FEB 2001

4th ANNUAL VALENTINEíS CHOCOLATE REVIEW

Puisque Je Tíaime: Chocolate and More at Le Petit Prince

"You just canít find any real bakeries around here," the woman was saying. She had just arrived at a dinner party full of people I didnít know, where I was listening much more than talking. "Well, there is one great bakery that Iíve found about 45 minutes from here," she went on. I tuned in more closely. "You have to drive to Birmingham, but itís worth it." I was nodding, knowing now where she was going. "Their brioche is fabulous, and they make amazing pastries." I was rising out of my chair. "Itís off 14 Mile, I think, near Woodward."

I couldnít hold it in any longer. "Le Petit Prince!" I exclaimed in the same moment she said it. We laughed, while others looked on dumbfounded. Never having visited this French import, nestled in a four-shop strip mall on the corner of 14 Mile and Pierce Street, the rest of the dinner guests couldnít fathom the value of this knowledge. So when it came to writing my fourth annual chocolate column for "Local Flavor," I decided that Birmingham would have to be local enough to justify letting you in on this delicious secret.

Itís hard to know where to begin, which is what youíll feel when you walk in the door. The heady scent of baked bread and sweets envelopes you as you stand in front of the old-fashioned wooden cases filled with croissants and baguettes, almond and butter cookies, meringues and ganache, tarts and custards. My eye quickly settles on the decorated pastries, the g‚teaux de soiree (cakes for evening), that I donít want to wait until evening to eat. These tiny treasures come in a seemingly endless variety of bite-size morsels: cakes frosted with chocolate icing and chocolate shavings, vanilla-iced ťclairs, double-decker cream puffs, perfect little custard pies with strawberries on top, puff pastries with hazelnut cream, and cakes shaped and decorated like bunnies, frogs, cats, and porcupines.

They look so good, you think they couldnít possibly taste very good. You know, like when you were a kid and found out that giant Easter bunnies may look to-die-for on the shelf but turn out to be hollow cardboard chocolate. Anyway, if youíre worried about being fooled at Le Petit Prince, you can relax. The pastries taste even better than they look. What you thought was simply cake inside that pretty packaging reveals itself to be layers of chocolate butter cream and light crunchy meringue. Or the little boat-shaped pastry with chocolate icing that might just be a frosted wafer instead discloses a soft buttery cookie topped with an equally thick layer of dark chocolate fudge, sealed under a hard, candy-like dark chocolate coating. They call it imperial. An apt name.

If youíre used to ťclairs with lots of eggy bread and only a little gooey custard, youíll learn what real ťclairs are supposed to be like. These have twice as much cold, creamy filling as moist bread. I gave my husband a bite of the chocolate ťclair (with a light chocolate filling and a strip of rich chocolate icing on top) as part of the grueling research for this article. "What do you have to say about it?" I asked. "Oh, oh, wonderful, oh, yum," was his answer. I wrote it down.

The chef responsible for all these creations is Marcel Didierjean, who moved here from France in 1979. He and his wife Yvette soon opened Le Petit Prince in this location, long before the upscale Birmingham of today, and far from the downtown snobbery. Yvette, who works behind the counter and bursts with pride over her husbandís genius, told me that Marcel began studying baking at age 16. Now 44, he still arrives to work by four A.M. ("sometimes two or three oíclock, depending," Yvette told me) and stays until eight or nine at night. (Theyíre open 9:00-7:00 Tuesday-Saturday and 9:00-2:00 Sunday.)

"Itís hard to find help," Yvette explained. "We used to bring over chefs from France, but immigration wonít let them come anymore. And no one here knows how to do this." I wondered about apprentices, but she said they take time to train, when all this baking has to get done, day after day. She gestured toward the shelves of goodies, but the evidence was clear. In addition to the delicate pastries, Le Petit Prince offers a wide selection of fresh-baked breads, including loaves of wheat and white bread, plain and almond croissants, and two-foot long baguettes that are the perfect mix of crunchy, soft, and chewy textures. Friends who have visited France have told me that this is what a baguette is supposed to be like, and they are overjoyed to find a domestic source for this staple.

The offerings donít stop there. Another shelf holds over a dozen hand-made chocolates, including dark chocolate truffles and real chocolate-covered cherries: a whole cherry, including the stem, surrounded in a cherry liqueur, and drenched in dark chocolate. You have to pop the whole thing in your mouth to keep from making a mess; Yvette will warn you not to break a tooth on the cherry pit.

For Valentineís Day, another shelf holds trays of heart-shaped milk chocolates with "LOVE" printed on top in red or white lettering. You can buy assorted boxes of chocolates in pretty red packages for your sweetie, or you can even buy heart-shaped boxes made of chocolate, with more chocolates hiding under the lid. "Marcel trained for two years on chocolate in Switzerland," Yvette told me, and you can taste the Swiss style in these treats. Milk chocolate isnít my favorite, but this is as good as it gets.

I havenít even gotten to the cookies, but Iím sure you get the idea by now. Without meaning to dis our local establishments, thereís nothing like this bakery in the Ann Arbor area. I had no idea what "baking" really was until I went to Le Petit Prince. And even thought itís Birmingham, you donít have to fill your wallet to enjoy it. Most individual items are less than $2, many less than $1. To refresh my memory for writing this piece (oh, the hardship of it all), I bought two loaves of bread, six pastries, two cookies, and two chocolates for $22. A steal, considering what it would cost to fly to France. And a much shorter trip too.

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