A cake is a cake is a cake.

Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis
Sous-Bois: mousse au cassis, bavarois au Kirsch, biscuit jaconde, confiture de cassis

In one of Will Smith’s celebrated films, The Pursuit of Happyness, there was this line that I could recall:

“I started thinking about Thomas Jefferson on the Declaration of Independence and the part about our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And I remember thinking how did he know to put the pursuit part there? That maybe happiness is something that we can only pursue and maybe we can never have it. No matter what. How did he know that?”

Amidst an ongoing debate on the pervasive ‘paper chase’ in my country, I thought it was apt to revisit this quote. The socio-cultural sentiment, that qualifications are sieves which separate the successful from the rest, has affected me personally. I am stuck in business school, when I’d rather be in the kitchen. While I am encouraged that there is such debate, it is equally difficult to conceive any imminent change in perspectives. One step at a time, but we must also consider how we relate success to happiness. This is an age-old concern, yet we are still so blind.

Rat race or paper chase, is happiness its attainable goal? Or are we doomed to Sisyphus’ fate in an absurd pursuit, in which we must imagine ourselves happy? Who is Sisyphus anyway? Why does he have such a difficult name to pronounce?

In seeking these answers, let’s not neglect the obvious fact that Sisyphus didn’t have any cake while we do. Because if we can’t have happiness, we can have cake. Let us eat cake.

Last summer, my pursuit has brought me to Tokyo. I didn’t know much about Japanese pâtissiers; I only had chez Hidemi Sugino on my ‘must-visit’ list, thanks to his fame in the blogosphere. By little coincidence, I stayed two blocks away from his unassuming shop. On my third day in Tokyo, I decided to join the queue only 15 minutes before opening. This indifference was duly punished as the signature cake – ‘ambroisie’, was snapped up by those who came even earlier. Disheartened, but unbeaten, I chose four other petits gâteaux to share between my Dad and I. Three days later, I made another visit, only to miss the signature again, but two other cakes made up for that.

All in all, I tasted six cakes out of the 20 over that were charmingly displayed on the cake counter. (You see, I always had a thing for cake counters.) Each of the six has its own merits, but I was particularly inspired by the Framboisier. No photos were allowed, so words will have to suffice. Simply put, this layered cake accentuates our love for raspberries. Alternating layers of buttercream and jaconde offer soft and creamy textures on the palate, while the centre slice of jelly and garnishing raspberries present the refreshing and tangy aspect of this red midsummer gem. A layer of craquelin which sits atop the cake provides a crunchy distinction. With its shades and hues of red, and perfect layering, this cake grabs glances and robs hearts. As a whole, there is contrast, balance, and elegance, notwithstanding the fact that all elements comprise raspberries. Such is a dessert in which the ingredient humbles the chef, and the chef does justice to the ingredient.

The rest of the cakes were delights too. Amber Noix was a classic combination of chocolate, caramel and walnuts. Sous-Bois­ made another berry heaven. Tartelette au caramel passion, a bountiful tart of nuts and dried fruits wallowing in a smooth and rich passionfruit caramel, complemented by a quenelle of vaporous crème Chantilly. Charme was griottes, enough said, and Geometrin had an interesting, enlightening pairing of grapefruit and mint. Perhaps they weren’t all mind-blowing, but in chez Sugino I realized how simplicity doesn’t preclude ingenuity. After all, it takes most skill to execute the basics well beyond perfection.

On my first visit, Chef Sugino walked into the salon de thé from the kitchen. The gray hues of his hair suggested a certain frailty, at the same time an evidence of his dedication in decades. In his chef jacket, apron and clogs too, he glanced across the room in all modesty. He approached two boys accompanied by their mother for an afternoon treat, and they traded some words. I was too far away to hear anything, nor could I understand. Yet from the humble grin Chef Sugino revealed as he returned to the kitchen, I could imagine that to be his happiness, if not, close enough.

It’s not just about the fish.

Akami-zuke
Akami-zuke

I have never liked sushi. It’s not that I hate it, but I haven’t actually go to great lengths to appreciate it. Fancy sushi restaurants cost a bomb, and affordable places serve sushi that warrants little merit. Cold, over-sized rice balls ruins the tastiest fish, while tasty fish don’t come by cheap.

On my fifth trip to Japan, I thought I should try some serious sushi. Everybody knows about Sushi Jiro, because it has three-michelin stars, because Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and because President Obama dined there. Unfortunately, I’m just a poor nobody who can’t speak Japanese, and so I had to opt for a more casual, but still serious, affair. A brief search on the Internet led me to Sushi Iwa.

Sushi Iwa is a small restaurant located in Ginza. It isn’t far from Tsukiji market where over 300 sushi restaurants around the area get their fresh produce from. With only six seats, every customer gets the chef’s undivided care and attention. There were two chefs on the counter, and Chef Tsunoda prepared our meal for lunch. I didn’t ask, but Chef Tsunoda seemed to have taken over as head chef/owner, whereas the blog posts, which I referred to, named him as the sous-chef. Such are petty matters… besides, it made an impressionable sushi experience.

For this virgin venture, my Dad and I chose the 13-piece set lunch, over the 10-piece set and the dinner omakase. There was tai, saba, karei, akamizuke, toro, bonito, ika, hotate, some crab, anago, and I can’t name the rest. I can’t remember the exact order either, which is important in a sushi meal. The chef pressed the rice à la minute, taking care of the temperature of both the rice and the fish, and asked us if the amount of wasabi was alright. Everything was fresh and the natural flavors of the sea shone through. It is difficult to name any favorite, because I never had better of each kind. The saba, the toro, the bonito, the ika… the hotate, the anago… breathe, restraint, breathe… you get the point.

What makes sushi serious anyway? Fresh seafood, restrained use of rice, or serving them at the right temperatures and in the right order? As a novice in all things, I can’t give an informed answer. What I know to be true, is that food becomes serious when chefs are committed to their business. The respect for ingredients, the dedication towards technique, the drive for precision… these may all sound frivolous to the common populace, but in the pursuit for better food, if the men and women in white jackets and tall hats do not uphold these ideals, who would?

From the sushi to the hospitality, Chef Tsunoda’s belief in his craft is noticeable in his actions. What I could admire more is his humility, which I think all chefs, or in fact everyone, should have. At the end of the meal, we chatted for a while, about sushi, pastry, and the weather. He walked us out, and stood outside the place to see us off. I walked away that summer afternoon, knowing that I would be back some day for a great meal, which is so much more than good food alone.

Chef Tsunoda
Chef Tsunoda

Tarte au Citron: A Perfect Tang

The perfect tang.
The perfect tang.

I have put off writing for some time, in part due to a recent development in my living arrangement that has left me in partial distraught, and in another part, I was bothered about the legitimacy of writing about food. The former was an unexpected incident of which I am scarce with explanation in respect for privacy. The latter happens to all of us every now and then.

With the return flight in sight at the end of this month, my fervent search for the most inspiring pastry in Paris went up a few notches. While I have tasted a couple of chocolate entremets recently, and made some notes for writing about them, I haven’t had the motivation to churn out a proper post, for all that has happened. They were good, of course, but that’s all I could bring myself to say.

My practical exam in school looms ahead, followed by a trip to Rome next week (with good chance I could witness the emergence of the white smoke from the conclave). I’ve been busy, and I still am, but that is no exemption from a Saturday morning of pastry and coffee.

That led to my first tasting of pastries at La Chocolaterie de Jacques Genin. It wasn’t until this January that he had stopped daily production of his impressive repertoire of pastries, preferring to focus on chocolates instead. Foodies familiar with Paris would know his eclairs and tarte au citron are legen-wait-for-it-dary, and fate ordains (pardon for the cliche  that the tarte au citron was available today. It was the only thing that could pull me out of my current existential crisis, and will me to write this post.

I have had a number of lemon tarts that I could easily give a D – for disappointment. In fact, I’ve never had a satisfactory one, so perhaps my prior disappointments were unfounded. At long last, a work of genius justified just how perfect this simple tart could be. Having read a couple of food blogs, I’ve picked up the advice of not using superlatives to describe food, but this would prove to be difficult.

So what makes a perfect tarte au citron? No doubt, the key lies in the lemon cream, although a notable effort must be invested in the tart shell. There was nothing to complain about that of this particular tart – it was crisp, fragrant with butter, thin and crumbly. Going back to the lemon filling – lemon is a difficult flavor to work with. Choosing a wrong variety, or incorporated too much will warrant decaying teeth. One could either use sugar or butter, or both, to balance out the acidity and draw out the refreshing sparkle of the exemplary citrus fruit. Unfortunately, it is hard to come by one with the perfect equilibrium. Some have it too sweet; they have ‘sugar tarts’ instead. Some have it too buttery, which weighed down on the palate. Many others err on having an excess of both. Fortunately, there was Monsieur Jacques Genin.

A friend of mine would say that I’m a die-hard fan of this contemporary master. He’s a fan of Jean-Paul Hévin, and I could understand why. That said, I might have thrown him into disarray, having suggested a session of pastries at M. Genin’s. I could be biased, so having someone else to taste the tarte au citron was a reassurance. To my delight, we ended up with a consensus, that the lemon cream held a delicate harmony. It was smooth, yet it wasn’t greasy. It was light, yet the citrus taste was strong and tangy. The best part – the acidity was well sequestered with the sugar and the cream, and precisely only at the end of every mouthful, so one could appreciate the full glory of lemons without having to shrivel up one’s face. The artful balance saved the tart from a meringue garnish – something too sweet for my liking. Instead, it had fine slices of fresh basil that imparted a herb-y dimension to the lemon cream. Perfect. Period.

My words doesn’t justify his genius, so I could only implore my readers to hunt down this tart should opportunity allow. On my part, I would try to replicate this back home, but this is certainly a tall order. M. Genin used lime for his lemon tarts, or so I’ve read from various sources. I could get a book he has published, solely on his tarte au citron, but secrets would remain as secrets. On a side note, my friend had the ‘made-to-order’ millefeuille with chocolate, and it was also a masterpiece. I needn’t say more.

I've never liked millefeuilles. This changed that.
I’ve never liked millefeuilles. This changed that.

Grand Cru: A splendid ensemble.

Grand Cru from La Pâtisserie des Rêves
Grand Cru from La Pâtisserie des Rêves

Over the past few days, I have busied myself with revision for a theory exam that passed yesterday. I didn’t have time to write until now. That is a partial truth, because there is always time for pastries. To my horror, I am starting to sound like an addict, with an unhealthy obsession for sweets. Call it an occupational hazard being a culinary student, but the thought of not having enough pastries before my return irks me. In just over a month’s time, I would no longer run into a boulangerie or pâtisserie on every other street. Nonetheless, I still hold some hope for decent pastries back home, with all sincerity and faith.

Sometimes, the idea of decadence bugs me. Am I being a downright hedonist, self-indulgent in good food and turning a blind eye to the cruel realities of others? In all honesty, I am unprepared to answer this question here, and I don’t wish to go any further in this series on food. To keep it simple, I’d rather savor food than hoard personal effects. Paris may be the capital of fashion, the city of love, but I would have none of that. It is certainly not the only city where one can find good food, but it is one of the many places. Short as my stay may be, I have come to hold greater respect for food, not just necessarily the superfluous, but also the basic. I will leave my reflections nearer to the end of my stay, and now I’ll begin on that which has first captured your attention to this post.

As previously mentioned, I had gotten the Grand Cru from La Pâtisserie des Rêves. As a new learner of the language, trying to grasp French from everyday conversations and unstructured self-study (what’s worse – a lack of discipline), the name befuddles me. A direct translation gives “the great raw”. Perhaps a better interpretation would be “the great vintage/vineyard,” but that doesn’t really help in the context. Google searches tell me that this term is used primarily in the wine industry, to refer to a land with great potential for great wine. And a somewhat helpful definition from ChocoParis: Grand cru chocolate – Chocolate made with beans from a particular region. Mystery solved? Not quite. But a visit to the patisserie’s website (a well-designed and comprehensive one) explained it all. All the chocolate in this cake is from Samana and nowhere else. Well… that’s an anti-climax answer for all that Sherlock action, but I was rewarded with a wonderful video, which I have embedded at the end of this post.

Cross section of the Grand Cru
Cross section of the Grand Cru

While I cannot (at least not yet) translate what is explicated in the video by the chef himself, M. Philippe Conticini, here’s my own take on this petite dessert. I have above a (perhaps unprofessional) photo of its cross-section. Underneath the chocolate glaze lies the chocolate mousse, enveloping a chocolate ganache layer atop a chocolate biscuit cuillère (the same type of biscuit as in lady’s finger), with a chocolate coustillant sitting at the base. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. If you’ve watched the video first, impatient you, that’s probably the only thing you would understand if you don’t know French.

It would seem uninteresting and plain, in terms of taste, to have everything made with the same chocolate. It wasn’t. The catch was in the coustillant; it had a fair amount of fleur de sel incorporated. (FYI: “fleur de sel is a hand-harvested sea salt collected by workers who scrape only the top layer of salt before it sinks to the bottom of large salt pans” – wikipedia). That complex flair of saltiness worked out perfectly with the dark and intense Samana chocolate. With every mouthful comes the chocolate taste that chocolate lovers would die for, only to be succeeded by a refreshing kick of salt to the top of your palate. For sure, the use of salt instead of an acidic fruit as a contrast to chocolate isn’t new. But it has to be done right. In one other pastry I’ve tried, of which I wouldn’t name because it was a shame to a good reputation, the salt overwhelmed everything and it was immensely awful. The balance for the Grand Cru was done just right – the chocolate had ample time to work its magic before the salt comes in just in the end to make its presence known.

The rest of the layers didn’t just stand by and watch. They were skilfully textured; even with the same chocolate used throughout, it certainly doesn’t feel like having a bite from a chocolate tablet. The moist biscuit with the crumbly coustillant, and the dense ganache with the light mousse, all play their part to make a splendid ensemble, not forgetting the dark glaze that draws the curtain at the lips. The play of taste and texture… it was a performance deserving of an encore.

All that high-flown rhetoric aside, the Grand Cru is a well-made dessert and I would pay for another one. It might not be the best chocolate entremet I’ve tasted, but it has earned a place on my list of “pastries I would miss back home.” Take a minute to watch the video below, but be warned not to drool. Food is a universal language. And what I really admire is the humble pride and passion the chef holds for his creations.