Don't be fooled by the lack of ambiance on that solitary stretch of road between Huntersville and Cornelius. Within one outcropping of a rather plain-looking white strip center, next to the North Meck Substance Abuse center, is a bit of whimsy -- a bit of Paris.
Chef Kristin Bou Zeidan, originally from Buffalo, N.Y., was working in Boston when she decided to enroll in a culinary school. She chose Le Cordon Bleu in Paris for "their more concentrated training." At the Cordon Bleu, students are taught how to make chocolate without high-end, top of the line, innovative equipment. Bou Zeidan says that many of her classmates were from places around the world where high-end equipment would be extraordinarily expensive or impractical. She says it's relatively easy to add the equipment for convenience, but she's as comfortable making chocolate the way it has been made in Europe for centuries: by hand.
A love for chocolate isn't the only thing Bou Zeidan discovered in Paris. Here she met her husband Elie Bou Zeidan, a native of Lebanon who had spent 18 years in Paris where he had become an artist. They have two young sons.
With her Le Cordon Bleu Grand Diploma, Bou Zeidan returned to the U.S. determined to open a bakery. The Bou Zeidans wanted to be on the East Coast, but narrowed that search to this area and then proceeded to establish their shop close to Davidson College with access to the Charlotte Douglas International Airport with its direct flights to Paris.
Last November, they quietly opened La Parisienne Fine Chocolate: Chocolate, Coffee and Wine with co-owner Nancy Rezek. Kristin Bou Zeidan works alone in her kitchen. Elie Bou Zeidan mans the retail counter and teaches painting twice a week in the shop.
The old saw in confections is that chocolates should look like they taste. If that is true, Chef Kristin has taken chocolates to an ethereal level. When you open the door to their quaint shop, you become enveloped into their world. The aroma of chocolate fills this small room dotted with bistro-styled tables. Elie's paintings of Paris and the French countryside enhance the walls. A small wine rack contains well chosen bottles of mostly French wines and Champagnes with a few local bottles from Childress Vineyards. Prices range from $8 to $30 and glass is sold by the bottle or by the glass.
But the draw here are the stunningly beautiful chocolates lined up in parade formation rows within the glass display case. Some are swirled in vibrant colors; others boast a singular leaf or curl. All have the perfect sheen. These chocolates are appealing in their simplicity yet uber-fresh tasting. Each shell snaps with a bite, revealing lush interiors, intensively flavorful with a creative spin. Some are traditional flavors, such as pistachio or hot chocolate. Others use sage, lavender and mint in wildly innovative combinations. The Bou Zeidans are committed to this unique flavor creation. The Lebanese mint chocolate is produced with mint brought from Elie's hometown and then planted in their home garden here. The selection changes daily.
Kristin notes that the difficult part of establishing a shop such as this is the educational curve. She says Americans have a habit of buying candy and keeping it for a while. However, artisan chocolates have more in common with cakes: "You wouldn't buy a cake and keep for a next week." While her chocolates have a shelf life range of several weeks, she notes that, since cream and butter are used, her chocolates are more flavorful if "consumed without delay."
But you will not want to wait. Trust me.
La Parisienne's chocolates are sold by the piece: $1.75 each. A box of four is $7 and a box of eight is $14. In addition to chocolates, a small selection of croissants ($2.25), pain au chocolate ($2.75) and biscottis are available as well as coffees, hot chocolate, teas and bottled drinks.
In addition to traditional European chocolates, Kristin also makes sponge candy -- a chocolate-covered crunch candy from Buffalo. She says one of her customers asked her to make it for the holidays. Through word of mouth, former upper-state New Yorkers made their way to the shop and bought all she had.
For Valentine's Day, Kristin has purchased photo imaging equipment. Customers can submit a photo and have it "painted" on a piece of chocolate. Each piece is $3 and orders take three days.
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La Parisienne Fine Chocolate, 20700 N. Main St., Cornelius. 704-892-8070. Hours: Monday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.