I do d’eclair, you won’t stop at one

IMG_1203I visit Paris often. I am one of those classic femmes Américaines gaga over Haussmann architecture, pink light, and the Marais. When I go to Paris, I don’t make plans. I throw my scarf over my shoulder, adjust my sunglasses, and simply head out. In Paris, like in London, Rome and New York, wandering is a plan. These cities are made for discovery, like that time I stumbled across a Jewish bakery in Trastevere and proudly ordered “Due fiorentino e uno caffe macchiato” only to discover what might be the most delicious Florentines in the world.

In Paris, while I don’t make plans, I do carry a list of patisseries (by arrondissement) that’s as long as my arm. And what I’m after, my white tiger, my white whale, is the perfect éclair. Slightly chewy pastry, luxurious vanilla scented crème patisserie, and a swath of chocolate that snaps when you bite. For me, this is the éclair classique and a good one is very hard to find. Even in Paris. Where I don’t speak French (I speak Fromage, ha ha!), so I am often unsure of exactly what I’ve ordered.

Parisian fake out: Looked classique, but that's mocha cream in there!

Parisian fake out: Looked classique, but that’s mocha cream in there!

I’ve had éclairs that are filled with caramel, coffee, orange, pistachio, raspberry, banana (!), and chocolate creams. Où est la vanille? I buy at least two éclairs per visit to Paris and have yet to find an éclair that meets my classique criteria or that is even memorable. (Apologies, Pierre, but your mille feuilles would be my last meal.)

If not in Paris, dear reader, where, oh where will one find the perfect éclair classique???

I’ll tell you where: At the afore-reviewed Joan’s on Third. Yes, in Los Angeles, a city not known for it’s bakery culture. I’d pretty much given up on ordering éclairs anywhere after so many disappointments. But one afternoon I decided to give Joan’s version a try.

Revelation! Celebration! The hint of a tear in my eye! Sooooooo delicious, everything I lookIMG_1205 for and more: The pastry is always fresh, the chocolate subtle with the desired crackle, and the filling, the FILLING! Smooth, velvety, luxurious, incredible. Maybe it’s vanilla but you can’t really tell the note is so subtle. It’s fantastic. I’m embarrassed to say just how many of these I have eaten since that first bite.

I’ve only visited the Studio City location, but I imagine these delectable nom-noms are available on Third Street as well. Locals and visitors alike, it’s well worth the journey from wherever you are to enjoy these beauties.

Note: I learned, whilst writing this piece, that “éclairs” are named for the French word for “lightning” because they are “eaten in a flash.” Buy a few because you will mourn FullSizeRenderthe too-fast loss of just one.

Joan’s on Third, 12059 Ventura Place, Studio City, CA 91604; www.joansonthird.com

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Viva la Joan’s on Third:Studio City

A friend recently mentioned that I seem to be doing a lot more baking than braking on this blog. Tis all toFullSizeRendero true – I have been dealing with a recurring health issue for lo these past three months. (Dear reader, let me just say that if your eye doctor offers you the optional retinal exam for an extra fee, get it.) So I haven’t been getting out much. But I recently had the opportunity to visit the Studio City outpost of Joan’s on Third.

Angeleno’s, you no doubt know Joan’s 3rd Street location, for a long time, its only location. Parking was miserable but everything on offer was so delicious and the space so delightful, it was worth circling the block 10 or 15 times. For those who don’t know, Joan’s on Third is sort of an upscale deli plus gourmet market. I first discovered it about, gosh, 17 years ago? I was looking for Israeli couscous for a special dinner date. My relationship with Joan’s has far outlasted that with said date!

Joan’s had me at black-and-white tiled floor. That first trip I found the couscous plus a ham-and-brie on baguette that is still my favorite. Over the years I’d visit every so often, for that sandwich or to order boxed picnics for the Hollywood Bowl, that sort of thing. And then I moved away.

And then I moved back. And was very happy to learn that Joan’s had opened a new location, larger than the original and less than a mile from my house. It was on! Just as soon as I could get there.

Joan’s on Third, Studio City, is in a lovely spot on Ventura Place, high ceilinged and airy. FullSizeRenderThere’s the same divine black-and-white tiled floor. A well curated selection of cookbooks and various gourmet items line one wall. I found myself looking at artisanal chocolates with interest and a sudden longing to be back in Bruges where I bought chocolate from just about every shop I came across. I don’t do that at home. But I may start.

I purchased my standard order: Apricot Glazed Ham and Brie on baguette, and a Dream Bar (more on that later). I also ordered my version of a “tasting”: A chocolate cupcake with about three inches of chocolate covered marshmallow on top, a slice of chocolate roulade, and a slice of Crown Cake.

First, the Dream Bar, which didn’t last long enough to photograph. It’s sort of a brownie base with toasted marshmallowy stuff browned on top. There may be more in it, but I don’t really care. It’s marvelous and always has been.

Chocolate Roulade: What I love most about this is that Chocolate Roulade is something we all often want but can’t often find – it’s a regular item at Joan’s. While there’s FullSizeRender_1nothing new in the preparation, it’s very good, tender and not too sweet. The cocoa showered over the outside does make it a touch messy. (At home, I tapped most of it off into the sink.)

Crown Cake: My sister-in-law is a fantastic baker. She’s renowned in the family for her Strawberry Shortcake which is a soft-as-velvet white layer cake with crushed strawberries and cream between the layers, and a whipped cream frosting. I don’t care for the traditional biscuit version, but I could eat my SIL’s all day long. Joan’sIMG_9743 Crown Cake is redolent of home: Light white cake with a delicate whipped cream filling and frosting. Very subtle strawberry infusion. I really loved this. It lets you have party cake “just because.” It, too, is a staple menu item.

Marshmallow Cupcake: Joan’s is well known for its cupcakes, which are exceptional: Not too big, just the right amount of frosting, and not overly IMG_9174sweet. Except for this marshmallow topped version. New Yorkers, picture a Carvel chocolate bonnet on top of a chocolate cupcake. That’s the aesthetic. I cut it down the middle – that’s IMG_9175alotta marshmallow! There was no practical way to have cake and topping together so I tasted them separately. The marshmallow was just too much. The cupcake, though, was as good as ever. Moist, chocolaty and delish. In this instance, more is not more. Order any other version of a Joan’s cupcake. You’ll be so happy.

Overall, I’m delighted Joan’s on Third has moved into the neighborhood. As with the original location, it’s popular and super crowded. Take advantage of the takeaway aspect and enjoy a French-style picnic anywhere.

Joan’s on Third, 12059 Ventura Place, Studio City, CA 91604; www.joansonthird.com

Tartine Bakery:SF

In any new city, I ask for bakery recommendations. And then, perversely, avoid going to tartine labelthe place everyone is talking about. When I got to San Francisco, the first place anyone mentioned was Tartine Bakery. I put it on the top of my list and finally, over a year after I did, I went.

Like so many places in big high-rent cities, Tartine is small. The line outside the door, at 3pm on a Saturday, was about 20 people (and was just as long when I left). It was so packed I ordered to go, without much time to review the full range or the atmos.

Chocolate Sea Salt Rye Cookie: The rye was just too intriguing, what would that sourness do with a cookie? Delicious. Dark with a few grains of sea salt on top. Texturally, similar to a macaron, with a bit of a crust and a super chewy inside. At first it’s all about the rye cookiedepth of the chocolate. Then the rye comes in and I can’t lie, it’s a surprise. And you do have a second where you think this may go wrong, but then it all smooths out and the rest is divine and gone too soon. Invokes dreams of a partnership with Blue Bottle Coffee Gelato (Gelateria Naia).

Cocoa Nib Rocher: Petite mountains of meringue speckled with cocoa nibs. Perfection. Not too sweet, exquisitely chewy,rocher generous with the nibs. Did I say perfection?

Eclair: Full disclosure — I’m a big eclair fan, but I’m all about the cream and usually don’t care for the glaze, so I tend to eclairslice off the top and spoon out the cream (because let’s face it, pate a choux doesn’t hold up). Tartine’s eclair featured fresh pastry, the “glaze” is a thick layer of Valhrona ganache (a nice surprise and a bit of a eclair 2treat). The filling is a light vanilla cream, very smooth. The caliber of the ingredients beg this eclair be eaten all together, in bites, not dissected. Only note: I prefer a custardy cream filling, Tartine’s has less body.

Gougere: I have eaten these choux and gruyere balls hot, bite-sized, with drinks. Tartine offers a softball-size version. gougeresLarger is not necessarily better so I balked, but in the end I had to. Pillowy, cheesy, chewy and pully, delicious even when sampled in the car. I think it would be improved when warmed up, but that’s a small complaint. It was seriously good, even without a cocktail.

The revelation — Cocoa Nib Cream Tart: I’ve got a bit of a thing for cocoa nibs. When I ordered the tart, I thought I was buying a lovely chocolate coated cake affair, but when Inib tart opened the box, it was a tart shell mounded with cream studded with nibs and covered with small, frais de bois-like strawberries. I appreciate fruit tarts but don’t gravitate to them. I was a bit disappointed. Until the first bite. More than whipped cream, but I don’t know why, full-bodied; tart-sweet berries; and a pastry crust that was so buttery it was almost caramelly. I never eat more than a bite of anything I buy when nib tart 2cruising bakeries. I ate every bit of this. Slowly and with relish.

Tartine Bakery, 600 Guerrero St.,  San Francisco, CA 94110; (415) 487-2600

Or at home: Tartine Bakery cookbook.

Unforgettable

Extraordinary Desserts in San Diego. A dessert-only restaurant is just about all we could ask for, really. It’s like a real restaurant with tables, napery and real silver. (You know, they may offer savory fare, but I didn’t get that far.) So you feel rather adult settling in for a treats-only meal.

Photo by Extraordinary Desserts

Everything looks spectacular. Beautifully made with real buttercream — not a lot of fondant to be found, nor too many Cake Boss architecturally profound but dubious tasting confections.

I tried the Devonshire Napoleon, a chocolate cake and a white chocolate berry cake.  All were wonderful, so much so that I lost track of the names of the cakes.  The Napoleon was perfection — cream was fluffy but rich, the pastry buttery and caramelly and flaky.

But (and I acknowledge I have buried the lead here), the best thing I had, the most unforgettable, the thing I have been tasting since I left, is the Creme Brûlée Brioche.  Fabababulous. Creamy perfect creme buried in the middle of a fresh, pully, yummy brioche. I have been thinking about it at least once a day for months.

In addition to the pastry, there’s a carefully curated shop. I bought a jar of lavender sugar — they have tea, chocolates, and other delightful comestibles.

Angelenos, it’s worth a train ride.  Everyone else…there is an online store.

Extraordinary Desserts, 1430 Union Street, San Diego; 619-294-7001

Squint. It could be Paris.

After having croissants in Paris, and yes, that’s plural, and yes that means too many consumed to count, the random “crescent” available around town just doesn’t hold up.  In truth, they didn’t before Paris, either, but one convinced oneself if it came from a place like Le Pain Quotidien (a place we love, to be sure, but…ce n’est pas Paris).

Anyway, because I brake for bakeries, I pulled over to the Sweet Butter Kitchen in Sherman Oaks recently.  Very cute, French in its own way, et voila, croissants.  Of a recognizable size (not a baseball glove, hello Starbucks). I bought one. I went to my car. I opened the box (!). I pulled off an elbow.  Buttery flakes all over — a very good sign.  One bite — very nice.  Two bites — nicer still.  Three, four, five, whatever, it was gone.

Now, I like a croissant that flakes like January in Chicago but has a sort of chewy, pully inside. These do. The butter flavor is subtle but noticeable. Not Paris, but you know, better than most of what’s on offer in le vallée de San Fernando.

I’ve since returned many times. I’ve had the croissants with jam, with marmalade — they are swell.

As to the other treats — Sweet Butter puts a heavy emphasis on the “sweet.” Well made and texturally on target, but most are tooth-achingly sugary for me.

C’est la vie.

Sweet Butter Kitchen, 13824 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; 818-788-2832