Le Café Gourmand

Some questions define countries. “Fromage ou dessert?” once defined France. But France has changed. Making this beautiful question obsolete. And the choice at the end of a meal even easier. For that question had shrunk to a monolithical interrogation: ”Dessert?” .

Modernity certainly comes at a price.

While dessert is worthy of a question, coffee never is. A meal without coffee in Paris is a bit like a day without alcohol in England. Something rare and peculiar. If there’s a meal, there will be coffee to wrap it up.

Over the past few decades in Paris, dessert has supplanted cheese; then slowly got supplanted by coffee. End of meals are that competitive in Paris. Recently, Parisians started blaming dessert for many of their own problems: dessert started being too pricey, too fattening, too time-consuming. Poor dessert. Meanwhile, coffee was bragging. Self-satisfied. Frequently accompanied with un ptit chocolat - taunting dessert. Arrogant little thing.

Le café gourmand is a just attempt to reconcile coffee with dessert. On one plate: an expresso and an assortment of miniature desserts just seem to celebrate the glory of bitterness and sweetness brought together. Colourful and peaceful joy.

The assortment of desserts that comes with le café gourmand usually includes un mini moelleux au chocolat, une mini crème brûlée, un mini clafoutis, and une petite boule de glace. Mini and sweet is something that satisfies the Parisian. Mini sweet is mini sin. Works.

The trick of le café gourmand is that though it is minimum sin, it is maximum indulgence. You have it all. Coffee and dessert. And multiple desserts to top it off. Restaurateurs with le café gourmand become the Parisian’s partners in crime: flattering his social sense of guilt, while stroking discretely his shameful gourmandise.

Not sure if you (want to come across as though you) still have room for dessert? Café gourmand in its plentiful discretion is here for you.

It is worthy to know though that while ordering it for lunch is fully acceptable, ordering it for dinner is much more suspicious: what at lunch time is viewed by fellow eaters as a charming expression of a sense of soft indulgence becomes in the evening a form of inability to fully enjoy. By some Parisian miracle, time of day started defining whether Le Café Gourmand had a centripetal or centrifugal influence on the self.

In the end, the surge of Cafés Gourmands in Parisian bistrots and restaurants teaches us about the evolution of the status of la gourmandise in Paris: vice in the day time, virtue at night.

Thank God for long and dark Parisian winters…

Useful tip: Screw people who make you feel bad for eating dessert.
Sound like a Parisian: “Oh ouais, tiens, un café gourmand, pourquoi pas, tiens! Alors, combien de cafés
gourmands?”

42 replies
  1. craigkite
    craigkite says:

    Some people (Lebovitz, an expert on dessert) think that a good cup of coffee is next to impossible to find in Paris. We have always enjoyed changing restaurants for coffee/dessert. The movable feast for the eyes can have a new perspective from a different table in a different neighborhood. There are so many ways to commit the subtle sins of the flesh in Paris. As long as we are going to hell, we may as well enjoy the ride. Of course, it is always nice to start the grazing process with a demi carafe at a well placed table on your way to the evening meal.

  2. Style Spy
    Style Spy says:

    My rule in Paris is, If dessert is available, eat dessert. Preferably crème brûlée. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, whenever. That being said, I’m already looking at the calendar and realizing that if I want a week in May in Paris eating crème brûlée, I’m going to have to spend all of April losing a few pounds beforehand. No matter. Totally worth it.

  3. Leesa
    Leesa says:

    Hi Olivier…

    Two points…

    I think that people are more inclined to eat ‘dessert’ wine they dine out and eat ‘cheese’ at home or with family/friend get meals. I think that people are less inclined to buy a dessert at a bakery unless for a special occasion like family or friends, though… I could be totally wrong on this.

    Second point- Just got back from three weeks of travel in Europe and found that coffee in Madrid/Lisbon/Dublin was MUCH MUCH better than in France/Italy… In fact, France beats out Italy in my book… Best coffees were in Madrid- cafe con leche– VERY strong and great taste!!! Ciao…

  4. David
    David says:

    Leesa: at home we usually eat cheese and dessert… :-)

    And I’m always amused when you guys wonder whether coffee is good or not in France. Coffee is not meant to be good, coffee is meant to be bitter and full of cafeine, that’s all. :-)

    As far as café gourmand is concerned, I see it as a negative thing, as one more manifestation of Parisian moderation (see entry on the topic): ordering a café gourmand is telling the world that you don’t dare to order a dessert (for reasons you mentioned Olivier), but you also don’t dare to order just a coffee… In other words: people that can’t assert themselves.

  5. Peter Newman-Legros
    Peter Newman-Legros says:

    Olivier! Were this 20 years ago I might be asking you when you last had your typewriter serviced, or perhaps the coffee with your café gourmand was stronger than you thought… there are three letters missed in your blog!!! Not a crime I’ll admit. They are “t” “n” and “h”. There a simple but perhaps fun game for you and/or your many many readers. I must strongly and richly disagree with the notion of one of your readers that the quality of the coffee is unimportant. It is paramount! There is, btw, perhaps another blog in the déca debate? Though a déca gourmand would be really a huge sham. And, just one final thought, cher Olivier, you’ve taught me another new word: centripetal. Now the challenge is to find an opportunity to use it. Bravo!!

  6. Patricia Manze
    Patricia Manze says:

    though I may reside 6000 miles away – my heart lies in Paris but my smile lies with you. You have no idea how much I smile when I see you have written another clever, funny portrait of, though tightly wound, the most helpful & kind people in Europe. A good life is in the details, though details can be a pain in the ass, the french understand the importance of details. If it wasn’t for the details, what would you write about? But here I eagerly sit, waiting for your next post.

  7. Stéphan
    Stéphan says:

    Olivier
    this is again true and complete !
    For me, the saddest is that people forget Cheese.
    Personnaly, I indulge in eating it with some good wine, but at home, because most of the restaurants I can afford do not have decent ones.

    Stephan

  8. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Craigkite… You seem like you know how to enjoy life. Are you American? Americans seem to love to go to a given restaurant “for desserts”. French people never do this. Which I think is quite telling about France and America’s respective relationship to food and meals. Anyway… different subject. As per the quality of coffee in Paris, i couldn’t tell you: I don’t drink coffee!!
    Style Spy… Good rule. Especially if you only live here one week a year!
    Leesa… First point – I think you’re quite right. Second – again, I couldn’t tell you. But I must say I find it always rather amusing when people draw dramatic conclusions about such or such country’s culture, food or wine after spending less than a week there. I mean, we all do it but it’s always funny.
    David… “coffee is not meant to be good”: that is one very French thing to say!! Again, I couln’t agree or disagree as I don’t drink it. But I like the spirit. I’m working on this book project – wine book let’s say. And the question of “good” in wine has also become central too. Problem is: good to most people just means sweet. Leesa’s “cafe con leche” comment makes me think a similar evolution is happening in the world of coffee. Anyway – I digress.
    Peter… :-) Ok – spotted the first two. As per the heated coffee debate… I don’t think David was referring to quality, more to style and to the nature of the product. Might be wrong though. If I recall, you work as a coach right: I mean this is the perfect job to use a term like centripetal! Keep us posted!
    Patricia… Well thank you for such a lovely note. I woke up to it: put me in a good mood! And to answer your question, I think details reveal a lot if you’re attentive enough. Writing through that tiny door is a good constraint for me. I’ll try not to disapoint in the future: smiles are good.
    Stephan… Good cheese, from good cheesemongers: very much worth the money! Thanks for your continued support!

  9. Lin
    Lin says:

    I have tried many desserts. Ooh yes. I love cafe gourmand because it enables you to try many tastes…
    And if I was asked whether I wish a dessert, I would assume the question encompasses cheese as well… But, gourmandise ruling, I would pass out on cheese and go for…Oh my, I MISS FRENCH PATISSERIES:)

  10. noëlle
    noëlle says:

    Wait, I’m not sure if I understand… It’s “indulgent” to order dessert, but not to order FOUR desserts at a time?! Sure, those desserts may be “mini”, but when you add them all together I’m sure they add up to more calories than what one single dessert would be, no?

  11. Kris
    Kris says:

    I do agree that just a small taste or piece of chocolate with coffee satisfies the desire for something sweet. I find that the first two bites are always the best and if I eat more it takes away from the initial excitement of having something sweet.

    My favorite of course is cream brulee.

    Kris

  12. Stefanie
    Stefanie says:

    1. I can’t stop staring at the pictures….

    2. I can not understand how anyone would think of the cafe gourmand as a bad thing. It’s like the tapas of desserts, allowing you to try several different things. It is not a matter of more or less calories, choosing dessert vs. cheese or being indecisive, it’s a matter of being in the mood for it. If you are not, get something else. Granted it obviously isn’t an every day thing, but I see it as another option when I feel the desire to treat myself to something nice. Plus if there is something you don’t like you can usually manage to trade with the person you are out with for a mini dessert that is more suiting – can’t do that with a full dessert. France did right by this little creation.

  13. Rachelle
    Rachelle says:

    I’ll take all three, thank you! But even if I don’t have dessert, I know that the coffee will usually be delivered with something. Hell, I’m satisfied usually with the little cinnamon biscuit (speculos(?).
    But I really hate having to choose between cheese and dessert. It’s why I run….

  14. lagatta à montréal
    lagatta à montréal says:

    Fromage!

    I like savouries; don’t particularly care for sweets. Crème brûlée and such desserts that resemble savouries might be an exception.

    I love coffee, but it is usually espresso, not anything with milk and certainly not sugar. So it must be good. We won’t even mention those ghastly “coffee drinks”. They are to coffee as coolers are to wine. And no coffee after the evening meal.

  15. Ingo
    Ingo says:

    Excellent post. eSpresso (note this spelling) and dessert after a meal. Paris is really untucking it’s oxford shirt. I do like the idea of coming up with ways to allow people to enjoy themselves without guilt. “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) Of course this time, not directed to the possibly fictional starving peasants by an unknown queen. Oh yea, and people in the US pretty much don’t eat dessert or drink coffee after a meal, especially not at the same restaurant. :)

  16. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Aviv… Thanks for the interesting link.
    Barbra… C’est vrai!
    Peter… 2 out of 3 – not too bad. As per your kindest comment, it’s actually a team of 8 people writing this blog! ;-)
    Lin… Cheese is very different from dessert. I agree with you… French patisserie really is unrivaled!
    Noelle…. Stoooopppp… you’re ruining the Parisians’ pleasure here!
    Kris… Such a girl!
    Stefanie…Is the message of your second point to say that I’m a twisted individual? ;-)
    Rachelle… That is a good approach: eating and exercising. You American girls should teach a thing or two to French girls – who tend to prefer not eating and not exercising.
    Lagatta… Funny how your comment resonates with David’s. Un axe franco-quebecois serait-il en train de poindre?
    Ingo… Love that quote. Will start using it!

  17. Stefanie
    Stefanie says:

    …I give your country a compliment on your food which I believe I am agreeing with you on this point, and you turn it into an insult. Oh my god, you really are Parisian!!! ;-) Well, if nothing else you have gotten an American to have the need to defend a dessert.

  18. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Stefanie… Are you calling me gay now? ;-)
    Susu Paris Chic… I think I don’t have the “fashionable attitude”!
    Caro… Pas tres élégant mais assez juste!

  19. Stéphan
    Stéphan says:

    Olivier

    I was in Paris the other day and realized that Parisians LOVE to show their iPhone.
    They walk in the streets with the iPhone in their hand and the famous white ear phones… so funny they have to show their phone…
    Stephan

  20. Leesa
    Leesa says:

    Hi Oliver,

    Just wondering– Your response,
    “But I must say I find it always rather amusing when people draw dramatic conclusions about such or such country’s culture, food or wine after spending less than a week there. I mean, we all do it but it’s always funny.” – was that in regard to my personal observation that I greatly preferred some countries coffees over others? Or were you referring to something else? Because I was wondering if you were referring to what I wrote, I wondered what was amusing about it…. That I could like coffee more in some countries less than others? I think we all draw our own conclusions based on our personal experiences.. My husband still remembers where and when he had the best crêpe eaten, even though it was 9 years ago!

  21. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Stephan… Very true! :-)
    Leesa… Yup, it referred to your remark. I mean, 5 countries in 3 weeks sounds like a fantastic adventure but probably not enough time in each to have an accurate vision of the food scene there. I mean, you can spend one week in Paris or London and eat every single meal in a crap restaurant or reversely in a fantastic place. Same city – different experience! That’s all I’m saying!

  22. Leesa
    Leesa says:

    O -
    Thanks for the clarification.. Got it.. definitely spot on, too! If you have any suggestions for good coffee in Paris other than Malongo @Odeon.. let me know, stp… You can check my blog, if you’ve got a moment… News From France
    Merci et bonne soirée

  23. pigletinfrance
    pigletinfrance says:

    What a totally true article. I will never forget cheese and will always favour cheese over dessert (or have both!) if available on the menu.

    I had the France’s worst café gourmand in Pezenas, Languedoc – it was a coffee, a biscuit and a chocolate mousse thing that looked like it was a Danette creme or something that had gone off and therefore a bit frothy… Certainly didn’t look anything like your lovely photos :(

  24. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Leesa… (glad you’re not upset). I couldn’t tell you where to find good coffee as I don’t drink it. If others have suggestions, I guess this is a good place to post about it! Thanks!
    PigletinFrance… Cool screen name! Sorry to hear about your café gourmand misshap. The Languedoc is a great region though. Love it there!

  25. Leesa
    Leesa says:

    Hi Olivier….

    You don’t drink coffee and I don’t drink wine… Well, that’s okay if you don’t know but I’m sure some of your readers might… If anyone knows a place that serves up a nice -full, rich and bitter coffee with a tad of milk… let me know, please!
    I wrote a post about it on my blog, as I was inspired by yours, Olivier… seems like we have some readers in common…
    Cheers,
    Leesa

  26. Lil
    Lil says:

    I’m a little late to this party but let me just say, all desserts are gooood. More selection in mini sizes, even better. Variety is the key to happiness :D

    So you can understand, when a favourite restaurant of mine in a top hotel (in Dublin though, not Paris) changed their meal system from dessert buffet to starter buffet, and gave me a platter of selection of dessert instead, I got a little upset. Sure, I still have lots to try (about 7-8 bite size goodies) but I want the dessert buffet back!

    Never underestimate the power of all things sweet and wonderful ;)

  27. Olivier Magny
    Olivier Magny says:

    Leesa… :-) Wish I could be more helpful!
    Lil… I agree, desserts buffets are glorious. It is true though that from a restaurant’s standpoint, financially, it’s a no-brainer, much better off with a starter’s buffet!
    ElodieVeryPetit… I try to keep things somewhat close to the truth! Bienvenue en tout cas!

  28. Jenni
    Jenni says:

    I love Cafe Gourmand! I wish restaurants offered it here in the USA. Of course I appreciate Parisian restaurants that offer cheese, normal size desserts and a cafe gourmand as options. Since I’m a pastry chef, I’m often “tasting” sweets all day at work, and the cafe gourmand allows me to try a restaurant’s desserts but on a smaller scale.

  29. brad
    brad says:

    Olivier, loved your “‘heated’ coffee debate” quip. You can crack yourself up quite nicely with bits like that.

    As for mini-deserts, the rage here in LA is what they call “Small Plates” really an adaptation on tapas, which allow people to think they are consuming fewer calories than they actually are. Everyone here is obsessed with their weight, therefore the restos have adjusted accordingly.

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