Better Than Willy Wonka
An Amazing Trove of Gorgeous Sweets on Queen Anne
Café de Lion is like an extra-elegant, French-inspired version of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. It's much smaller, but it still makes your senses explode.
When you walk in the door, you're magnetically pulled to a refrigerated pastry case full of stunning desserts with names like "Choco-dome," "Zen," and "Strawberry Planet" (!). Though "Fruit Tart" doesn't sound innovative, Café de Lion's version—a magnificent heap of cream, fresh berries, and custard—makes every other fruit tart pale in comparison. On top of the case, there are little slices of fruitcake full of bright chunks of candied fruit, and golden madeleines wrapped in cellophane bags. There's a rainbow of pale pink, brown, and green French macaroons stacked in long rows.
In the window sits a display of jars filled with pretty layers of milk caramel and strawberry jam, or orange and kiwi preserves, just waiting to be spread on a baguette. Toward the back of the shop, instead of a chocolate fountain that could swallow Augustus Gloop, a glass apparatus—a series of containers and tubes—is slowly dripping Café de Lion's toddy, an iced coffee drink that takes about eight hours to brew.
If you take a seat, you notice noncheesy jazz and piano music playing, and you're soon given a warm washcloth for your hands. The washcloth smells like flowers.
There are no Oompa Loompas, but sometimes you see an Oompa Loompa–sized person running around: a 4-year-old named Lion. His parents, Daisuke and Tomoyo Miura, named Café de Lion after him. The kid's and the cafe's name are pronounced, roughly, "leon"—Daisuke says they liked both the symbolism of the king of the animals and the French way with the word.
Daisuke tends the front of the shop and all the coffee contraptions (they also offer the usual menu of espresso drinks and a Dutch-style drip that only takes three minutes), and his wife, Tomoyo, is the woman behind the array of Japanese-influenced French desserts.
Because Tomoyo doesn't speak much English, Daisuke translates most of what she says. Through her husband, she tells me she discovered her pastry talents while living in Paris. She originally traveled there to study fashion, then spent a year and a half working with a pastry chef at a hotel—someone who would get in trouble if they were named. Mysterious! It just makes her creations that much more alluring.
When Tomoyo finished school, and she and Daisuke moved to the States, she found that American fashion didn't match her style. She decided to move forth with pastries. But, she says through Daisuke, pastry and fashion are "exactly the same, process-wise." Just as a fashion designer would consider and construct every millimeter of their haute couture, Tomoyo does the same with every piece of edible art at Café de Lion—from taste to presentation.
The almond flour is ground in the cafe's kitchen. The powdered food coloring, used to decorate sheets of chocolate accents and enhance the color of some of the mousses, is also made by Tomoyo—using finely ground dried fruit. (Seriously!) The Valrhona chocolate (found in the Choco-dome) comes from Paris. Café de Lion's special blend of sugar is a mix of cane sugar and brown sugar from Okinawa. Tomoyo only uses produce that is fresh and in season, so the contents of her pastry case are constantly changing.
The Hoji is Lion's favorite dessert. Hoji is a roasted green tea from Japan, and Tomoyo pairs a Hoji-flavored mousse with a magically rich yet weightless chocolate mousse, stacking them in a short tower atop a crunchy almond cookie. The taste is explosive, and only subtly sweet (Tomoyo thinks most American desserts are too sugary), and the texture of the mousse is heavenly—whipped to such a delicate, melt-in-your-mouth state, you'd think a small army of angels was responsible for its existence.
The Apricot Blanc is similar in structure to the Hoji—a tower of white mousse and apricot mousse stacked on top of a chewy chocolate-caramel cookie. With sweetened apricot compote inside and on top, it tastes like the glowing orange clouds in a breathtaking sunset.
The Lemon Tart is refreshingly sharp and covered with the richest meringue I've ever tasted—its peaks are toasty-browned to match the buttery crust—while the Choco-dome is a chocolate-covered dome of hazelnut mousse, topped with a fresh raspberry. I did not get to try the coconut pudding topped with fresh mangos, served in its own little pedestal cup, but I've been dreaming of it ever since.
As incredible as Tomoyo's creations are, she is only one woman (and a wife and mother), so it is not rare for Café de Lion's pastry case to run dry before the day is over.
"Production is limited," says Daisuke. "That's why we call ourselves 'boutique.' It's like a museum or a gallery. Every item is a limited edition."
Café de Lion is meant to be experienced with all senses—it is a place where one can easily spend an hour or more simply tasting, smelling, listening, and looking.
"In Japan, and here in Seattle," Daisuke continues, "we thought people move too fast. They want a quick lunch, a quick this, a quick that. People need some time to relax, to enjoy the dessert and the taste."
It's even better than Willy Wonka's factory—and caving to Café de Lion's temptations won't get you blown up into a human-sized blueberry. It will just make you happy.