Sooner or later, everyone wants their name up in lights.
Or on cake boxes.
At pastry school, our art lessons consist of squiggly letters, geometric Christmas trees and three dimensional roses. All for decorating cakes. And of course, designing our own monograms for the lucky few that will make it big.
In Paris, most of the new and exciting patisseries are also just names. You have the king, Pierre Herme, the chocolatiers Jacques Genin and Jean-Paul Hevin, and Carl Marletti south of the Seine.
Sooner or later, everyone wants their initials decorating their shiny shop windows, their signature on chocolate tarts.
Two of the latest – and best – of the bunch are Sebastien Gaudard and Cyril Lignac. Both have eponymous patisseries (the latter called “La Patisserie by Cyril Lignac”) in chic quartiers, both sell a subtle twist on the traditional. Both sell quality products on which they can be proud to put their names.
First up, Sebastien, “le petit prince de la patisserie”:
Gaudard’s shop has elbowed its way into a quintessially Parisian crowd: the butcher, the baker, the organic olive oil and specialty jam shops. In Montmartre, with an obligatory glimpse of the Sacre Coeur as you head up the rue des Martyrs. The shopfront is sober – none of the bells and whistles of the local artisan – just dark green, gold letters.
Inside, the antique mirrors and bare marble slabs reflect a neat row of patisseries, all in shades of cream and gold and mahogany. There are cream puffs and eclairs, rum babas and dark forest cakes. An individual dessert wrapped in paper-thin chocolate like a present. The lemon tart is perfectly glossy, with a faint wisp, an imprint of a lemon slice. The chocolate mendiant tart in the window also looks tempting.
Right in the centre is another glass display case, antique or slightly battered. Gazing down at the large raspberry dome inside, it feels like evaluating fine jewellery. Everything is beautiful. Even the handsome chef himself is there, easily spotted from his book covers behind him, to politely wrap your croissant.
I tried the apple tart: a classic with infinite variations. The puff pastry was good, the apples just right. But it was a little underwhelming, especially at 4 euros for a teeny slice. I wished I had picked something more adventurous to better judge.
Next day: La Patisserie by Cyril Lignac
A little further east, not far from Bastille, this new patisserie also picked a prime location on the rue Paul Bert, cosying up to one of my favourite places, Bistrot Paul Bert, and the cute cookbookery shop La Cocotte. It is a smaller shop, less grand perhaps, but still stripped bare in a consciously designed way. Where Gaudard sold chocolates alongside, Lignac has baguettes neatly lined up. And a line of impatient customers, including the ever-exacting neighbourhood Granny, a good sign.
Strikingly enough, both Lignac and Gaudard go for the same colour palette: all caramel, chocolate, lemon, vanilla. They both propose infinitely shiny versions of childhood favourites. No artificial neon inventions, no macarons even. Lignac’s deviation from the norm is to make his individual tart in crisp-cornered squares – and his signature Equinoxe dessert in a startling grey, just bright red circles for decoration. Rather admirable in fact, that there are no strawberries out of season, no hothouse pineapples or fake pistachio colouring. Just slivers of vanilla bean to decorate.
Here, I tried a millefeuille: only two layers of puff pastry instead of the usual three, enclosing a silky pastry cream, topped with a neat wave of vanilla-speckled chantilly. It was beautiful, and tasted beautiful. Just right.
In fact, used to bright colours and an abundance of kitsch, or intimidating designer boutiques, I was rather impressed to see both chefs attempt – and succeed at – the perfection of their craft before the shock of invention. Both stayed with seasonal treats (it will be interesting to see what summer brings) and made smaller, more elegant versions of the classics. No cheaper for being small, of course: count on 4-5 euros per dessert, which is still less than Laduree et al.
My final verdict? Gaudard’s shop was prettier, a temple to patisserie, but Lignac just edged him out on taste. However more extensive testing is definitely required!
Sebastien Gaudard – 22 rue des Martyrs, Paris 75009 – closed on Mondays
La Patisserie by Cyril Lignac – 24 rue Paul Bert Paris 75011 – also closed Mondays