Apples have always been my favorite fruit. Baked, crisped, sauced, sautéed, turnovered, caramelized, roasted, or juiced – or best of all, just freshly picked from a tree – apples are an enduring touchstone in my life.
When I was learning the alphabet. apple always was the designation for the letter A – never avocado or apricot. I loved reading the story of Johnny Appleseed (real name John Chapman), who traveled through the Midwest, including my home state of Ohio, sowing apple seeds and developing orchards. The fact that my mom baked the best apple pie in the world and let me help her in the kitchen when she was assembling one – which, happily, was quite often – will always resonate within me.
Mom baked me an especially memorable apple pie as a going away gift when I moved to Atlanta shortly after college. My friend Ter drove with me. I stashed two forks in my purse for the road. Whenever we stopped for a break along the way, I lifted the protective foil from my precious cargo and dove into that pie with gusto and glee. Ter, bless her, declined to join in. The pie was pretty well gone after our eight-hour trip.
Restaurants don’t feature apple pie too often, and when they do, I ignore them. No one else’s pie could possibly begin to compete with Mom’s, so why bother?
Apple tarts, though, have no such restriction, so for years I’ve been intent on finding the apple tart equivalent to Mom’s apple pie. I’ve called this mission the Great Apple Tart Hunt. My research has been varied, plentiful and delicious.
Any mention of an apple tart on a menu piqued my curiosity, and I invariably ordered it. Most have been very good, and some were exceptional, but none possessed the elusive je ne sais quoi qualities that would elevate it to the status of “the one.” On my few trips to France I’ve seen that almost every café, brasserie, bistro, patisserie, and restaurant sells its own version of an apple tart. I figured that if I were to discover the apple tart holy grail, it probably would be here.
Out of the blue in Paris, it finally happened.
It’s perhaps ironic that the same day we explored Versailles, the epitome of opulence and French monarchial power, I experienced apple tart nirvana. While Versailles symbolizes over-the-top excess, my perfect apple tart reigned with simplicity and purity.
The world’s ultimate apple tart is at La Bonne Excuse, an intimate chef-owned restaurant at 48 rue de Verneuil in the seventh arrondissement. The location, near the Musée d’Orsay, was a block down the street from the apartment we rented. We just happened to pass by and decided to stop in for dinner — coincidence and destiny at work. Apple tart was on the menu, and I was in the mood.
Chef José Cabado required 20-minutes notice because he makes each one to order and serves it straight from the oven. That was a good sign. The prospects increased with the presentation – thin, barely glistening apple slices artfully overlapped in pinwheel fashion atop the flakiest, airiest, most delicate puff pastry and accompanied by a small bowl of the house-made lightly salted caramel sauce for drizzling. No ground almonds in a misguided attempt to enhance flavor or add texture. No custard filling. No ice or whipped cream. No gloppy glaze.
One bite, and I knew.
The chef’s delightful wife, Farida, who manages the front of the house, said when they opened the restaurant two years ago the apple tart was the only dessert. An apparently humble José, who perfected the apple tart over nearly 20 years working in various restaurant kitchens, was skeptical that it would be exceptional enough as the stand-alone dessert, but she convinced him otherwise. The response was overwhelming.
José’s apple tart is now the signature item, not just among the desserts, mind you, but among all their dishes. It’s the only offering that never rotates off their outstanding seasonally inspired menus. Otherwise, their customers would riot, and rightfully so.
Farida said their customers beg for the recipe, but they adamantly, albeit politely, decline. I support their decision. Some mysteries (dare I say miracles?) should be left unexplained.
“The name of our restaurant means The Good Excuse,” she said. “You have a good reason to come back.”
And how. We didn’t waste any time. We returned the next night.
The Great Apple Tart Hunt is over. I’m content.
Well, not really. Now I’m launching the Great Molten Chocolate Cake Quest! Any suggestions?