baked goods, I walked out with a Pain au Chocolat ($2), a Croissant aux Amandes ($2), and a baguette ($2). Their award-winning baguette was perfect: a crisp, light crust with an airy, pocket-filled interior. Don't worry, I'm not fat enough to eat a whole baguette in one sitting along with a bunch of other pastries; I only ate half of it. See, self-control.

Croissant aux Amandes

The gigantic Croissant aux Amandes was a bit sweeter and much more dense than Ladurée's, though I really enjoyed the fantastic outer layer covering the top, as it was entirely reminiscent of the topping you would find on a Chinese Bo Lo Bao (pineapple bun). I think I preferred this version of the Croissant aux Amandes, namely because it was so much more dessert-like and luxurious.

Pain au Chocolat

The Pain au Chocolat was right up there with Julien's in terms of sheer amazingness, though I think Julien's benefited from being a bit warmer at the time of consumption.


After checking out the Arc de Triomphe and snapping a few pictures, I walked over to La Pâtisserie des Rêves for my second breakfast of the morning. I haven't stepped on a scale for seven weeks, so if I've gained five or ten pounds, now you know why. What can I say, I'm a fatass. Mesmerized a bit by the ultra-modern boutique where the large glass domes covering the pastries are suspended from the ceilings, I came away with two pastries and an enormous Madeleine. The Madeleine ($2) reminded me a bit of a lemon-flavored cornbread or muffin; good, but nothing particularly interesting or revelatory.


On the other hand, the two pastries that I got were indeed revelatory. The first pastry was a Paris-Brest ($9), a circle-shaped ring of praline cream-filled choux pastry that was initially created to commemorate a 1200 km bike race, hence its bicycle wheel shape. Given the choice between a Powerbar and a cream-filled ring of pastry as a source of fuel during a bike race, 99 out of 100 bikers prefer the pastry. Fact.** La Pâtisserie des Rêves mixes things up a bit by using six smaller rounds of pastry connected to one another instead of one big circle, so you essentially end up with six baby hazelnut cream puffs. And as if the hazelnut cream wasn't delicious enough on its own, it actually comes studded with hazelnut pieces and a chocolate-like center.

St. Honoré

La Pâtisserie des Rêves' Paris-Brest would have been my favorite pastry from Paris if not for...the other pastry I got from La Pâtisserie des Rêves. The St. Honoré ($9), every bit as appealing to the taste buds as to the eyes, was constructed in a vastly different manner from the one I had had at Ladurée or had seen at the other patisseries. Sheets of puff pastry on the bottom were topped with two vanilla custard-filled choux pastry tubes -- basically, two eclairs -- which were subsequently topped with either Chantilly cream or with caramelized sugar-coated orbs of choux pastry containing still more vanilla custard. Oh. My. God. This was an unbelievable pastry, and it was very likely the single best food I ate during my three days in Paris.

In three days, I managed to make it to five patisseries/bakeries/boulangeries. Certainly not good for the wallet (the pastries are mind-bogglingly expensive) or my heart (enough butter was consumed to make Paula Deen blush), but they were a worthwhile splurge for a vacation. Don't get me wrong, I had some pretty delicious "real food" while in Paris as well, but it's the viennoiseries and pastries that will linger in my dreams for a while. I don't know when will be the next time that I will be back in Paris, but I'm certain that I will be looking forward to eating many more pastries and croissants again whenever I do come back. Given how the French can produce such high-quality baked goods and pastries that are so vastly superior to anything that you'd find in the US, I think that it's fairly safe to say that Anthony Bourdain's got a point; the French really don't suck, and we should all eat copious amounts of butter-laced pastries and croissants to honor them.

I only have the total amount I spent at each bakery and do not have the receipts with the price of each individual baked good, so the prices listed are just my rough estimates
** Okay, maybe not, but I know I would. Maybe that's why I'm not a competitive biker.

21 Rue Bonaparte
75006 Paris

Jean-Noël Julien
24 Rue Saint-Martin
75004 Paris

Pierre Hermé
72 Rue Bonaparte
75006 Paris

Arnaud Delmontel
39 Rue des Martyrs
75009 Paris

La Pâtisserie des Rêves
111 Rue de Longchamp
75016 Paris


  1. Awesome post! You made very good use of your three-day stay. :D Even if I can get some of those pastries in NYC, it ain't the same...I'd rather just wait until I go back to Paris. I hope that's soon.

  2. kind of surprised you didn't try a straight up eclair anywhere. Nice roundup though. I'm curious about the prices, rough USD estimates if you could.

  3. @Robyn: Thanks! You're right about the pastries not being the same here in NYC...but that won't stop me from checking out the new Ladurée that's opening up on Madison Ave. next week.

    @Rodzilla: Yeah, I guess I really should have tried a basic éclair. Too many choices and not enough time. I've added rough USD estimates for everything, though the prices are a bit scary to look at haha

  4. wow wow wow
    very inclusive except for missing out on the eclair and a few others
    Paris is impossible to cover in that respect
    Love the closeup shots
    I want to paint them all...sign