Monday, September 7, 2009

l'Etoile d'Or, Paris

Events of Saturday, August 29, 2009. 12:00 PM.

I came to Denise Acabo's famous chocolate shop through a circuitous path. It started a few weeks ago when I was looking for something to do on a quiet Tokyo weekend. In past months, I've been enjoying the pleasant habit of visiting a new neighborhood for a day and exploring it as a means of recreation (and I'd like to say 'and exercise', but such visits typically involve lunch, coffee and cake, and dinner). One neighborhood I always meant to visit is northern-Tokyo's well-preserved Yanesen area, the rough triangle formed by the neighborhoods of Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi. For some reason my search on the googlez led to the blog of a Singapore chocolatier who visited the area a few months ago, and subsequently to the post where he visited Paris and this shop. I started thinking it would be the culmination of the fine-chocolate exploration I've done this year as a way to stave off after-lunch blues. And then I realized it wouldn't be that hard to spend half a day in Paris on the way to Spain, nor would it be such an imposition to book a hotel in Montmartre that would be within an easy walk of the shop. And that was it, really.

After a lovely walk around Montmartre (skies: clear and blue. temperature: 20. tourists: French and in force. Couer: Sacred.), I wandered down to the shop on the way to catch a taxi to lunch. It's within rolling distance of the Moulin Rouge, by which I mean that if you stumbled out of the cabaret and fell down, you could be in front of l'Etoile d'Or by the time you stopped rolling down the hill. I should also point out that any reports about the seediness of the area are significantly overblown - while Pigalle itself is the next street over, on a Saturday afternoon one could easily have missed that this is meant to be the red-light district of Paris.You won't miss l'Etoile - a big red awning and lots of chocolate-related paraphenalia that fairly spills out onto the street. The outside speaks to you the same way that the inside does - it's a place by and for people who really love chocolate.

Inside is fantastic, especially for people like me who hardly never visit Europe. In the same way that you may have an imaginary, perfect Parisian bistro in your mind, replete with aproned waiters, brass fixtures, red woodwork and well-worn floors, you probably have a perfect Parisian chocolate shop. And this is probably pretty close. It's a world away from the modern, minimal, jeweler-cum-art salon candy (which also appeal to me strongly).

The ceiling is high and the walls are filled with shelves and mirrors, and those shelves are packed with a happy confusion of elaborately-decorated tins, molded glass candy dishes and fancifully colored boxes, all of which are dedicated to cocoa and sugar. A medium-sized refrigerated case holds pride of place in the middle of the floor while the register is on a small table at the back. This means the experience is more interactive - there's no long display case separating you from the staff.

Nick had mentioned that there was a Japanese assistant, which is a funny touch but welcome. As a culturally-insecure American, I have a mild fear of European language snobbery. Somehow the 6 years of French 'study' never sank in much, and my Japanese is now much better than my French ever was. Thus it was one of the true pleasures of my foreign-language life, after the assistant bid me good morning in French, to say "Pardon, je ne parle pas la Francais, 実は日本語の方がいい."  She's been in Paris for 3 years, and was very knowledgable about all the merchandise - if, in fact, I understood everything she told me! It's a minor disappointment that Mme. Acabo herself wasn't in the shop that day (since everyone else who has visited here makes a big production of the excitement of meeting her), but hopefully that's a situation to be rectified on a future visit.

One of the great attractions of l'Etoile d'Or is the exclusivity. Not that it's hard to get in, but that they have products you can't get anywhere else. This includes Bernachon from Lyon (who roast and grind their own beans daily) and also Le Roux caramels (the inventor of salted caramels, in 1977. I've previously made a big deal about how these are available at Shinjuku Isetan, but I recently learned that Yoku Moku bought the brand from Le Roux for Japan. Ah well. The flavor was not significantly different.). And the selection includes many other things whose names I've forgotten. Learning those names would be an early project if I ever moved to Paris.

In the end it was a bit overwhelming. I knew I had to try les Bernachons and get some fresh caramels in flavors not available in Japan (tarte tatin), and then ask the assistant for a few recommendations. OK, and a large Bernachon tablet to bring home. But very restrained, on the whole. Thinking back, I've decided that it's cultural. In Japan, all of these chocolates would be presented as close to god, elaborately built up, wrapped, cossetted and individually polished before boxing with ice for you to take home. Here, they were not perfectly formed, still in boxes in the cases with a minimum of fanfare, picked up carefully but still dropped into a plastic bag and tied with a ribbon. It's for people who eat chocolate, where I may have been expecting more elaboration given the length of my trip!

Trying to maintain some self-respect, I didn't take notes on the individual chocolates and thus can only mention what was good enough to be in my mind over a week later. As one would hope, Bernachon's Palette d'Or was excellent; it was indeed creamy, rich and red-fruity. But the true star was the assistant's recommendation, Bernard Dufoux's Menthe Fraiche. This felt like the perfection of the after-dinner mint, and also sparked the instant thought that I had never eaten a mint chocolate before this one. I would venture to say that you, too, have never had a chocolate with fresh mint, though I hope you have, because the taste is extraordinary. As would be any visit to l'Etoile d'Or.

l'Etoile d'Or
30 rue Fontaine
01 48 74 59 55

1 comment:

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