October 13, 2009
Those familiar with Paris will know that there are 2 big clusters of top chocolatiers: in and around the Rue St. Honore, and in the vicinity of St. Germain. Last time I visited the Rive Droite group, so it seemed only appropriate in a new visit to get a representative sample from the other side of the Seine. So I tried 3: Richart, Christian Constant, and Patrick Roger.
Of the 3, Richart was the unequivocal winner, and perhaps the only one that can stand up to its Rive Droite competitors such as Hevin, La Maison du Chocolat, or Cluizel. His chocolates are uniformly excellent. I tried the "Les Balsamiques" assortment - pure chocolate ganaches for the most part, with a few mild flavoured ones inserted (liquorice, malt, vanilla). The pure ganaches were great, particularly the Venezuela with powerful impact and roundness, a mostly spicy profile suggesting Carenero Superior beans. The malt flavour was also a winner: surprisingly he was able to bring out its distinctive and subtle note while retaining good chocolatiness. Texture on all was excellent, dense yet smooth. I can only provide 2 quibbles. One is the size: these are decidedly dainty chocolates, no bigger than a gooseberry, and this makes it difficult to get a full taste. A larger size would definitely improve the experience. The other more significant problem is the inability to select by piece: you have to choose an assortment, which means your're yoked to the decisions Richart has made as to what to include, quite apart from not being able to get the number you want. Inevitably assortments disappoint to some extent because there are always some in the set that wouldn't be your first choice and its unbelievably annoying when the chocolates you might like to try to get a representative cross-section are spread over the entire range of assortments. It also creates slight misgivings about freshness. Quibbles, all the same, but Richart: please give the option of piece-selection because not all chocolate is bought mostly as presents to please a relatively indiscriminate recipient.
Christian Constant is uneven. Some chocolates, such as the cardamom, are exceptional, interesting, and multidimensional, but others, such as the coffee, come off as bland and lacking in flavour. Most of the chocolates are also somewhat too sweet: the pure ganache had nice flavour but almost ended up overwhelmed by the sugar. Inexplicably, the purest ganaches also had the poorest texture. I can't say his are on a par with the better Rive Droite chocolatiers although it's clear he's trying.
Patrick Roger has the most impressive variety and also the best boutique, with full, custom selection possible down to selecting the specific piece of a given flavour you'd like. It's reassuring to have total control over piece-selection because you know then you're not at the mercy of indifferent or poorly-trained staff. Unfortunately, though, the chocolates themselves simply do not live up to the presentation. Very few had good distinctive flavours, and the almond indeed tasted suspiciously of extract. Sweetness, like Constant, was a problem as well, and many suffered from grainy texture. A jasmine chocolate proved perhaps the best as well as the most interesting of the bunch, but even that could have been more lively. In the exalted company Roger runs with, his chocolates almost seem high-street-quality by contrast. There needs to be a major effort, I think, to refocus recipes on flavour.
Still the best in Paris IMHO remains La Maison - which may be a semi-chain by now but Linxe's reputation is obviously justly earned and it might be hard to unseat him.