Gaston Lenotre. Jacques Torres. Pierre Hermes. Sadaharu Aoki. Wait -- who?
I know - Tokyo probably isn't the first place you think of when it comes to pâtisserie talent, but my guess is Sadaharu Aoki has caused the culinary world to give the Land of the Rising Sun a second look.
On his website Aoki writes, "I like to create simple things, but it is the most difficult thing to do, since simple things cannot be manipulated." A perhaps obvious but important truth, illuminating what must be the biggest challenge to any chef who lands in France - with its famed regional produce and its inhabitants who love simple, delicious food.
Aoki's flagship store in the Sixieme, just a block from the Luxembourg gardens, is a tiny, minimalist place. The store is buzzing when I arrive - with both Parisians and Aoki's fellow countrymen, whose combined purchasing power and enthusiasm for amazing pastry clearly make the shop a success.
The pastries are exactly what you might expect of a Japanese chef interpreting French classics - modern, clean lines and curves, vibrant colors, blends of French (chantilly) and Asian (green tea) flavors. I'm drawn to the wavy ribbon of chocolate curving across the Forêt noire. Of course, Black Forest Cake, or Schwarzwälder-Kirsch-Torte originates in Germany. In the United States the delicacy is usually made without liquor and frosted with white buttercream frosting.
Thankfully, teetotalers have not prevailed in Paris or at Aoki - but chocolate has; nestled between the delicate layers of chocolate cake and chocolate creme are kirsch-soaked cherries that burst in the mouth. The chocolate flavors in both the cake and creme are subtle so as not to overpower the cherries - clearly pre-eminent in the dish. The chocolate ribbon is also tame and that would be my one criticism - the eater will obviously consume the treat separately from the cake, so why not flavor it with cherry or make it extra-rich and dark?
Aside from this tiny issue, my general impression of Aoki is somewhere between awe and mmm. Germans, Americans, and French bakers could all learn a thing or two from this guy, as this Forêt Noire is, in a word, oishii.