Words by Ceil Miller Bouchet, Special to The Washington Post
Blame it on the religieuse pastry, two stacked, chocolate cream-filled puffs that sent me to patisserie nirvana the first week of my long-ago junior year in Paris. When you're used to Twinkies, that kind of experience is, indeed, a revelation. After marrying a lemon-tart-loving Frenchman and producing a daughter (vanilla macaron) and son (coffee eclair) who share my passion, I thought I had pretty much covered the gamut of French pastries.
Until this past April, that is, when on a Sunday afternoon stroll with an old friend down the Rue de Rivoli, near the Louvre, I realized my guilty pleasure had emerged from the shadows and, seemingly, been embraced by le tout Paris.
"C'est la folie" - "It's a madhouse!" - Agnès exclaimed when we noticed a throng of gourmands outside of Cedric Grolet's new pastry boutique. We were just around the corner from Le Meurice, the historic hotel where I once spotted actress Catherine Deneuve in the powder room and where Grolet, 33, is the award-winning head pastry chef at the Michelin two-star restaurant.
Parisians have gone crazy over patisseries," Agnès continued, "and this place is ground zero. It opened in March." We observed the uniformed doorman admitting customers, one by one, into the narrow, laboratory-like sanctum. There was no display case. Instead, as in a fine jewelry store, the goods were stored on trays under the counter, from whence the white-coated staff produced each order.
"Grolet is famous for his fruit pastries," Agnès said as we peered through the window. "They're astonishing, because they look just like real fruit." She told me she had tried his lemon creation, and that it was "one of the most delicious things" she'd ever tasted. "But you have to arrive early," she warned, as we headed toward the Tuileries Garden, "because when they sell out, they close."
Two days later, I was first in line when the boutique opened at noon. Discreet Edith Piaf melodies serenaded me as I pondered the day's five options, which included two fruit confections (simply called grapefruit and passion fruit), plus three more-traditional choices: a hazelnut tart, a pistachio riff on the donut-shaped, cream-filled Paris-Brest pastry, and an heirloom strawberry tart. Displayed on the snowy marble counter with five-star precision, each pastry was about the size of a softball. The man behind me, a Parisian who said he was on a "top pastry chef" quest, quickly opted for the Paris-Brest, at 10 euros. For the sake of research, I splurged on the grapefruit, at a whopping 17 euros. Price notwithstanding, I had a surreal "this is not a grapefruit" sensation as I watched the precious orb, which looked exactly like a ripe grapefruit, go into a box worthy of the jewellery stores on nearby Place Vendome - or of the latest iPhone.
That evening, I shared it with Agnes over a glass of wine. With trepidation, I broke the flawless "peel" with my spoon. A thick layer of white chocolate ganache buttressed the delicate outer shell. Inside, a transparent grapefruit gelée held gemlike nuggets of pink grapefruit and morsels of preserved peel that flowed slowly from the casing, like glowing lava. I dipped in my spoon. Frisky, fresh, intense, chewy and creamy, the vibrant taste and crazy textures sent me to pastry nirvana for the second time in my life.
I was hooked again. But this time I validated my guilty pleasure by joining the millions of followers on Grolet's Instagram feed and becoming the 40,160th person to like a post captioned, “Life is short . . . let's start with dessert.”
Images: Courtesy of Pierre Herme Paris; Courtesy of Hotel de Crillon; Courtesy of Laurent Fau/Studio des fleurs; Courtesy of Le Pivot Voice and Vibes; and Ceil Miller Bouchet for the Washington Post