- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 3, 2002

When it comes to hot chocolate, it's OK to be a snob. There's something about a warm, rich cup of chocolate that that powdery kid stuff just can't match. So what if a good cup of hot chocolate is brimming with calories and laden with fat? It's cold outside. And a little indulgence now and then, as the French will tell you, is good for the digestion.
And a little hot chocolate is good for the soul.
So where in this town can you find the perfect cup of hot chocolate? Washington offers scores of possibilities, from upscale coffee bars to down-home cafes. How to tell the real thing from the cheap imitation? Just ask Nathan La Porte, 14, a high school sophomore from northwest Washington who spent three years living with his family in Holland.
Nathan, who comes from a whole family of hot chocolate lovers, has even put together a group of friends who have made the rounds of Washington's chocolate establishments looking for that perfect cup. The team has set up a ratings system, with no fewer than 12 different criteria. And with the sense of appreciation that a true chocolate lover recognizes in a fellow aficionado, Nathan even allowed his little sister to tag along.
"A good cup of hot chocolate should be balanced between bitter and sweet, with no chemical aftertaste," Nathan counsels. "And it should be hot, but not so hot that it you can't drink it right away. And it shouldn't taste like the stuff you get from an envelope."

First, let's get a few things straight. Hot chocolate is not the same as hot cocoa. Hot cocoa, good as it may be when made right, on the stove with your own sugar and milk, is no hot chocolate. Why? Because cocoa has less of a key ingredient found in all chocolate: Nearly half of the cocoa butter has been removed, pressed out by a machine. True hot chocolate has it all whole milk, lots of cocoa butter, and of course, calories.
Cocoa is what you use when you are trying to cut the fat. A true cup of chocolate, on the other hand, is so over the top that it is almost operatic in nature. In fact, a cup of chocolate is featured prominently in the first act of Richard Strauss' opera "Der Rosenkavalier."
"Jedes Ding hat seine Zeit," the Marschallin sings, "There's a time for everything," as she urges her lover to stop philosophizing and drink some chocolate.
Theobroma cacao, that "food of the gods," is certainly the stuff of legend. The Aztec king Montezuma reportedly consumed up to 50 goblets of the chocolate a day, believing it an aphrodisiac. The 18th-century English diarist Samuel Pepys recorded countless encounters with the heady beverage at any one of a number of English coffeehouses. And generations of ordinary folks know that there is nothing like a good cup of hot chocolate when you are curled up in front of the fire.
The heart of downtown Washington doesn't have that many wood-burning fireplaces. But the new Ritz Carlton has one, along with a hot chocolate so rich and complex that it is virtually guaranteed to get anyone to forswear the powdered stuff.
The process begins, not with Swiss or French varieties, but with rounds of chocolate from Mexico, made with ground nuts and cinnamon. Executive Sous Chef Matthew Morrison uses the Ibarra brand.
"Ibarra has a very rich flavor and more depth than some other chocolates," says Mr. Morrison, who comes by his Mexican proclivities naturally, having worked at Red Sage restaurant before coming to work for the Ritz Carlton. "It's the same kind that's used in mole and mole-based sauces."
And that is just the beginning of the difference. Chef Morrison uses a combination of whole milk and half and half for his hot chocolate. While it heats, he infuses it with a few pieces of star anise.
"The licorice-type flavor gives an earthy tone to the chocolate," he says. After blending everything together, Chef Morrison sprinkles in a secret ingredient: ground ancho chilies. He then adds marshmallows and a couple of spoonfuls of melted marshmallows for good measure. The result is drizzled with melted chocolate and topped with a chocolate kiss.
Mr. Morrison's concoction passed muster with taster Nathan La Porte. "The spice hits you in the back of the throat," says Nathan, who along with his sister Ari, 13, has followed every step of the process. "It's quite good though, and just the right temperature to drink."
If anything, this is one hot chocolate that is a little too chocolatey for the younger set.
"This is hot chocolate extreme," says Ari. "You really couldn't drink a lot of this."
Served from the hotel's signature Wedgwood china in front of a roaring fire, the Ritz Carlton's hot chocolate sets a tough standard for anyone to follow. The hotel offers it as part of its afternoon tea, or more informally in its clubby bar, where anyone can stroll in from the street.

If you are looking for a less expensive, but just as rewarding, experience, make your way to the Capital Children's Museum. There, exhibit educators like Roberta Reed have been preparing and serving Mexican hot chocolate practically since the museum opened in 1979, as part of its popular hands-on exhibit, "Mexico."
"Chocolate is something even the youngest kid knows," laughs Lisa Van Deman, vice president of exhibits and programs at the museum. "Everyone remembers the chocolate."
Youngsters are guided through every step of the process, from grinding the chocolate the museum uses Abuelita, a Mexican-style chocolate made by Nestle to frothing the liquid with a special instrument called a molinillo, a sort of wooden whisk that creates the foam.
Mexican children, in fact, sing a song to chocolate. Rubbing their palms together to mimic the use of the molinillo, they urge the others to stir ("bate") the concoction even as they throw in such nonsense phrases as "Your nose is a peanut" ("Tu nariz de cacahuate").
Bate, bate, chocolate,
Tu nariz de cacahuate.
Uno, dos, tres, CHO!
Uno, dos, tres, CO!
Uno, dos, tres, LA!
Uno, dos, tres, TE!
Chocolate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, chocolate!
Bate, bate, bate, bate,
Bate, bate, CHOCOLATE!
Although the museum's set-up is geared primarily to children, with a small table and low benches, they will make the hot chocolate for anyone who wants to see it done. Here you don't just get hot chocolate. You get lessons in language and culture as well. And thanks to Roberta Reed, "Miss Roberta," some gentle reminders about good manners if the situation demands.
"Do you know how to say 'thank you' in Spanish?" she asks of a youngster who has taken the small cup of hot chocolate without saying a word. By the second cup, he knows what to say without prompting, earning a big smile from Miss Roberta and the chance to grind some more chocolate in the museum's mortar and pestle.
Despite the unfamiliar taste of cinnamon in their chocolate, most young visitors to the exhibit seem to enjoy the experience. Of course, that may be due more to Miss Reed than to the actual hot chocolate itself, which is after all made with water.
Making hot chocolate with water rather than milk actually takes the drinker closer to the original conception, when cocoa beans were ground to paste, mixed with water or wine, and drunk with very little sweetening.
The Aztecs called it chocolatl, meaning "bitter water." Still, it was a beverage made for elites: Montezuma drank his from golden goblets. Hernan Cortes, who conquered the Aztecs in 1519, brought chocolate back to Spain. Soon chocolate was being sweetened and heated. For years, the secret of its preparation remained a closely guarded secret known only to a chosen few. In 1606 it was introduced into Italy, then to France, and soon became the rage of Europe.
Of course, 17th-century chocolate houses were hardly the wholesome, savory places we think of today. They were hotbeds of stock-jobbing, deal-making, and political intrigue. The English painter William Hogarth even set one of his etchings in the series "The Rake's Progress" (Plate 6) in White's Chocolate House.
Cocoa powder, which was easier to mix with milk, was introduced early in the 19th century. With availability even more widespread, the beverage became a middle class staple.
Today, hot chocolate is favored by coffeestand aficionados who like the atmosphere of the neighborhood coffeehouse but want to eschew the caffeine jolt that comes with coffee.

St. Elmo's Coffee Pub, a bustling cafe in the Del Ray section of Alexandria, has quickly become a neighborhood fixture, an essential stop in the morning routine of countless residents who have come to call the old railroad worker's neighborhood home.
"The neighborhood needed a community gathering place," says Nora Partlow, who opened St. Elmo's in 1996 along with silent partner Scott Mitchell. "Before we came, there was nothing here."
For those who want to stick around for a while, St. Elmo's offers overstuffed sofas, cozy armchairs, tables for your laptop and fresh pastries from local bakers. Art from local artists adorns the walls.
"My vision was to have an old-fashioned coffee place where everyone comes together," says Miss Partlow. "Things have just evolved since then."
Hot chocolate is part of that evolution, Miss Partlow says.
"If the parents come for coffee, we want them to bring their children with them," she says. "That's why we started the hot chocolate."
Cold afternoons finds the place packed with youngsters who have stopped by for a special treat after school.
But just as many adults opt for the hot chocolate. A few can even be found sneaking a sip or two from their children's cups. It's very good, rich and thick, topped with whipped cream.
Although Miss Partlow confesses to having been brought up on hot chocolate made with Hershey's syrup, her hot chocolate of choice comes courtesy of Ghirardelli's, the internationally renowned San Francisco chocolatier. Indeed, St. Elmo's offers its customers hot chocolate made from their choice of white or dark chocolate Ghirardelli syrups. There are even a few hardy souls who opt for both. "
"Hot cocoa is usually made with water," Miss Partlow says scornfully. "We make ours with steamed milk."
And what could be better than savoring a St. Elmo's hot chocolate while listening to some of the area's finest musicians and singer-songwriters? Wednesday through Sunday nights, St. Elmo's Coffee Pub offers the best of both, with live music competing for pride of place along with the hot chocolate.
For a time, Miss Partlow made her hot chocolate from a chocolate ganache base. The results were too expensive and too rich for most people, proving once again that too much of a good thing can be going a little too far.
Even if you're a snob.

WHAT: Hot chocolate with afternoon tea
WHERE: The Ritz Carlton Hotel, 1150 22nd St. NW.
WHEN: 2 p.m. daily
PRICE: $25 for afternoon tea where hot chocolate is served, $35 for champagne tea, $5 for just a cup of hot chocolate
INFORMATION: 202/835-0500

WHAT: Making Mexican hot chocolate
WHERE:The Capital Children's Museum, 800 Third St. NE.
WHEN: Museum open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Hot chocolate made as needed, at no specific times.
PRICE: Museum admission $6, $4 for seniors and members, children 2 and younger free. No extra charge for hot chocolate.
INFORMATION: 202/675-4120

WHAT: Hot chocolate at St. Elmo's
WHERE: St. Elmo's Coffee Pub, 2300 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria.
WHEN: 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Friday, 7a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
PRICE: $2.60 for smallest size, $2.75 for the smallest size of white hot chocolate
INFORMATION: 703/739-9268.

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