2001 Choco-Roundup

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There's something maniacal about applying the connoisseur's ethos to chocolate. All chocolate other than fake chocolate (aka "mocklate") is satisfying. Whether served a dollop of creamy French mousse, a nugget of Italian bittersweet, a liqueur-filled truffle or a God-honest Hershey's Kiss, if one is not some kind of maniac, one thinks only, "Mmmm."

This is the main thing chocolate has in common with sex. Save for a few memorably bad instances, both are a source of, at worst, unremarkable pleasure. If only food, or music or Hollywood were so reliably undemanding of critical brow-knitting. Choco-snobbery is akin to wanting to make love only to rock stars and models.

You shouldn't need to spend several days trying to find the best chocolate in New York to realize this. However, I did. But I learned a lot more than just that M&Ms don't really suck. The range of chocolate possibility is enormous. Not just flavor, but also price, style and presentation vary widely even within the upper echelons. I have a lot of knowledge to impart. Having teetered on the edge of choco-madness, much like Augustus Gloop on the banks of Wonka's chocolate river, I now assume the guise of a dessert Dr. Ruth. You can improve your chocolate experience healthily, I say, without giving in to dissatisfaction.


Midtown. New Yorkers can be divided into chocolate connoisseurs and non- according to their familiarity with Leonidas. If you've been there more than once, and you are not Belgian, you are probably serious about chocolate.

Leonidas doesn't fool around with the candy equivalent of paintings of sunsets and cottages. It's a place for weighty, powerful chocolates. Their heft attracts Americans annoyed by the French tendency toward preciousness. Restraint in the midst of gourmet chocolate is prudent, but the Belgians behind Leonidas have their own idea of what's reasonable. A Leonidas truffle is almost as big as a chicken egg, and feels much better in the palm.

One of the line's main attractions is the use of fresh cream without preservatives. That causes Leonidas' flavored centers to have immediate, delightful coating impact. The chefs wisely complement those with chocolate that skews toward aftertaste?especially Leonidas' dark variety. Their approach works better with coffee and liqueur flavors than with fruits, which demand a lighter touch. These aren't daylight chocolates. There's something in the Leonidas experience that suggests retiring to armchairs in a mahogany library after dinner. Their cognac truffle, for example, is a thunderously good postprandial?an indelible culinary punctuation mark.

Special mention is also due the store's pralines. Leonidas' chestnut and hazelnut centers are firm and just moist enough to impart optimal caramelized nuttiness to the entire mouth. The superb nuts they use are from Turkey. The chocolate is almost just a frame here, but Nutella devotees and seekers of the ultimate holiday chestnut will find themselves enraptured.

Leonidas chocolates are reasonably priced, considering the quality and the fact that they're flown in from Belgium: $24 per pound.

Leonidas, 485 Madison Ave. (betw. 51st & 52nd Sts.), orders for shipping: 800-900-CHOC or [www.leonidas-chocolate.com](http://www.leonidas-chocolate.com). There's now a second location, with a coffee bar, in the financial district, at 3 Hanover Sq. (betw. Pearl & Stone Sts.), 422-9600.


Brooklyn. One problem with Leonidas chocolates is that, because of the fresh dairy, they spoil. Former Le Cirque pastry chef Jacques Torres invested in technology to address that issue. At his candy factory in Dumbo, Torres uses a high-pressure mixer that removes excess air while blending light cream, cocoa and flavorings. The results are super-concentrated, dense yet lusciously smooth, and can remain fresh for as long as a month.

Visit the shop attached to Torres' little Water St. factory and your friendly server is likely to make sure you know that a chocolate-cream-flavor center is called a ganache. At least in New York City, there's no ganache like Jacques' ganache.

His centers are buttery and languid without any hint of goop?just dry and inviting as a warm bed. You really feel like you're getting the pure essence of whatever flavor accompanies Torres' light, sweet and amiable chocolate. His Hand Roasted Colombian Coffee ended my multi-year search for a perfectly balanced chocolate-coffee morsel. It tastes like the sort of cafe coffee you can't get in the States, riding the crest of a gentle wave of subtly complex chocolate. Liquid Caramel is another knockout. Though a bit dainty, with a wisp of rum, it's enough to make a candy bar-eater reconsider what caramel is supposed to taste like, and how it interacts with chocolate.

Torres is less impressive when juggling the bite of a dark chocolate exterior with his amazing ganaches. This is no small point if you desire optimization of true chocolate flavor?which is bitter. Torres uses chocolate to make nice. Two more of his triumphs are Chocolate Mint Tea, which feels like a cozy window seat on a rainy afternoon, and the Aliz Heart of Passion (liqueur and passionfruit), about which it's difficult to say anything past "whoa."

The Dumbo store makes nice, too. It's between the bridges and just off the Brooklyn waterfront, exquisitely lit and welcoming, with a personable staff. There are a few tables where patrons can enjoy coffee, hot chocolate and croissants. I bet it's nice in the morning. Large windows look onto the factory floor. When I visited a chef was caramelizing macadamia nuts. No chocolate lover has any excuse not to visit.

Torres' prices come to $40 per pound, but the quarter-pound box can be filled with any 12 pieces, and it feels worth the 10-spot if you choose well. Mail, phone and Web orders are taken. The website offers directions via foot, subway and auto.

Jacques Torres Chocolate, 66 Water St. (betw. Dock & Main Sts.), Brooklyn, 718-875-9772, [www.mrchocolate.com](http://www.mrchocolate.com).


East Village. The only way a chocolatier could be friendlier than Torres' would be if they gave the chocolate away. And that's exactly what El Eden does, the first time you visit. I got tossed an Almond Espresso truffle, and was so touched I didn't even silently complain that it didn't quite measure up to Jacques' Colombian.

E. 6th St.'s El Eden was noted in New York Press' Best of Manhattan this year, and with good reason. The tiny store offers only truffles, all pleasingly spherical, with a core like fudgey soul. They're made in the back, and though there's no place to sit to watch the action, the kitchen is open and the confectionery action clearly visible. El Eden would be small even for an East Village bedroom. You can bet a lot of denizens of those bedrooms guide their visiting parents here after lunch at Pisces.

Otherwise, they might have to sell some CDs to get beyond the free sample. The price of El Eden's smallest box calculates out to $65 per pound! The box of 25 truffles is 10.25 ounces for $31.99, though, and prices continue to decline as you get into party sizes.

I recommend their Pistachio Marzipan for the fineness of its nut flavor, and El Eden's Tiramisu is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Layers of richness is the mode here?there seems to be little faith in customers' ability to appreciate musical interplay among flavors. The Tiramisu is a dessert cannonball: liquor, sugar and fudge bop you in the belly and you giggle. For Christmas, El Eden came up with a ginger-sprinkled eggnog truffle that also comes off a bit less serious than you might expect.

El Eden Chocolates, 443 E. 6th St. (betw. 1st Ave. & Ave. A), 979-9291, [www.eledenchocolates.com](http://www.eledenchocolates.com).


Upper East Side. La Maison Du Chocolat is a cold place, unfriendly almost to the point of harshness. I'm sure it's better if you speak French. All the chocolates in the display case are identified by name only, and the names are from operas, so help from the staff is necessary. It's difficult even to get one of the clerks to give you the little booklet that depicts and describes the offerings?which is itself irritating because dark and milk chocolate look alike in the photos. At least it's in English.

I got out of there with a pre-selected box of 12 stamp-sized ganaches and pralines, weighing 3-1/3 ounces, for $15.50 (that's $75 per pound). Talk about your faith in customers. No one without fiery passion for chocolate would visit La Maison more than once. No one except French people, I mean. And a certain type of rich people, naturally.

Anyway, the crux of the matter is that La Maison plays in a different league from all of the above. The rest make fine candies, some involving stellar pure chocolate, but here the flavor's seductive, shadowy faces appear without masks or makeup, almost always at centerstage. I can't rave about my 12-piece box?some of its contents fell flat. But when it repudiates childish sweetness, a chocolatier deserves points for difficulty.

I'll start with the Sylvia, because it's just a milk chocolate ganache, coated in milk chocolate. It evoked feelings. I was glad to be alone for that moment while I savored and wondered. The immature point about chocolate being about pleasure, like sex, was revealed erroneous. Actually, chocolate is an open-ended introduction of possibilities scattered across the mirrored pathways of time, like sex.

La Maison's Valencia is a little cup that comes wrapped in gold foil. Inside is a bittersweet ganache with orange mousse. It makes for a dazzling high-wire act of a chocolate. Its two strong flavors fence to a gallant draw with considerable flair and pomp. The Traviata could be the dancing bear of this circus. Its fierce, nearly black chocolate can cause a flash caffeine headache if your tolerance isn't up, while the almond praline inside is gossamer crisp and caramelized almost to the point of being perfumed.

The Rigoletto Noir, a caramel butter mousse, was underwhelming. The exterior coating was so thin that the chocolate's prismatic structure caved in?it seems one is supposed to eat this delicacy whole. Maybe the flavors would have harmonized correctly if I had, but at these prices, I'm going to nibble. The Romeo, billed as a butter mocha with fresh coffee, seemed too greasy even before an unblended hunk of butter turned up inside. Repulsive.

La Maison's Salvador, on the other hand, hinted at the line's strong suit. Pureed fresh raspberries coated with uncompromising bittersweet brings out the romance of chocolate liberated from cloying sugar. I prefer my chocolates unadorned, or else with coffee or nuts, but if I could have no candy other than La Maison's Salvadors for the rest of my life, there'd be no grieving. It makes sense to be very curious about the store's other pure-fruit chocolates, which include lemon, wine-peach and yellow plum.

La Maison Du Chocolat, 1018 Madison Ave. (betw. 78th & 79th Sts.), 744-7117, [www.lamaisonduchocolat.com](http://lamaisonduchocolat.com).

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