Debauve & Gallais chocolates in traditional blue and gray boxes

Chocolate. It’s one of the reasons I love to go to Paris, and an art the French do so well. Even simple chocolates are hardly mundane as Parisian chocolatiers have the talent in turning this gift from nature into some of the most complex, mysterious, and delicious creations.

Debauve & Gallais historic façade

As mentioned in my previous post, on this trip to Paris I took a chocolate shop tour that included three well-known shops. As it turned out, two I had visited several times before, but the first stop was a new encounter for me. It was Debauve & Gallais, the oldest chocolate shop in Paris. Its beginnings go back to 1800 when chocolate was still part apothecary (chocolate for your health), part mixology, and part extravagance. Chemist Suplice Debauve, together with his nephew Antoine Gallais, also a chemist, became the chocolate purveyor to Napoleon, and later, to Louis XVIII and other royalty. The deep green lacquered façade with gold leaf décor convey a regal style and the interior’s semicircular counter, wood paneling, and loads of shelves hark back to the feel of a pharmacy.

Chocolates on display

The chocolates here are awesome—and expensive. Chocolates are perfectly arrayed across the huge, curved counter, taunting you to try. The shop’s specialty are pistoles, thin chocolate disks of varying degrees of cacao (up to 99 percent) and flavorings, such as orange, coffee, and vanilla. They are good and a good way to try a variety of flavors. Fine teas are also a specialty.          
 

Pierre Marcolini

After plying ourselves with five kinds of pistoles, we walked over to Pierre Marcolini whose sleek, minimalist shop is a stark contrast to the opulence of Debauve & Gallais. An entire wall devoted to limited, single origin bars of chocolate reflects this Belgian confectionaire’s passion in pursuing pure and sublime flavors. Our group got to taste and compare a chocolate from Brazil and one from Ecuador. Trying these types of chocolates side by side lets you pick up the distinct flavor notes. It’s worth getting a World Flavors sampler box to experience the differences for yourself.

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Beillevaire Fromagerie in Paris and its affineur, Jérome

It’s not hard to have great food experiences in Paris, and one of the fun things I did on my trip were some “Meeting the French” food tours: one for cheese, one for a boulangerie, and one for chocolate (more about the other two in another post). The visits by this company are designed to give you a “behind-the-scenes” look into how French food artisans do their craft, and for any foodie, the tours let you learn in depth and delight your taste buds.

Outside the shop

When our group climbed out of the métro and walked up rue de Bellevaire to Fromagerie Beillevaire, we couldn’t find the shop, even though we thought we were at the correct address. But a few minutes later, when the heavy metal outside door rolled up, we could smell that we were in the right place. Heaven! 

Stepping into the shop, we found ourselves surrounded by open shelves of cheese—lots of glorious cheese. The shop’s proprietor and affineur, Jérome, explained that it’s important for people to smell the cheeses and be close to them. Just one or two tastings of a cheese here will have you swooning. The cheeses are unlike any we can get in the United States. Made by small producers who start with raw milk, the cheeses deliver sublime tastes brought about by field-grazing cows and other good graces of nature.

Beillevaire cheese assortment

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Poissons d'Avril chocolate fish at Debauve & Gallais

Day 2 in Paris happened to be April Fool’s Day, or “Poisson d’Avril” (the “April Fish”), in France. While no one knows exactly why this day of pranks started, legend has it that it may have originated in France in the 16th century when King Charles XIV of France reformed the calendar. Many of the less educated, lower-class people refused to make the change leading pranksters to make fun of them by sticking paper fish on their backs. That tradition continues today, often by school children. When a person discovers a fish on their back they are declared a “Poisson d’Avril.” Adding to the fun, the city’s chocolatiers and pâtisseries get into the act with chocolates and pastries in the form of fish. The photo at the top are chocolate fish at Debauve & Gallais (30 Rue Saints Pères 75007 and other locations), and below, fish in the window at Patrick Roger (108 boulevard Saint-Germain 75006 and other locations).

Poissons d'Avril chocolate fish at Patrick Roger

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Notre Dame

I’ve been behind on posting, but for a good reason: I was in Paris last week as part of a small group without a minute to spare for writing. I had never been to Paris in April, and it truly is a nice time to go. The city was finally putting its unusually cold winter behind and welcoming warm breezes and blossoming trees. On the days with temps that climbed into the 70s, Parisians spilled out into the streets bien soginé with renewed energy. It was fun to take it all in.

On Day 1, after a long flight, a leisurely lunch was in order followed by a simple agenda: strolling the city’s two islands, Île St-Louis and Île de la Cité. The fabulous cheese shop on Île St-Louis was a highlight.

Cheeses on Île St-Louis

Heading back to our hotel, a group of school kids decked out in costumes caught everyone’s attention.

School kids in costume

L'Avant Comptoir

We capped the night at the super-popular but tiny L’Avant Comptoir wine bar that holds all of about 12 people. We drank artisanal red wine and nibbled on small plates of smooth brandade, ham croquettes, beef-cheek croque monsieur, riz de langue oiseau, and pâté de campagne. L’Avant Comptoir also has an excellent selection of charcuterie. Maybe the best part of our tastings was the great, crusty petits pains served hot from the oven in big baskets. I spotted a few being tucked into pockets to take back to the hotel. 

Fresh rolls at L'Avant Comptoir

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Writer-pastry chef David Lebovitz signing his books

It’s nice to meet a writer in person whose work you admire and read. So late this afternoon I was thrilled to meet David Lebovitz, downtown at Hotel Allegro, the writer behind his wildly popular blog davidlebovitz.com about “the sweet life” in Paris and author of several books on dessert. He is also author of The Sweet Life in Paris that recounts his move from pastry chef at Chez Panisse to living in Paris, which I brought from home to have him sign. In an ironic twist of fate, here I’m having a brief chat with David about what he likes about Chicago (loves the Apple store, Garrett’s popcorn, and the friendliness of Chicagoans), while in a short amount of time I will be in Paris trying out many of David’s bonnes addresses at the back of the book and from his blog. It is a small world.

Ready for Dessert book

In a not very organized fashion, I then wandered off to look at David’s other books for sale, including Ready for Dessert, My Best Recipes. With his two earlier books (Room for Dessert and Ripe for Dessert) now out of print, Ready for Dessert presents updated versions of many of those recipes with some new ones added in.

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Rootstock's mushroom tart with poached quail egg

Chicagoans have had enough of winter. Even though March has hit it’s hardly been the weather to stroll through the park or ride your bike. In fact, the past week was one to throw on a scarf, turn up your collar, and find a cozy place for a glass of wine. So last Wednesday when one friend had to cancel dinner plans but another called with an invitation to go to Rootstock, I was asking “what time?” before my boots were zipped.

Votive in a jar

Rootstock opened over a year ago by three ambitious partners, all former employees of Webster Wine Bar. Their small wine bar in Humboldt Park has a simple but sophisticated sensibility of neutral tones with a mix of small tables and big, dark wood communal ones combined with all kinds of chairs. The walls are absent glaring TV monitors and instead feature works by local artists that change periodically. And I love the clever touches like placing glowing votives atop jars filled with corks in the front windows. 
 
But, of course, it’s the youthful trio’s savvy wine list, more than 30 kinds of beer, and impressive menu that is Rootstock’s biggest draw. They are also devoted to using seasonal, local produce, and hormone-free meats. After the departure of Rootstock’s first chef, the quality and creativity of what comes out of the kitchen hasn’t missed a beat. Executive chef Duncan Biddulph does an excellent job of offering up small plates with big flavors. He delivers bar plates the likes of whitefish brandade with chili and olive oil and a gussied up version of chicken wings from Gunthorp Farm, smoked and fried, with ham and celeriac remoulade. My friend and I had the fabulous hedgehog mushroom tart with fresh ricotta, dandelion greens, leek ash, all topped with a poached quail egg, pictured at the top of this post. We enjoyed a refreshing Spanish cava with it.

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My biweekly Snug Haven Farm spinach delivery

With so many great supermarkets and food shops in Chicago I never imagined getting produce through the mail, but every two weeks during the cold months this box arrives by US Priority Mail from Snug Haven Farm in Belleville, Wisconsin, located in the south-central part of the state. It contains a 1-pound bag of the best spinach I’ve tasted. It’s sweet and toothsome when sautéed. A huge bonus is that the spinach comes cut, washed, and ready to eat.

I came across Snug Haven’s spinach about four years ago at the indoor Green City Market, which starts in November of every year, and liked it—a lot. This spinach only becomes available in late fall because proprietors Bill Warner and Judy Hageman grow their spinach during the winter months in giant hoop houses. By using a process of letting the spinach freeze and thaw, they bring out the best in its taste. The more the spinach freezes and thaws, the higher the sugar content. Also, in the winter months, spinach grows slower and thus sweeter and thicker than summer varieties.

Freshly washed and cut spinach

During November and December at the indoor Green City Market at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Bill Warner eagerly proffers leaves of his “frost-sweetened” winter spinach for prospective customers to taste. But if raw spinach in the morning doesn’t appeal to you (I have scones or croissants on my mind at that hour), try a $5 bag to sample later at home. The first time I came across Snug Haven’s spinach at the market I was taken aback by the (now) $11 per pound price, even though I recognize that small-scale farming has higher costs. I nevertheless bought a bag to try, but didn’t think I would pay that much for spinach in the future. But four years later, I am. The spinach is just that outstanding, and to me, worth the extravagance.

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Vie

27 February 2011 · 0 comments

Dietzler Farm beef combination dish at Vie

With so many restaurants in Chicago there’s little reason to leave the city to dine elsewhere. One exception, however, is Vie, chef Paul Virant’s sleek standout in Western Springs that has become a destination for exceptional dining and whose cuisine was awarded a prestigious Michelin star last November. More than six years after its opening, the occasion that finally brought me, my two sisters, and father to Vie was the celebration of my mother’s 75th birthday. By chance our plans fell during Chicago Restaurant Week, now in its fourth year, which happily gave us a win-win opportunity to try a number of dishes at an affordable price through the prix-fixe, four-course menu for $44. 

It being Restaurant Week as well as a Saturday night, Vie was buzzing—exactly what restaurants and customers welcome in the middle of dreary February in Chicago when there isn’t much incentive to venture out. But I can tell you Vie is worth the trip, and my first impressions were a welcome surprise. A far cry from many suburban restaurants, Vie’s interior combines elegance in its blue-gray tones with contemporary styling, but steers clear from being stuffy or aloof. It’s easy to leave your daily life at the door, for here you step into another world.

Having honed his skills at some of Chicago’s top restaurants including Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, Everest, and Blackbird, Virant deftly turns seasonal ingredients from local farmers and artisans into exceptionally composed dishes. It was an awesome evening to sit back, relax, and let dinner unfold on auto-pilot as well-trained wait staff expertly paced the meal.

Herb gnocchi with mushrooms

For this particular evening’s menu my first course selection was a plate of crispy herb Parisienne gnocchi with parsnips and mushrooms showered with Prairie Fruits Farm Kaskaskia cheese and settled in a wonderful sauce. Others at the table gave the other appetizer, seared diver sea scallops with sunchoke purée, smoked apple butter, and fried sunchokes, high marks. (Unfortunately, I forgot to snap of photo of that dish.) When I return to Vie, I might well make a meal of a few appetizers alone for the way Virant ever so creatively combines mundane and unusual ingredients.

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The Cubano at Cafecito

20 February 2011 · 0 comments

The Cubano sandwich at Cafecito

It’s always a nice idea to grab dinner before a show. But in reality fitting a proper meal in what usually is a short amount of time tends to be a scramble, especially when doing so after work and on a week night. So when another couple and I decided on meeting at Cafecito near the Auditorium Theatre before the opening night of the Joffrey Ballet’s Merry Widow, we thought we had nailed down a good plan. This Cuban café is conveniently located one block west of the theatre, purportedly serves the city’s best Cubano sandwich, and is a simple ordeal of ordering at the counter and finding a seat to eat.

But even the best-laid plans can go awry. On the day of the performance, my friend unfortunately got sick, and both she and her husband had to cancel. With my curiosity piqued about trying a Cubano, I decided to forge ahead with original plans and dine solo. Situated on the east end the contemporary, street-level Hostelling International Chicago building at the corner of Congress and Wabash, Cafecito sports ‘50s-ish seating along with a dash of Cuban décor and great Latin music. A steady stream of travelers from the hostel next door and Columbia’s South Loop campus gives the place a young vibe.

Just about every food publication in Chicago has given Cafecito’s Cubano sandwich rave reviews. This visit being my first taste of a Cubano, I didn’t have any comparison to others around the city, but I found it to be very good. I like sandwiches with a mix of flavors, and the Cubano delivers on that count. Cafecito’s Cubano combines a hearty amount of high-quality Virginia ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese, sliced dill pickles, and yellow mustard between two well-toasted and pressed slices of Chicago’s Gonnella French bread. Every sandwich is made to order, and is delivered hot, oozy, and well wrapped in white butcher paper. The essence of this sandwich’s success lies in the restaurant’s secret mojo marinade (includes citrus, garlic, cumin) for the pork shoulder that is roasted in house. Several housemade side salads are offered, and the marinated artichoke and red pepper salad was a simpatico match to the Cubano.

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Flour Cake and Pastry's confection display

For me, Valentine’s Day without chocolate is inconceivable. So, yesterday, instead of shopping at one of my usual chocolate shops, I decided to visit the special, two-day Valentine’s pastry market at the Logan Square Kitchen, held both Saturday and Sunday, featuring local Chicago, small-batch artisans. Lacking the capital needed to build a commercial kitchen, many food entrepreneurs get their start by renting time at a shared-use kitchen, such as the three-year-old Logan Square Kitchen. These are small businesses that operate mostly through their online presence, at local markets, directly to hotels and restaurants, and through other retailers. Over time, they branch out on their own.

Tinycake's Valentine's display

After parking my car and navigating around huge piles of old, melting snow, it was a nice welcome to walk into LSK where Valentine’s Day cheeriness reigned. No shortage of red or chocolate here. More than dozen vendors were selling their goods. Most of the selections were pastry and chocolate, but there was some savory, too. The long, narrow space was crowded, and between that and juggling a shopping bag, purse, and camera, I wasn’t able to snap a ton of photos, but I did catch a few highlights and brought home plenty of sweets.

Fritz Pastry ricotta beignets

At one end of the long, narrow space, I couldn’t pass up the ricotta beignets from Fritz Pastry served with Rare Bird passion fruit preserve. They were as good as they look in the photo at left. I strolled past the freshly brewing Ipsento Coffee and beautiful line of Rare Bird jams to search for my chocolate requirement. A taste of Nice Cream’s luxurious Spicy Chocolate ice cream lived up to its name, sending an intense salvo of cinnamon and cayenne.

Assorted sweets

But for something easier to take home, I opted for a selection of treats, shown in the picture at left. From the top, clockwise: Flour Cake and Pastry’s blueberry crumble, Tinycakes’s chocolate chip brownies, a dark chocolate caramel and hazelnut mini tart from Celestial KitchensMayana Chocolate’s spin on the Twix bar, and in the center, Celestial’s heart pastry filled with raspberries.

The shopping was fun, especially with being able to meet the people behind their products. Lots of passion and love was definitely in the air.

Logan Square Kitchen
2333 North Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60647
Tel 773.342.2333
www.logansquarekitchen.com

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