Addendum 2014: A revised version of this post appeared in my book released in September 2013.
People come to Paris for many reasons: art, food, fashion. I’m here for the chocolat chaud, or hot chocolate. Served in almost all cafés, it ranges from the exalted to the divine. Paris is the mothership of all hot chocolates, and I’ve come to pay worship to it, my favorite drink.
On the flight over, I cull all the research that I’ve amassed on where to partake of this holy grail of liquid, complete with maps and directions. By the time the plane lands, I’m ready to set off for a sip of magnificence. I’m a chocolate-hound hot on the trail of the ultimate hot chocolate experience.
Lest you think otherwise, French hot chocolate is not some insipid drink of milk whisked with cocoa powder. What it is is melted chocolate – chocolate of the best kind – beaten with cream or milk or both. Cubes of sugar are served alongside, sometimes with a little bowl of crème, and a pitcher of cold carafe d’eau (water), an acknowledgment that the chocolat chaud is so thick it needs a chaser to follow it down.
Founded by the godfather of French pastry, Gaston Lenôtre, this remarkable temple of gastronomy on Champs-Élysées is a pastry school, a retail store, and a café that simultaneously blends snoot and haute cuisine. Its poshy address coupled with its lineage can only equal service by the snobbiest and lest we forget, expensive, pay-through-the-nose service.
The server we are unfortunate enough to be assigned to recoils at my request that the quiche Lorraine, the macaroons, and the chocolat chaud that I’ve ordered be served all together. ”Non, meal first and then dessert,” she says firmly, her head bobbing once, as if for emphasis. I’m stunned into silence and the fear that overwhelms a tourist – why, have I done anything wrong? Might I have offended her, perhaps? – washes over me, but my sister, who lives in Paris, comes to my rescue. In French, she tells the server that yes, we’d like all the food to be served together, s’il vous plait. The waitress grumbles off and from then on we are served by a dramatically less uptight m’sieur. I tell you now that service in France borders on the cold and impersonal, so don’t take it personally, it’s just how it is.
As we are seated outside on the terrasse, Lenôtre’s chocolat chaud glistens in the sunlight. It’s hot and milky, its surface immediately forming a skin in the cold air. I drop two sugar cubes into the liquid which slowly gurgle down into the chocolate-y depths, leaving behind only a spew of soft bubbles. Somehow, this hot chocolate reminds me of the one served at Dulcinea, although it’s not as thick. Served in a white ceramic pitcher, it’s good enough for a cup and a half.
As for the food, perhaps my initial impression of French service dampens my enthusiasm for it. The quiche Lorraine, while sizable enough, is quite ordinary, though I’m all praises for its flaky crust. The macaroons are good, each one sandwiching different Lenôtre’s own brand of soft scoop sorbets.
Café de Flore
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is my absolute favorite area of Paris. Once the hub of the city’s intellectual life, it’s become a most lively place where different personalities mix, all coming together in the celebrated bars and cafés. This area could be considered Paris’ hot chocolate central, with most Parisians in agreement as to its temple: Café de Flore.
It’s here where the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Picasso would come and sit to imbibe the ambience and their espressos. The dining room of the Flore is smoky, its Deco lighting casting various illuminations on the buff-colored walls that alternate with the warm woodwork. Customers sit on red moleskin banquettes and upstairs, the conference room is still reserved for ever-so-intellectual musings of the day.
But on this beautiful day, I’m outside amidst the throng of Parisians sitting at the tables facing out onto the street. It’s very sunny, a reprieve from the autumn cold. A waiter appears in the classic black vest and pants into which is tucked a crisp white shirt topped off with a perky black bow tie. Spotless, long white aprons tied neatly at the servers’ back only serve to emphasize the grandeur and importance of this café. I feel like I should have dressed up in more than just my jeans and sweater.
The chocolat chaud is highlighted at the very top of the menu, the few words boxed in by a rectangle. I feel truly special when it comes all set up with its accoutrements on a silver tray: cup, saucer, napkin, sachet of sugar, pitcher, and glass all bearing the name ‘Café de Flore’ in cursive. Little tufts of steam are rising up from the cup, emitting wondrous aromas.
I take a sip. The liquid is a notch below searing but I like all my hot drinks that way. As it courses through my tongue and down my throat, I start to tingle all over, the one sure sign that this may be THE hot chocolate I’ve been waiting all my life to drink. It’s not too thick – this is a beverage after all, not pudding – and it has the complexity and evolution of mouth-feel and flavor, ranging from the smoky to the fruity. There are various pronouncements being made in this cup but the overall flavor is a deep heart of chocolate caressed by milk and a touch of caramel. God bless, take me now.
You must understand that when imbibing a truly magnificent cup of chocolat chaud, time stops still for me. Time is only measured by the beats of my heart, alternately excited and then relaxed with every sip. Savoring this drink is of the essence, and later, as I pay my bill and walk away, the flavor of the best hot chocolate in the world still lingers with me.
Every discussion of hot chocolate in Paris begins and ends with Angelina. It’s the first place people mention when the sacred subject of chocolat chaud is brought up, sending most hot chocophiles into a state of poetic frenzy. The café/tea room is considered a grand dame, having been opened way back in 1903 by a certain Antoine Rumpelmayer who named the café after his daughter-in-law. Stories abound of tourists who have waited in line for hours just for a sip of the café’s trademark beverage, only to be put off by the staff’s uppity demeanor. So it’s with that knowledge that I go to Angelina with some trepidation, along with my sister, Charley, and my Bin. It’s 11 am, and there is neither a line nor waitresses any snootier than I’m already used to. The place is in fact, quite empty and we are served almost immediately.
I catch sight of some wondrous-looking bowls of pasta and there are some marvelous pastries up front but the star is the Chocolat Africain, which gets its name from the origin of its cacao beans — the Cote d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast, a former French protectorate. I can only describe the potent brew being poured into my porcelain cup as deliquescent: bits of half-melted chocolate are suspended in the thick liquid; it possesses a wild and sexy bitterness with aromatic undertones of flowers and smoke. I can feel my eyes roll into the back of my head — Charley, my Bin and I, hush into a silence wherein we each have our own individual moment to savor, our senses stroked, our palates pleased.
There is a white chocolate version of the Chocolat Africain, served alongside a ramekin piped high with whipped cream that’s been gently kissed with chocolate. It too, is ineffably divine, an elegant mélange of vanilla, caramel, sugar, and cream.
This high-class pastry store and <I>salon de thé</I> was founded in 1862. It’s listed in every Paris guidebook, which may partly explain why it’s always so full at every hour of the day. Its display windows are elaborate, intricate works of art usually involving macaroons, of which Ladurée is renowned. The Champs Élysées branch is a regal two-storey structure with Victorian décor and ornamented ceilings. It’s exactly the way I always thought a tea room would look like – hushed and elegant.
My sister, Charley, gushes about the pastries here: “They’re the BEST I’ve ever tried in the world, Lor,” she says. I believe her, since she’s almost as dessert-obsessed as I am. <I>(See, it runs in the family).</I> Of particular mention here are the <I>millefeuilles</I>, a “thousand sheets” of pastry that shatter resoundingly upon first bite, thereby oozing fresh cream and caramel into one’s mouth. It’s as sensual as a French kiss, if you can believe that.
I have something called the plaisirs sucrés: layers of almond meringue flirting with crushed hazelnuts and praline, mingling with thin chocolate leaves, embraced by chantilly cream, and milk chocolate. It tastes like one big Ferrero Rocher, but the effect is outstanding: layers of crunchy, smooth, and sweet taking me on a taste trip that goes round and round and then levels off in one big, swooping arc. I’m spent.
The hot chocolate seems almost an afterthought here, after being so spent on sugar. But it’s why I’m here and I’m not about to fail my mission. The three basic elements of hot chocolate – chocolate, liquid, sugar – are not immutable, and Ladurée plays that up with much success. Sticking to the basics, their <I>chocolat chaud</I> is an unceasing chocolate experience. Thick and frothed into submission, I peer into the depths of the steel pitcher at the darkness within: I can almost imagine waves of cream billowing underneath unfolding against a dark sky of the best chocolate.
Ladurée’s hot chocolate takes no prisoners. From first sip, it grabs me, catapulting me into an undulating crescendo of earthy, mysterious, fruity notes growing in intensity with each swallow: mystery follows sweet follows heat. The flavors leap playfully in my mouth and in my mind, only ceasing when I take a sip of water in surrender.
On Thursday: The Marais.