If you’re following me on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, you know that I was in New York last week attending the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Annual Conference. It was an amazing culinary, educational, and inspirational experience, which I still need to decant to assimilate. I will read the many pages of notes I jotted down over the weekend, and I promise to concoct a write-up that should honor the incredible experience it was.
In the meantime, I have to tell you about the Chocolate and Pastry Tour I chose as an optional activity on the day I arrived in New York. The IACP program provided over 20 different optional tours, all of which looked fantastic. But I was immediately drawn to the Chocolate and Pastry Tour when I saw that pastry chef and author of Les Petits Macarons, Kathryn Gordon, would be conducting it. Chef Gordon is amazingly experienced, having trained under renowned pastry chefs and worked in some of the city’s most famous kitchens like Le Bernardin and Le Cirque. Being the macaron lover I am, I bought her book as soon as it came out in the fall of last year. It’s a beautiful full-color reference filled with great tips and advice, a unique troubleshooting section, and lots of recipes, including savory ones, which I especially like—maple-bacon-bourbon macarons, anyone?
Of course, it was impossible to cover the whole of Manhattan in three hours, so the tour concentrated in the Hudson Square, Soho, and Lower East Side neighborhoods, which do seem to be home to the best pastry shops in the city. We took the subway down to Hudson Street and started our walking tour at the shop of the city’s most famous pastry chef, Jacques Torres.
1. Jacques Torres
Chef Jacques Torres, MOF, needs no introduction—he is, after all, nicknamed “Mr. Chocolate.” (If you’re not familiar with him, read his bio here.) Although he has six other shops scattered throughout the city, his Hudson Street shop is a mandatory stop for all chocolate lovers visiting New York. It’s a large space that offers the chef’s full range of products, from cookies to premium filled chocolates. There is also a coffee bar with tables for those who wish to linger in the master’s temple of sweets. The walls to the back of the store are made of glass, which allows customers to see the store’s workshop and witness the chocolate-making process as though they were watching one of the chef’s TV shows.
Although the filled chocolates we tasted were delicious (I particularly liked the “Heart of Passion”—a milk chocolate heart with fresh passion fruit and Alize liqueur.) I was, though, surprised to find the store so cluttered. Yes, it was Easter season, so the store was filled to the brim with hundreds of gift baskets and chocolate animals, but the décor of the store itself felt a little bit dated with its big, fake brightly colored flowers, glass pendants, and glittery butterflies. It wasn’t a place where I would enjoy lingering for too long. But then again, you come for the chocolate, not the décor.
2. François Payard Bakery
Chef François Payard is a third-generation pastry chef born in Nice, in the South of France. Former executive chef at the four-star restaurants Le Bernardin and Daniel, he has received countless distinctions throughout the years, including the James Beard “Pastry Chef of the Year” award, and he now has stores in New York, Las Vegas, Tokyo, and Korea. It was thus quite an honor to meet him in person when we visited his West Houston Street shop. Busy managing the production of Passover sweets, he generously took some time off to explain his process. He passionately talked about working only with chocolate of the highest quality and his will to educate his customers on the importance of enjoying better chocolate in a lesser quantity. In his own words, he said, “It’s better to buy a $2 piece of gold than $2 worth of s**t.”
Chef Payard’s small New York kitchen, where all the sweets shipped to Vegas, Japan and Korea and made:
Rows and rows of Passover treats:
The West Houston Street store is a laid-back French-style café where pastries, macarons and full meals (such as baguettes and salads) are served. I loved the beautifully made traditional pastries, such as miniature Apple Tart Tatin and Basque cake wedges. Payard’s macarons are also delicious and consistent.
3. Dominique Ansel Bakery
A jewel of a pastry shop right in the heart of Soho, Dominique Ansel Bakery was my favorite stop of the whole tour. Chef Dominique Ansel, part of a younger generation of chefs, has already won many awards and worked in highly regarded kitchens such as Jean-Georges in New York. His eponymous store, minimalist and sleek, opened in 2011. His pastries are simply spectacular, and he is the only chef in New York making Brittany’s specialty pastry, Kouign Amann, which I thought was simply heavenly. I also tasted the Salted Caramel Éclair, which offered a shockingly delicious sweet and salty hit.
Chef Ansel’s gorgeous pastries:
Delicious treats coming our way. Chef Ansel is in the back.
If Ansel’s pastries are not enough to convince you to visit Ansel’s store, then his store’s beautiful seating area should do the trick: half of it is sheltered in a greenhouse, and the other half is outside, in a beautiful (and unique for New York!) inner courtyard bordered by a narrow plant bed and a romantic cherry tree. I suspect it must be hard to find a spot in this little corner of paradise in the heart of summer! I was completely charmed by the chef, who came out of his kitchen to tell us a little about himself and his work, and by the shop, which I intend on visiting again during each of my future trips to New York.
4. Kee’s Chocolates
Recognized as one of New York’s finest chocolatiers, Chef Kee Ling Tong may also be the most creative. The small, modern Soho boutique sells macarons, but you are really here for the chocolates, which range from classics such as pistachio and salted caramel to innovative flavors such as lemon basil and kaffir lime. I found the black sesame chocolate to be simply spectacular. Kee’s is an absolute must for those who love to try things outside of the (chocolate) box.
Our group litterally took over the small shop!
Kee’s fantastic black sesame chocolates:
5. Balthazar Bakery
The very small Balthazar Bakery will seduce anyone who’s ever visited Paris; its French signs and classic décor makes you feel like you’re entering a (miniature) film set. Perfect breads and classic cakes await. For a bigger dose of French cuisine, there is also a gorgeous restaurant right next door where classic dishes are served, such as oysters, escargots, and steak-frites.
6. Bisous Ciao
The last visit of the tour, but not the least: this Lower East Side shop sells nothing but macarons. Opened in 2010, it still thrives, and I hope it will survive the macaron fad, because the shop really excels at the art of making perfect macarons. Its creations are the best I’ve tasted since my last visit to Pierre Hermé’s store in Paris. The shells offer the perfect crunchy-tender contrast, and their fillings are bursting with flavor. An unsuspecting customer could dismiss the vanilla variety, fearing it would be too bland compared to the other flavors, but make no mistake—even this unassuming macaron offers an intense hit thanks to the fresh Tahiti and Madagascar vanilla added to the butter cream. All the flavors I tasted were lovely, but I fell head over heels for the Yuzu macaron, a recent addition to the Bisous, Ciao lineup—the cream offers a delicate yuzu aroma, but an almost liquid marmalade center has the power to convince any skeptic that yuzu is the best citrus in the world. OK, maybe I just got carried away here, but seriously, I would trek all the way to the Lower East Side just to enjoy another one.
Macarons presented in jewel cases on the walls of Bisous Ciao:
Rows and rows of macaron goodness:
- A Google map of the Chocolate and Pastry Tour
- Chef Kathryn Gordon’s website
- Les Petits Macarons’ website (with macaron information, a video, and troubleshooting notes)
I can’t end this post without saying how fortunate I feel that Chef Kathryn Gordon was our private guide on this delicious tour. Generous in her explanations and rich in experiences to tell, she was endlessly enjoyable to be around. I only hope I didn’t bore her with all my questions!
Because I know many of you are also big macaron fans, I asked Chef Gordon to sign a copy of her beautiful book, Les Petits Macarons: Colorful French Confections to Make at Home, and now I’m offering you the chance to win it! *** This giveaway is now closed. Thanks for entering! ***
To enter the giveaway (open to US/Canadian residents only):
- Comment on this post: Tell me what is your very favorite chocolate or pastry shop, anywhere in the world and get an entry;
- Follow me on Twitter and get an additional entry;
- Become a fan of Food Nouveau on Facebook and get an additional entry;
- Subscribe to Food Nouveau’s monthly newsletter and get an additional entry. When subscribing, make sure you enter your name and email address (which will remain private) to make sure I can reach you if you win.
PLEASE REMEMBER: Leave a separate comment for EACH of your entries or only one entry will be counted. If you already follow me on Twitter, Facebook and/or already subscribe to the Food Nouveau monthly newsletter let me know as well, since this counts as an entry.
I will randomly draw one lucky winner on Friday, April 13 at 12PM EST. *** This giveaway is now closed. Thanks for entering! ***
Good luck to all!