SEARCHING for CHOCOLATE
Clearly we can’t get enough chocolate. As chocolatiers continue to proliferate around the country, we are blessed with an endless wealth of fine chocolate to choose from. Tirelessly sampling chocolates from every possible corner of the world, including every city and country I travel in, there are standouts from numerous angles, some perfecting a certain truffle, others a pure bean-to-bar process. Join me on a local and international journey through just a few of the best.
SF CHOCOLATE SOURCES
– With their new Victorian-era Mercantile on Haight Street and a brand new, second shop just opened up in North Beach, Buyer’s Best Friend is among the best gourmet food selections in the city on many levels. When it comes to chocolate, they often have samples of rarely seen, small chocolatiers from around the globe, many of which they are the sole source. Start asking questions and you’ll discover a whole world of chocolates you never new existed.
– Eccentric and delightful, Noe Valley’s Chocolate Covered has long been the chocolate shop of SF, with rare and varied selection. I lived directly across the street from it for six years – a dangerous proximity.
– Tiny but well-curated, Russian Hill’s shiny Candy Store has long been a source for rare and old fashioned chocolates and candies.
One of the world’s great modern day chocolatiers from London, Paul A. Young (see International section) wrote Adventures with Chocolate, a visually striking book first exploring chocolate making details from combining beans for best flavor profiles to making the perfect ganache. Primarily, it is a cookbook utilizing chocolate in recipes from boozy drinks or teas to savory dishes and desserts.
BEST BEAN-TO-BAR: Dandelion Chocolates
There’s chocolate and then there’s bean-to-bar. Whereas most chocolatiers start with already fermented cacao beans (yes, cacao beans go through fermentation), a few oversee the entire process, from sourcing to processing. Dandelion Chocolates was launched right here in SF by chocolate lovers who experimented with bean-to-bar as a hobby, which then turned into a business. Purity of the cacao is their passion so they make chocolate with merely the bean and sugar, no cocoa butter. Tasting their bars side-by-side is like sampling wines or coffee, nuances and terroir apparent in each. There’s lush, malty notes of Rio Caribe, Venezuela (my favorite bar), bright citrus-strawberry expression of the Ambanja, Madagascar bar, and earthy, tannic notes from Elvesia, Dominican Republic. Dandelion is easily already one of the superior chocolates around.
Visiting their Dogpatch factory last month, I witnessed the entire process from roasting, cracking, sorting, winnowing, and grinding, to conching, tempering, molding and packaging, happening in one small space. Dandelion is moving to their new Mission location on Valencia (though also keeping their Dogpatch space), which is factory, tasting room, shop and cafe all in one. Opening this month, it’s sure to be a hit. It’s inspiring to see passion lead to success… and we all reap the benefits.
BEST TRUFFLES: Feve
Many artisan chocolatiers boast a couple of exceptional truffles, but none I’ve tried have the volume of Feve Artisan Chocolatier, formerly Au Coeur Des Chocolats (found in shops like Bi-Rite or on their website). Owners Shawn and Kathryn Williams have traveled Europe extensively, visiting many of the world’s best chocolate makers. Besides artful, elegant precision in presentation, Shawn’s truffles succeed first and foremost in flavor.
Expecting a burst of curry or lemongrass or the like, the intended flavor of many expensive truffles (at the standard $1.50-$3 a piece) is often barely discernible, instead of refined yet prominent and lively. Typically, I’ll find one or two standouts in a line of truffles, but with Feve, I struggle to name a favorite. There’s cherry vanilla (dark chocolate and lemon ganache layered with cherry vanilla gelee), cardamom punchy with Scotch, sesame vanilla crispy with praline, dreamy banana caramel, pistachio rosemary caramel with pistachio praline, and vivid passion fruit or yuzu… each exquisitely lush.
ASSORTED TOP TRUFFLES and BARS
– Chocolatier Blue’s Berkeley shops serve fresh, creative truffles like Ants on a Log filled with celery seed, peanut butter and currant, a tart caramel apple, or peanut brittle crunch with caramelized banana and creamy peanut butter.
– Saratoga Chocolates‘ Caramel Cin, a heart-shaped treat of dark chocolate oozing decadent cinnamon caramel.
– Sixth Course Artisan Confections‘ aromatic caramels, like rosemary or sage and brown butter.
– Wine Country Chocolates‘ Elvis truffle of peanut butter and banana ganache rules, while the cinnamon and clover honey oozes honey goodness. www.winecountrychocolates.com
– Maison Bouche, Oakland’s elegant, French-spirited bars, a standout being salty Fleur de Sel using Brittany salt.
– Alma Chocolates in Portland makes an insanely good Thai peanut butter cup with ginger, Thai chiles, lime, even red volcanic sea salt, sometimes available at Portland chocolate haven, Cacao.
– Antidote is a quality, raw, NY-based bean-to-bar line made in Ecuador with dark chocolate bars in flavors like banana cayenne, lavender red salt, and almond fennel. Expect subtlety and a earth-like taste in each. At Buyer’s Best Friend.
– Chocolat Modern is a longtime New York favorite of square “bistro bars”, dark and filled with the likes of bananas and Cognac, pumpkin praline, apricot and Bas Armagnac, zesty grapefruit. There’s a rotating selection available at The Candy Store.
– The best local chocolates I’ve had from Los Angeles, Compartes creates dark chocolate truffles and bars, including the apricot & shichimi 7-spice chocolate bar ($8), and truffle highlights: Smoked Salt, Peanut Butter, Pink Peppercorn & Raspberry.
– Fine & Raw is a Brooklyn-based, raw chocolatier with high dark chocolate content and cacao butter, managing to maintain creamy texture and flavor. Their most interesting bars are cacao & coconut or lucuma & vanilla. At Buyer’s Best Friend.
– Though I fear the healthy, superfood label when it comes to pleasures like chocolate, Boise, Idaho-based Good Cacao creates lemon ginger immunity and coconut omega-3 bars that taste like a tropical vacation. At Buyer’s Best Friend.
– MarieBelle’s elegant banana chocolate (65%) bar shines from this New York favorite with a Soho tea salon and cacao bar.
– Dublin’s Cocoa Atelier makes the best chocolate I had in Ireland, a chic outpost of drinking chocolate and elegant truffles using local specialties, like pot still Irish whiskey.
– Coco Chocolate is my Edinburgh favorite, a darling shop focusing on handmade bars, like rose and black pepper, pink peppercorn and nutmeg, and a tropical-inflected lime and coconut, invigorating with dark chocolate.
– Kopali Organics is packaged as vegan health food from passionate founders living off-the-grid in Costa Rica. Their fair trade dark chocolate covered banana bites taste like vivid, fresh banana chocolate instead of dried, chocolate-covered fruits. At Buyer’s Best Friend.
– If in Bordeaux, don’t miss charming La Maison Darricau. The romantic shop sells chocolate and creative truffles made fresh daily, like wine-filled Médoc, basil, Szechuan pepper, curry date, and an excellent blend of prune, almond paste, Armagnac.
– Among the best chocolates I’ve had in the world is Paul A. Young, with three London shops – the supreme example of what fresh truffles and exotic bars should be. Go funky with Marmite truffles, or herbaceous peppermint leaf. Whatever you do, when in London, don’t miss it.
– In London’s Borough Market, Rabot Estate is a rustic-hip shop with staff pouring cups of free dark hot chocolate and bars like chili with a lush Santa Lucia-grown dark chocolate.