It only takes six months of living in Paris to become a legit dessert snob. Even on a simple walk to work, one soaks in the oeuvres (bodies of works) of the true virtuosos of butter, sugar and flour through all of the decadent window displays of the world’s most appealing desserts.
Even the average bakery in Paris is rather exceptional in the grand scheme of deliciousness. A fresh, hot croissant in Paris is always a retreat of sorts, even if it comes from the anonymous place on your corner.
To be a standout among giants however, a pâtissier must execute an almost impossible choreography, not unlike that of a prima ballerina. At the foundation is the ability to make standing en pointe look effortless. But with flour, butter, sugar and eggs, rising to new heights by way of fluency involves hundreds of years of tradition.
Then comes the leap skyward towards the mad, sweet poetry of the moment. In Paris, the map is a lacework of pâtisseries sticking the landing like pros.
The only downside to all of this luxury, if I may sound so boorish and ungrateful to be at the center of it all, is it makes one picky as hell.
The final element, the one that is throttling the amateurs out of the arena, is that the dessert has to look seductive on top of everything else.
That cake must draw you in with its architecture or, if it’s going for rustic, it must at the very least sing a siren song of a country butter memory.
And finally, it must tease out your allegiance with a memorable flavor landing or it won’t command its fraction of the rent.
Demanding elements indeed
For those reasons, it’s impossible to proclaim anything as the absolute « best » in Paris. My humble efforts here are to decode one of the purses of riches which we Parisians count as not only our heritage, but as our daily bread (our daily cake, as it were).
The streets of Paris are a veritable Panthéon for one of the most demanding and competitive crafts in the world and, lucky us, we get to be the judges.
Here are four pâtisseries earning their calories and, at the bottom of this page, a map of the bakeries worth your visit so you can find a freshly baked, marvelous something wherever you are in Paris.
Christophe Michalak of Michalak Paris
I remember distinctly the first pâtisserie that stopped me in my tracks as I walked by. It was a Christophe Michalak boutique on Rue Poissonnière. I had to know what it was about.
I grew up with a self-taught baker and chocolatier mother. From the age of six, I was her salesperson when she sold her Christmas chocolate cabins at winter crafts markets at the VFW hall. I found out decades later that the box under the table that I dutifully never opened, the one labeled « ADULTS ONLY, » was brimming with penis-shaped chocolates. And the biggest customers of said dick pops were little old ladies.
There were dicks in that box. The South Side of Chicago is very far away from Haussmannian Paris.
Here in Paris you can say my tastes became exalted after the dizzying moment I wandered into Christoph Michalak’s boutique as a new immigrant.
After that, a moment I remember as my first kiss with the French pastry world, I then embarked on my codependent Paris love story; me and Pastry and Fashion. But fashion is no swinger, you can’t have them both, it seems.
Knowing only the words « bonjour » and « croissant » that summer many years ago, and unable to tell a Religeuse from a Baba au Rhum, I made my way into Michalak’s gleaming white shop and was transformed. These were not the rustic desserts of the countryside guilting you into a visit to your Grandma, but instead a Mission to Mars. I planted my flag on a tarte that did things with strawberries that I couldn’t explain.
He’s since expanded to other neighborhoods in Paris (and to Tokyo), so you can take your pick; le Marais, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, or the Rue du Faubourg Poissonière spot which has seating and coffee (the other locations are takeaway and get-crumbs-on-your-jacket only).
SINCE YOU ARE THERE: Build up a desire for Michalak’s high-flying pastry by roaming the surrounding 10th arrondissement. Try to spot some of the Art Nouveau gems sprinkled around the surrounding area, then have pizza at the hilariously kitsch-decorated Libertino so you can feel like the grandma of a Palm Beach cocaine dealer in the ’80s.
ADDRESSES: 60 Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 75010; 16 Rue de la Verrerie, 75004; 8 Rue du Vieux Colombier, 75006
Now that I’ve come out as someone who stops in their tracks when beckoned by the creative working of sugar and butter, let me introduce Maison Aleph, the newest addition to the active sabotage of keto regimens in Paris intramuros (within the city limits).
Coloring inside the lines of the Levantine flavor atlas—Maison Aleph delivers roses not to your door, but to your dessert.
The « Nids Pâtissieres » are wee pastry nests of spun angel-hair threads (called kadaif in arabic). They’re molded into crisp little cushions upon which rest the button of cream that holds the secret that will test your resolve in the next moments.
Shall I order another three? These were so small, they barely count, right?
Once you experience what Madame Sabet does with not only rose petals, but orange flower essence, halva and cardamom, you’ll wonder how you ever found satisfaction with the brute-force chocolate sweets of youth.
SINCE YOU ARE THERE: There’s no way out now. You’ll never be the same again. Relax and order a few more of her confections to stir your energy reserves before a promenade of medieval architecture in the hip le Marais quarter, and finish the evening off at La Belle Hortense, a wine bar and bookshop in one.
Yann Couvreur’s tonka bean and chocolate eclairs look 3D printed. The reflection of the shop lights bouncing off of their perfectly smooth, squared surface is interrupted only by the little flecks of bean that carry notes living somewhere between vanilla and chocolate.
But that’s not why you’ll visit again and again (though you will discover, like I did, that they are among the best eclairs in Paris).
You’ll come back because you’ll fall in love with what he’s done without hiding behind too much sugar. A skilled composer of flavors, Couvreur orchestrated a takeover of the greying ‘Mille-feuille’ scene back in 2014, winning the best dessert of Paris with a whisper-thin pressed buckwheat sheaf prepared right in front of your eyes.
The traditional French Mille-feuille is made with numerous layers of pastry separated by sweet cream, but at Yann Couvreur it has reemerged deconstructed; a meeting of contemporary and countryside. They’re made with the attention to detail that Parisians expect — but like country roots, in new boots.
Seek out the Mille-feuille at Yann Couveur and you’ll be rewarded with gentle hints of vanilla (sourced from the Comoros Islands) in the pastry cream that luxuriates atop of the feuilles, sheaves of buckwheat or « black wheat, » or as it is called en Français — ‘blé noir’.
Good things come to those who wait (and read here), so bring your patience and enjoy the show as it’s made to order. One of Paris’ oldest and most venerated desserts ran away from Paris with a young man from Brittany and never looked back.
SINCE YOU ARE THERE: While Yann Couvreur has multiple locations, I love visiting this shop on Rue des Rosiers, a winding little car-free cobblestone street in the historic center of le Marais, before heading to one of the neighborhood’s charming little resto-bars like Pamela Popo on Rue François Miron for clever cocktails.
ADDRESS: 137 Ave Parmentier, 75010
METRO: Belleville (lines 2, 11) or République (lines 3, 5, 8, 9)
Parisians and global jet-setters alike who follow the less sweet, more flavor trend in desserts have been making a pilgrimage to Cédric Grolet since he became a breakout star in the culinary world in 2017. Every day (except Sundays), Grolet dispenses his indulgences to the masses at his new shop near the gilded Opéra Garnier, and to the more ‘chosen’ ones at the tantalizingly opulent tea salon in le Meurice hotel (There is also a takeaway shop on the side of the hotel. If you are facing the hotel, go around the left side, under the arcade of columns, and look for the line.). Quite simply, the virtuosity of Cédric Grolet must be experienced to be understood.
At its pinnacle the French culinary scene levitates Grolet—his prayer:« Le beau fait venir, et le bon fait revenir. »
Beauty brings them in, taste brings them back.
It was none other than Alain Ducasse, the Pope of this culinary world order who, in taking the young pastry chef under his wing, gave him two commandments: to use less sugar and to stimulate the senses.
Paris is a loud place for food with legions of talent making lots of waves. Grolet first parted the waters with his Rubiks Cubes of petit fours, a match made in heaven between Instagram and your credit card.
His shapeshifting touch takes on holy proportions as the humble fruit tart is transubstantiated into something otherworldly and ethereal for the choir of fans around the world and his million-plus acolytes on Insta.
The shop at le Meurice closes when they sell out, be it one p.m. or six p.m., so I was beatific when I reached the counter after the tugging apprehension of watching the choices dwindle beyond the pane of glass as the line ambled too slowly forward (it seems that they are adding staff to meet demand, as the run on pastry happens less frequently these days).
The last remaining pastry of the day, choux à la crème, was waiting for me. I found the strength to play it cool and so contained my passion as I waited for the bicycles to pass as I crossed the Rue de Rivoli to the Jardin de Tuileries where I would unbox my little communion.
The last of the day’s efforts by Grolet’s white-coated team were all mine.
I felt a small nib of remorse for the six people turned away after me, but that sentiment was overruled by the chariot of dopamine and sugar galloping through my veins. Even the (comparatively speaking) humble choux à la crème, a little orb of airy pastry, is elevated to a divine experience by the hands of Grolet.
Adorned with little diamonds of sugar and filled with the most delicate pastry cream, its faint hints of vanilla rendered waiting in line an act of devotion to the High Priest of Pastry. Praise Cédric!
SINCE YOU ARE THERE: For an afternoon you’ll never forget, invest in a luxuriant experience that is pure, uncut, Paris: dress in something beautiful and trendy, go for tea and desserts at Le Meurice, then walk in the footsteps of Napoleon, Kings, and Queens (and Beyonce, one of our more compelling contemporary cult figures) at the Jardin des Tuileries across the street.
I must confess, it is miraculous.
ADDRESSES: 6 Rue de Castiglione, 75001 (ask the doormen of the hotel if you cannot find it among the neoclassical limestone columns); 35 Avenue de l’Opéra, 75002
Indecorous Culturevore and Polychrome Chow Virtuosa Kat Walker likes nice things.
When she’s not writing about croissants, love, culture, and lovable, sexy croissants, she is a gonzo performance artist whipping up a (usually) political ruckus.
In a bid for your attention and approval she writes things here and manages this unruly tribe of Parisians endeavoring to bring you what Parising is really about.
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