Sunday, 29 April 2012

Gyōza Bar (by Passage 53), Paris

When a Michelin-starred chef launches a second restaurant, there’s always going to be a buzz about. When a multi-starred chef opens a second, the jungle drums really start to beat.


I imagine then, that Parisian tongues started to wag when at the start of 2012, chef Shinichi Sato and Guillaume Guedj of Passage 53 (see here) opened another eatery next door but two at No.56 - and what thoughts when they discovered it would not be another gastronomic temple of haute cuisine, but a humble gyōza bar?


Originally hailing from Hokkaido, Sato loves gyōzas and is a well renowned master ‘gyōzier’ (my word for it). With his ambition achieved to become the first Japanese chef in France to be awarded two Michelin stars, he has realised another dream with Gyōza Bar.


Having been built in 1799, Passage des Panoramas is well known to sightseers as ‘the oldest covered walkway in Paris’. Over the centuries it has undoubtedly seen many diverse comings and goings, but in amongst what are mainly touristy bistros, Gyōza Bar adds an authentic taste of Japan, served up in décor that adds splash of industrial New York-esque chic.


There are twelve counter seats where diners can choose to order either 8 gyōzas for €6 or 12 ‘pièces’ for €8 – naturally, I selected 12 – oh, and another 8 to take away (well, they were the best gyōza’s I’ve ever had!) Judging by the queue building up outside before they opened, they seemed to be getting a few other seals of approval.


For anyone not familiar with gyōzas, they are a type of dumpling that can be boiled, steamed or fried. Usual fillings include meat, seafood and ‘yasai’ (vegetables); commonly cabbage, negi (leek) and garlic chives. Japanese gyōzas are typically more garlicky than their Chinese ancestors, the ‘pot sticker’ (which should be good for the French palate.)
  

At Gyōza Bar there is only one variety available – filled with Hugo Desnoyer’s prime pork loin, leek, garlic and ginger. At Gyōza Bar the dumplings are prepared using the pan-fried method called ‘yaki-gyōza’.



The ‘yaki-gyōza’ method involves them first being fried on one side, creating a crispy skin that adds flavour and texture. Water is then added and the pan lid sealed for the upper part of the gyōza to be steamed.


Sato’s gyōzas are served with a ‘ponzu shōyu’ made with soy, lemon and grapefruit (pamplemousse) – not my favourite dipping sauce*, but tasty nonetheless. (*I like sauces made with the Japanese chilli oil, ‘rāyu’.)


Also on the menu: a good quality sticky ‘riz’ (rice), sesame marinated bean sprouts and a simple drinks menu of just five options: Japanese ‘bière’ (Yebisu or Kirin), Coca Cola, Tea (oolong or green), water or, being France, Champagne Bollinger.


A fab little place – when in Paris, check out the covered walkways and wherever you plan to eat, save a little room and stop by in Passage des Panoramas for some of the best gyōzas you may ever get a chance to try – or if you are less greedy then me, I suppose you could just about make a meal of it?



Friday, 27 April 2012

Passage 53, Paris

When researching which restaurants I wanted to eat at in Paris I took a great deal into consideration. One of the reasons for choosing Passage 53 (aside from the two Michelin stars) was its historic location in the ‘Passage des Panoramas’ - the oldest covered walkway in Paris.


As one of the first commercial passageways in the world to have a glazed and then gas lit roof it’s considered the forerunner to twentieth century shopping malls. Strolling around the passageways before and after our meal was a real treat – a great spot for people watching.


Hailing from Hokkaido in 2000, chef Shinichi Sato arrived in France to learn how to cook French cuisine. He soon landed a job with Pascal Barbot at L'Astrance (a restaurant that now has three Michelin stars and has been in the top 25 of the S.Pellegrino list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants for the last six years).


Over the next few years, Sato continued his education by training in upwards of ten other two and three star restaurants around France. During this time he also spent a season at Mugaritz, dubbed ‘the Spanish Astrance’ at the time.


His talents were soon spotted by the influential* Parisian Desnoyer family (see here), asking him in 2009 to head up the tiny Passage 53 restaurant, tucked away in the Passage des Panoramas (*In 2010, Hugo Desnoyer became the first French butcher or ‘boucher’ to feature in ‘Who's who?’)

This faith was soon repaid, when six months after opening, with the wonderful Desnoyer produce (and vegetables from Joël Thiébault) at his disposal, Shinichi’s cooking was awarded its first Michelin star. The following year, a second star was bestowed – making Sato the first Japanese chef in France to be awarded 2 Stars by Michelin.


Taking our seats in the intimate dining room, my one criticism of the restaurant would be the low chairs, as a six-footer I started to get the tingle of pins and needles after just a few courses. I loved the tiled floor, and rustic exposed beams hinting at the building’s age.


A pop of colour was provided by Marc Chagall’s dream inspired illustrations on Bernardaud’s fine Limoges porcelain – mine depicted ‘Double Face Blue and Yellow’ my wife’s portrayed ‘Painter with Palette’.

We opted for the €110 degustation – every dish was perfect: perfectly cooked, perfectly seasoned, perfect balanced, perfectly executed, perfectly composed, perfectly presented:


The amuse bouche consisted of a fresh, vibrant Broccoli Velouté, crowned with tiny broccoli florets – perfection.


The bread served was a flavoursome ‘country style’ sourdough with two Bordier butters: one salted butter and a chilli spiced version. I took a shine to the Stephane Rambaud deigned Forge de Laguiole horn handle butter knife (now on my Christmas list).



After the amuse, an optional ‘Caviar’ course was offered; at €30 a head extra, my wife and I decided to share one.  Simply presented under a glass domed cloche with fine Capellini potatoes (an Italian term meaning ‘thin hair’ that is usually applied to a spaghetti-like pasta with a diameter between 0.85 mm and 0.92 mm), the fine French caviar was truly divine – making me wish I had bought the caviar spoons that I saw in Fauchon the previous day.


It was difficult to know how the caviar was going to be topped but the chef pulled it out of the bag with an exceptional Veal Tartrate with chopped Gillardeau oysters. Paired with an oyster foam, wafer thin slices of radish, iced cucumber and an apple jelly, this dish was truly exceptional – I’d go as far as to say the best plate of food I had throughout my entire Paris trip.


Simply and for obvious reasons, entitled 'The White Course' was another pièce de résistance – a delicious cauliflower crème and perfectly cooked squid, capped with confetti of paper-thin cauliflower.


After three extraordinary dishes, even with two stars I was expecting a weaker one to come along eventually… the White Asparagus dish was not it! Another course starring crème de la crème seasonal produce – the asparagus had been draped in translucent slices of pata negra ham fat and accompanied by nasturtiums and a suitably subtle Parmesan cream with delicate laced tuiles.


Premium ingredient, after premium ingredient, the next to grace our plates was a wonderful piece of Turbot. Dressed with pea foam, white and violet flowers and accompanied by broad beans, morels, shimeji mushrooms, baby turnip with the textural crunch of spelt grains – this dish was another masterpiece.



Bowling us over once again, the next fish featured Duck Foie Gras with a rhubarb 'soup' and strawberry compote – unimaginably beautiful flavours in perfect synergy.


With Hugo Desnoyer’s son-in-law Guillaume Guedj as owner, restaurant manager and maitre-d, the meat dishes were always destined to be outstanding. The Sucking Pig with its smoky gammon flavour certainly lived up to all expectations.


Looking at the picture, you'd never know that underneath the white herb sauce, salad leaves and pea shoots lay concealed perfectly cooked pieces of French bean, mange tout, cabbage, carrot, turnip, shallot and green radish.



The Lamb dish that followed was equally creative and tasty.  The lamb itself was sublime – served with clams and artichoke and then artistically garnished at the table with vibrant dill polka dots.



The final dishes to be sent down the narrow, rickety 1798 spiral staircase (listed as a historic monument) were the quintuplet of desserts (perhaps inspired from the chef’s time at Pierre Gagnaire.) These included:


‘Lemon Pie’ a fresh yoghurt with puffed rice crispies and bursting citrusy pearls.


‘Strawberry & Laurel Panna Cotta’ with a fabulous strawberry sorbet.


‘Rum Baba’ – whilst my wife loves the classic ‘baba au rhum’, I’m not generally a fan; the Passage 53 take on it was however a delight… for me, it was not too boozy and I loved the addition of the different textures and flavours: honey, orange, sorbet and jelly.


‘Milk ice cream’ – refreshing and simply served with a crisp crumb.


‘Chocolate Tart’ – with the thinnest, crisp pastry I have even seen this rich chocolate tart with indulgent caramel was textbook quality.


For me, a great thing about a Japanese chef heading up the Passage 53 kitchen was being able to finish the meal with a good quality Japanese green tea and, of course, the classic French petite madeleines.

Perversely, in an interview last year for ‘Paris etc.’ (see here), Chef Shinichi Sato says, “I don’t think that our restaurant actually merits 2 stars. Since we were given the recognition, we have to continue to improve in order to become deserving of the status.”

Looking back over the posts of the other two Michelin star restaurants at which I have eaten (The Ledbury, Le Gavroche, Pied à Terre and Kajitsu and Momofuku in New York), I certainly believe that Passage 53 belongs in this company – every dish was a tour de force.



Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Best Macarons in Paris

The Loch Ness Monster, Saddam Husain’s weapons of mass destruction, the Beast of Bodmin Moor, Sasquatch, ‘Bob’ (my imaginary friend from childhood); the perfect macarons and subliminal messages on Judas Priest records all share one thing in common - at one time I believed they existed but have since concluded they are mere fantasy... with perhaps one exception,

After my recent trip to Paris, I now believe one of them does exist and have even tracked it down to an address in the city… I even have photographic evidence! Now, before you get too exited, it’s not good ol’ Bob and don’t fear, it’s not the ‘WMD’.  I think I may have discovered the mythical perfect macaron!

The Citron & Guimauve Fraise Macarons from Ladurée - the perfect macarons?
In English ‘macaroon’ can refer to both ‘French macarons’ (also called ‘Gerbet’ or ‘Paris Macarons”) and the more rustic ‘coconut macaroons’ (called ‘congolais’ in French. To avoid confusion, its quite common to use ‘macaron’ when talking about the sweet, crispy gooey centred colourful meringue sandwiches.  The term has roots in the Italian word ‘ammaccare’ meaning crush or beat.

Macarons in Angelina - as good as Pierre Hermé and Laudrée?
Larousse Gastronomique cites the macaron as being created in 1791 in a convent near Cormery but other sources say that they originally came from Italy and were brought to France by Catherine de’ Medici’s chefs who travelled with her upon her marriage to the French King Henry II. 

Some Pierre Hermé's fabulos flavours. 
The double-decker macaron we recognise today was first created in the early 20th Century by Pierre Desfontaines of Ladurée, when he came up trumps with the idea of sticking two macaron shells either side of a delicious ganache filling. Ladurée are still one of the better known makers of macarons in the world; it is said that they sell fifteen thousand macarons every day!

Michel Cluziel - good, but are they the best?
The original is not always the best but the old school Ladurée along with the more modern Pierre Hermé are generally considered the top two contenders for the ‘king of the macaron’ crown. Everything about Ladurée is a little more classical, from the flavours to their boutiques and tearooms; Pierre Hermé however, is considered more ‘à la mode’ - his flavour combinations prompting the fashion magazine Vogue to bestow the title, ‘The Picasso of Pastry.”

During my recent trip to Paris I made it my mission to discover best macarons in Paris (and therefore the world?) – with a dream of discovering perfection.

Champagne & Pierre Hermé macarons
Starting as I meant to go on, when we arrived at our hotel, Hôtel des Academies et des Arts (near the Jardin du Luxembourg and Montparnasse) I had arranged to be greeted with champagne and macarons by Pierre Hermé which we enjoyed in their adjoining Chez Charlotte ‘Le Palais des Thés’ tearoom.

The Montebello and Chocolat macaroons from Pierre Hermé
What makes the ‘perfect macaron’?
Made principally from ground almonds, sugar and eggs whites (Pierre Hermé, master pâtissier insists that ‘old’ egg whites are better), what makes the ‘perfect macaron’ is obviously open to some debate. I look for: a plump dome shaped surface, with no cracks; a crisp texture to the bite (but not too dry, brittle or crumbly); a glossy finish, with no oil stains; a smooth finish (no imperfections, ridges, ripples or peaks); a well defined ‘pied’ or foot (pleat-like frills at the base of each meringue); a soft gooey filling; good colour and fantastic flavour.


In the morning I went for a stroll towards the Jardin du Luxembourg and passed a boulangerie / pâtisserie called La Fournee D’Augustine (31 rue des Batignolles.) Despite the fact that they are more well known for their baguettes than macarons, if I was serious in my endeavours to find the best macarons in Paris… I would need a benchmark – even if that meant leaving ‘no stone unturned’ or more fittingly ‘no pâtisserie window passed.’


A Joni Mitchell fan, one of my wife’s missions in Paris was to catch a moment to enjoy a moment in the April sunshine ‘Sitting in a park in Paris, France’. This gave me an opportunity to tear open the bag of meringuey delights and – appearance wise, the ‘pied’ or foot, especially on the chocolate one was not well formed and they lacked gloss. Texturally there not enough ‘goo’ in the centre and both flavours were not strong enough – for me, far from the best in Paris.



My next stop, Pierre Hermé has several outlets throughout the city (and indeed the world) but I visited the store at 72 rue Bonaparte. Famously they (and Ladurée) do not allow photography in their shops – a fact that I seemed to keep forgetting, until reminded. I selected: an ‘Éden’ (pêche, abricot and safran); a ‘Rose’ (Rose and Pétale de Rose); a two tone ‘Montebello’ (beautiful mountain - pistache et framboise); a ‘Chocolat Porcelana’ (pure origin Venezuelan dark chocolate) and ‘Infiniment Caramel’ (Salted-Butter Caramel).

Pierre Hermé - the best macarons in Paris?
Mentally running through my checklist list for ‘what makes the perfect macaron’ it seemed as though the Pierre Hermé offerings were certainly getting close. Everything I looked for and more (there were some wonderful sounding flavour combinations available but I selected fairly common ones to enable fairer comparisons with other retailers). The chocolate and salted-butter caramel macarons tasted exceptional but for me, the peach, apricot and saffron combination was otherworldly – the delicious drupey pairing enhanced by the unique fragrant spice. The best in Paris? They could well be!



The next pâtisserie visited, with its Willy Wonka style window displays (including a four foot macaron and chocolate Eiffel Tower) was the one belonging to the famous Parisian chocolatier Grégory Renard (120 rue Saint Dominque.) I sampled a salted caramel, chocolate, lemon and raspberry macaron - for me the shells were a little too crisp and crumbly when compared to some others. The lemon one however was great, with a real sharp citrusy tang – this aside, overall for me, definitely not the best in Paris.


The next macarons sampled were the result of a happy accident. After being invited to the press opening of the Nespresso boutique in Manchester (see here) I was keen to check out their flagship store on the venue on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées – enjoying a coffee in their café I was pleased to see macarons on the menu and overjoyed when I saw that they were from Dalloyau.

Chocolate macarons from Dalloyau. 
Dating back to 1682 (to put this into context: that’s 100 years or so before Napoléon Bonaparte was knocking about), pâtisserie Dalloyau are famed for inventing the indulgent ‘Gateau Opéra’ (Opera Cake) featuring multilayers of chocolate, ganache, coffee buttercream and coffee soaked almond sponge. As such their chocolate macarons seemed the perfect accompaniment to my excellent Nespresso ‘Ristretto’ – as expected they had a wonderful rich chocolaty flavour; but for me did not reach the standard set by Pierre Hermé.

Michel Cluziel macarons
Bizarrely, despite being a chocolatier of some repute and known as one of the few manufacturers to actually process cocoa beans, a chocolate macaron was not available at Michel Cluizel (201 Rue St Honoré). Instead I sampled the lemon and the mango and passion fruit varieties. They had very good ‘goo’ and tasty sugar crystals and subtle natural fruit flavours – good, but alas for me, not the best in Paris


Fauchon macarons
The next stop on my macaron trail took me to Fauchon – a luxury gourmet store (at 24-26 place de la Madeleine) that has been selling such delicacies as foie gras, truffles, fine cheeses, confectionaries and cakes since 1886. Fauchon is a fabulous store – any foodie visiting Paris should go and mooch about.

Fauchon macarons
The ‘citron’ (lemon), ‘cassis’ (blackcurrant), ‘abricot’ (apricot) and bronzed Chocolate Praline macarons at Fauchon all had very good flavour but the meringues were not particularly smooth and the appearance of something as exquisite as a macaron is important – very good, but for me, not perfection and therefore not the best in Paris.



Certainly not the best and in fact the worst of our trip were the ones that I ate in Café Angelina’s tea room (226 rue de Rivoli) – an undeniably grand setting, once a popular haunt of Audrey Hepburn and Coco Chanel. My wife selected the signature ‘Mont Blanc’ made from crème de marrons (chestnut cream) and whipped cream with a meringue base – it was ridiculously sweet and just tasted of claggy sugar paste.


My macarons looked good; they were uniformly shaped, and had well defined ‘pieds’ but flavour wise they were bland and did not have the desired gooey centre. A real shame – the place seemed to be trading on reputation alone; the coffee was also the worst I had in Paris. We quickly paid the overpriced bill, left what we hadn’t eaten (most of it) or drunk and left the place to the throngs of seemingly undiscerning tourists.

Sadly, I did not get round to visiting Jean-Paul Hévin (on 231 Rue Saint-Honoré) especially as I it later turned out I was unknowingly just a few doors away in Colette (on 213 Rue Saint-Honoré) and hear that their chocolate macarons are also very good.


Not a pâtisserie but whilst in Paris I also sampled Alain Ducasse’s Michelin starred macarons in Le Jules Verne (see here) – naturally excellent but still not up to the standard set by Pierre Hermé.

Ladurée - the original and still the best?
Eventually I made my way to the venerable Ladurée (18 rue Royale & other locations). Alongside my ‘benchmark flavours’ of chocolat and citron I was tempted by a ‘Guimauve Fraise Bonbon’ (strawberry candy marshmallow) and ‘Fleur de Cerisier’ (cherry blossom). Appearance wise, the Ladurée offerings were spot on. On to the all important taste test: I found the cherry one to be a bit floral for my taste and the marshmallow filling in the strawberry one, although tasty did not a macaron make.

Ladurée macarons - the best in Paris according to Hungry Hoss.
Hopefully the chocolate one would fare better. It certainly looked good – wonderful taste… could it be the best in Paris? Just when I was contemplating having to go back to Pierre Hermé for a second opinion, I remembered that I still had the lemon one to go… you know that feeling when you slip on a pair of shoes for the first time and they feel just right? Or when you are house shopping and find a property that feels like home as soon as you cross the threshold? The moment I put the Ladurée lemon macaron in my mouth I knew I had found it… the perfect macaron. Well, at least in my humble opinion – only one way to know for sure: head to Paris and try for yourself. 



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