Notes on top chocolates from around the world
FEAST 2012 Clearly, we can't get enough chocolate. As chocolatiers continue to proliferate around the country, we are blessed with an endless wealth of fine sweets to choose from. Tirelessly sampling chocolates in every city and country I travel in, I've found standouts of all kinds. Some chocolatiers have perfected a certain truffle, others a pure bean-to-bar process. Many local greats produce treats in the city, like SF classic Recchiuti, single-minded Hooker's Sweet Treats, playful Poco Dolce, and forward-thinking TCHO. Here are a few more, plus my notes on favorites, worldwide.
With a new Victorian-era mercantile on Haight Street, Buyer's Best Friend has among the best gourmet food selections in the city in many categories – and it is slated to open its second shop in North Beach on October 26 (450 Columbus, SF). When it comes to chocolate, the shop often has samples from rarely-seen small chocolatiers from around the globe, for many of which they are the sole distributor. Start asking questions and you'll discover a whole world of chocolates you never knew existed.
1740 Haight, SF. (415) 745-2130, www.bbfdirect.com 
Eccentric and delightful, Noe Valley's Chocolate Covered has long been the premier chocolate shop of SF, with a rare and varied selection. I lived directly across the street from it for six years — in dangerously close proximity.
4069 24th St., SF. (415) 641-8123, www.chocolatecoveredsf.com 
Tiny but well-curated, Russian Hill's shiny Candy Store has long been a source for rare and old fashioned chocolates and candies.
1507 Vallejo, SF. (415) 921-8000, www.thecandystoresf.com 
There's chocolate and then there's bean-to-bar chocolate. Whereas most chocolatiers start with already fermented cacao beans (yes, cacao beans go through fermentation), few oversee the entire process from sourcing to processing. Dandelion Chocolates was launched right here in SF by chocolate lovers whose experimentation with bean-to-bar as a hobby turned into a business. Purity of the cacao is their passion, so Dandelion makes chocolate with only bean and sugar, no cocoa butter.
Tasting their bars side-by-side is like sampling wines or coffee, with different nuances and terroir apparent in each. There's the lush, malty notes of Rio Caribe, Venezuela (my favorite bar), bright citrus-strawberry expression in the Ambanja, Madagascar bar, and earthy, tannic notes from Elvesia, Dominican Republic. Already, Dandelion is easily one of the superior chocolates you'll find in the Bay.
Visiting the company's Dogpatch factory last month, I witnessed Dandelion's entire process: roasting, cracking, sorting, winnowing, grinding, conching, tempering, molding, and packaging, all happening in one small space. Dandelion is moving to its new Mission location on Valencia (though it will keep its Dogpatch space), slated to be 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 — especially when your sweet tooth reaps the benefits.
740 Valencia, SF. (415) 349-0942, www.dandelionchocolate.com 
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, available in shops like Bi-Rite and on the company's website. Owners Shawn and Kathryn Williams have traveled Europe extensively, visiting many of the world's best chocolate makers. Besides artful, elegant, precise presentation, Shawn's truffles succeed first and foremost in flavor.
Many chocolatiers promise flavors like curry or lemongrass or other excitement in their truffles, but often the flavor of truffles (at the standard, expensive $1.50–$3 a piece) is barely discernible or bland, leaving me disappointed, wishing I'd stuck with a straightforward piece of chocolate. Not so in Feve's line of truffles, in which I struggle to name my favorite overall. There's cherry-vanilla (dark chocolate and lemon ganache layered with cherry vanilla gelée), cardamom punchy with Scotch, sesame-vanilla crispy with praline, dreamy banana-caramel, pistachio-rosemary caramel with pistachio praline, and vivid passionfruit or yuzu. Each is exquisitely lush.
Chocolatier Blue's truffles, served in its Berkeley shops are fresh and creative. Try the Ants on a Log, filled with celery seed, peanut butter, and currant, or the 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.
Maison Bouche's Fleur de Sel is one of the Oakland producer's elegant, French-spirited bars, a standout made using Brittany salt.
Alma Chocolates in Portland, Ore. makes an insanely good Thai peanut butter cup with ginger, Thai chile, lime, even red volcanic sea salt varieties. You can usually find it at Portland chocolate haven Cacao.
Antidote is a quality raw, NY-based bean-to-bar line made in Ecuador. It produces dark chocolate bars in flavors like banana-cayenne, lavender red salt, and almond fennel. Expect subtlety and a earth-like taste in each. Available locally at Buyer's Best Friend.
Chocolat Modern is a longtime New York favorite, making square "bistro bars" that are dark and filled with the tastes like banana and Cognac, pumpkin praline, apricot and Bas Armagnac, and zesty grapefruit. There's a rotating selection available locally at The Candy Store.
Responsible for some of the best local chocolates I've had from Los Angeles, Compartes creates dark chocolate truffles and bars, including the apricot and shichimi seven-spice chocolate bar ($8), and various truffles. Some of my favorites of these include smoked salt, peanut butter, and the pink peppercorn and Raspberry.
Fine & Raw is a Brooklyn-based raw chocolatier that creates treats with high dark chocolate content and cacao butter, managing to maintain creamy texture and flavor all the while. Its most interesting bars are its cacao and coconut, along with the lucuma and vanilla. Buy it in town 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. Find it at Buyer's Best Friend.
MarieBelle's elegant banana chocolate bar shines. The company is a New York favorite, with a Soho tea salon and cacao bar.
Dublin's Cocoa Atelier makes the best chocolate I had in Ireland. It's a chic outpost stocking drinking chocolate and elegant truffles that creates its delicacies using local specialties like pot still Irish whiskey.
Coco Chocolate is my Edinburgh favorite, a darling shop focusing on handmade bars like its rose and black pepper, pink peppercorn and nutmeg, and a tropical-inflected lime and coconut. Coco creates invigorating flavors, embedded in dark chocolate.
Kopali Organics is marketed as vegan health food made by passionate founders who live off the grid in Costa Rica. Its fair trade dark chocolate-covered banana bites taste vivid and fresh, nothing at all like some dried, chocolate-covered fruits. Find it in San Francisco at Buyer's Best Friend.
When in Bordeaux, don't miss charming La Maison Darricau. The romantic shop sells chocolate and creative truffles made fresh daily, infused with flavors like wine-filled Médoc, basil, Szechuan pepper, curry-date, and an excellent blend of prune, almond paste, and Armagnac.
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.
Among the best chocolates I've had in the world are from Paul A. Young, one of the world's best chocolatiers whose three London shops stock supreme examples of what fresh truffles and exotic bars should be. Go funky with Marmite truffles, or his herbaceous peppermint leaf. Whatever you do, when in London, don't miss it. Young penned Adventures with Chocolate, a visually striking book that explores the ins and outs of chocolate making from the art of combining beans to yield the 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.
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