The other day I decided to have a totally decadent experience and replace lunch with dessert. I’d been reading about the famous Philippe Conticini’s cake shop called the Pâtisserie des Rêves and thought it was time to have my dreams fulfilled. I already knew what I’d be choosing: a Saint Honoré, a timeless, classic, very sweet French dessert. It looks like a castle built in the clouds, with its light airy whipped cream topped with a little round caramelized choux puff. Unfortunately, the Saint Honoré as made by most local boulangeries is a less than satisfying experience. To be fair, it takes a lot of skill and workmanship to get it just right.
My taste buds were tingling, and I could hardly contain my excitement as I wandered up the Rue du Bac. When I got to the shop window, I realized this was one of these new-fangled pâtisseries that rival high-end jewelry stores in the presentation of their wares.
Only someone who is feeling supremely confident or a Japanese tourist with the right guidebook would dare to step into this shop where the cakes are kept under thick glass domes, and the salespeople are as intimidating as those in a haute couture shop. But I knew what I was doing and what I’d come for. I pretended to examine the tarte au citron meringuée (lemon meringue tart) and the tarte tatin, but my eyes constantly strayed back to the Saint Honoré. For some reason, probably the idea of a food designer, the Saint Honoré was rectangular rather than round, which downplayed its extravagance and sensuality. Keeping the choux to one side and the cream on the other is a bit like having separate beds on your honeymoon.
I tried to look casual and blasé when I ordered mine and wondered how the hell I was going to eat it in the street – there was no way I was going to be able to wait until I got home. Fortunately, I remembered a little park just down the road that could be the scene of my sugary meal. I found an unoccupied bench, since I didn’t feel comfortable about anyone witnessing my bliss – it would have felt like undressing in front of strangers.
Eating a Saint Honoré with a plate and cutlery can be difficult, but tackling it on your knees armed only with your fingers is truly daunting. I pulled off a choux and dipped it in the whipped cream. That first bite told me I was in for a disappointment, and I couldn’t help but stare at the cake as if it had betrayed me. The whipped cream felt thick and heavy without any acidity to add a little bite to its sweetness, and the choux filled with crème pâtissière was ordinary. Ordinary!
I knew by then that I didn’t even want to finish it, but its extravagant price (€6.80) made me feel guilty, so I soldiered on bravely.
I guess the perfect Saint Honoré is my own holy grail. My quest is far from over.
La Pâtisserie des Rêves: 93, rue du Bac, 75007 Paris. Tel.: 01 42 84 00 82. Métro: Rue du Bac or Sèvres Babylone. Vélib station: Raspail Varenne. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30am-8:30pm; Sunday, 8:30am-2pm.
Reader David Spector writes: “We saw this shop last October and it was a total turnoff. We are not interested in a cutesy ‘of the moment’ presentation that is trying oh so hard to be different. The point is to concentrate on the goodness of the product. I cannot believe that Parisians/tourists will fall for this nonsense.”
Readers Chris & Brenda Lawrence write: “We so enjoy your newsletter and are compelled to respond to the review of the pastry dreams – we passed by that shop and the air of puffed pretension was so all-pervasive that we scoffed and walked on … soooo glad you nailed it! Keep on telling it like it is!”
Reader Sally Peabody writes: “This piece is very helpful indeed. Pâtisserie des Reves has been getting lots of press lately. Very helpful to have a somewhat more balanced perspective. There is so much superb pâtisserie in Paris that is presented artfully and sold graciously. This shop’s style and substance sounds a bit over the top! Not the stuff of good dreams.”