If Valentine’s Day is about love, here goes: I love chocolate.
I love a gooey Peruvian Inca chocolate bar and Belgian chocolate made on a Brussels streetcorner and New Orleans chocolate pralines, and Three Musketeers bars and M&M’s and …
So my Valentine’s Day offering is a list of underground chocolate shops, tiny places in remote areas of New York with nice people who dish out heaven.
This exploration of secret chocolate shops was the most difficult task I have ever undertaken. I want to say I felt like a handcuffed kid in a candy store, but that would be too literal, while frustrated sexual metaphors would be too graphic.
When I stepped into Kee’s Chocolates, down in the West Village, and saw a chocolate truffle with crème brulée, I wondered about the imagination that inspired such things. Kee Ling Tong is the product of a Macau family, so perhaps a Portuguese influence was here.
“But,” she insists, “it isn’t the Portuguese who make these. My Cantonese family loves spices, so I make my chocolates with ginger, black sesame, blood orange and pepper.”
I ran out (lest I gobble up the whole place) and three minutes away was another “secret” shop. MarieBelle Fine Treats and Chocolates prides itself on their hot chocolate, made with real chocolate and not a drop of cheap cocoa powder. The chocolate is probably as rich as Bill Gates, but looks much better. They also have “Aztec” hot chocolate, made with water instead of milk
“And,” says Honduran-born sales representative Kiko, “it isn’t as bitter as the original.” He should know. He also knows about their ganache chocolates, those creamy chocolates made with a whole host of flavours.
“We use cardamom or saffron, we have cinnamon and chili. In fact, we have a hot chocolate with real chili and real chocolate.”
Two subway stops away is Dumbo. Not the elephant, but a section of Brooklyn where musicians, painters and writers used to live for the cheap rents. (Dumbo today is like Park Ave. on the East River.)
Jacques Torres Chocolates caters to more successful artists, for this is not cheap. But Torres, originally a pastry chef from Paris, knows his chocolates. Everything—from the raspberries to the cream to the hot chocolate with the best chocolate, and handmade bonbons—“is the redefinition of decadence,” a friend told me.
A London friend who, as a major backer for shows like Cats, can afford and certainly knows his chocolates, says he and his friends swear by Myzel Chocolate behind Carnegie Hall.
“It’s a mom-and-daughter shop,” he says. “For years, they’ve been making their own chocolate by hand. They dip the chocolates themselves. Their chocolate-covered pretzels have an ambrosial mixture of salt and sweet.
“And besides that, they have 100 different kinds of licorice.”
I wandered south again, to the Flatiron Building area, to see Paula Burdick, whose husband, Larry, is a professional chocolatier of long standing. Their little shop, L.A. Burdick Handmade Chocolates, is filled with goodies, but the real work is done in New Hampshire.
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“First, it’s a good place to deliver our chocolates all the way to Montreal. Second, we have a partnership with a lot of the organic farms in New Hampshire, so everything we make—the cream, the milk, the butter—is the finest fresh quality. Everything is made within a week of selling.”
I told a friend he should try their “chocolate mice.” He laughed at my ignorance, correcting it to chocolate mousse. But no, Paula and Larry have chocolate mice—dark (with orange juice), milk (with espresso) and white (with cinnamon). The mice have almond ears and colourful, silky tales. They have chocolate penguins, rabbits and bees as well.
And frankly, if you haven’t tasted their Chartreuse chocolate or dark chocolate or raspberry chocolate, you haven’t tasted great chocolate.
“But we have two secrets,” said Paula. “Your Canadian readers can get almost all our chocolates up there. Except for our chocolate pavé, which we can’t possibly ship. Much too delicate. Ground hazelnuts, saffron, covered with chocolate, powdered cocoa.
“Second is that we have no molds at all. We make all our chocolates from inside out.”
Perhaps the most elite chocolate shop that I have ever entered is Vosges-Haut, and should I hit the best-seller list with one of my books, I may go in there. It specializes in exquisite truffles infused with odd ingredients: Jamaican beer, wasabi, wild-fennel pollen. You can buy, for about $7, a chocolate bar called “Red Fire” made with caramel. Or try a Krug Champagne truffle chocolate collection for $48 for 16 pieces (it seems to me a waste of Champagne and chocolate, but what does a poor hack writer know?). And would you believe chocolate with Taleggio cheese? They have it in a “Rooster truffle.”
Finally we come to my own neighbourhood chocolate shop, called Black Hound. I have friends who have surgery just so I bring them a box of Black Hound chocolates. Strangers invite me to their parties, just so I bring them Black Hound chocolates. They once told me that they were voted “the sweetest sweets shop in all New York City.”
Then again, do you really need these elite treats? The novelist Danielle Steele once said, “I never met a chocolate I didn’t like.”
We all know that feeling, but “liking” is not the same as experiencing heaven in a single bite.
HOW TO FIND THE UNDERGROUND CHOCOLATE:
Myzel Chocolate, 140 West. 55th St. 212-245-4233
Black Hound Chocolate, 170 Second Ave., near 10th St. 212-979-9505
MarieBelle Fine Treats and Chocolates, 484 Broome St., near. W. Broadway. 212-925-6999
Kee’s Chocolates, 80 Thompson St., near Spring St. 212-334-3284
Jacques Torres Chocolates, 66 Water St., near Dock St., Dumbo, Brooklyn. 718-875-9772
Vosges Haut Chocolat, 132 Spring St., near Greene St. 212-625-2929
L.A. Burdick Choclates, 5 E 20th St. 212 796-0143