- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

NEW YORK — Is New York the Big Apple or the Big Bonbon? Connoisseurs say the city is turning into a destination for chocolate lovers. “The whole reason I want to move here is chocolate,” Sharon Wang says as she sips thick hot chocolate at Payard, one of a half-dozen Manhattan cafes known for fine chocolate. Miss Wang studied at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., and has come to New York to pursue her dream, a career in chocolate.

“New York is giving Europe a run for its money in the fine-chocolate department,” says Tish Boyle, editor in chief of Chocolatier magazine. “As American consumers have become more discriminating about their chocolate — and a Hershey bar with almonds just doesn’t do the trick anymore — pastry chefs are realizing that opening a chocolate shop can be a profitable endeavor, particularly in a cosmopolitan city like New York where a high price point can actually be a lure.”

In 1998, when organizers of the annual Salon du Chocolat in Paris wanted to expand, they chose New York as a second venue. Last year, 30,000 people attended the Chocolate Show in Manhattan. The Washington Square Hotel, which offers a chocolate lovers package in conjunction with the show, already has a list of guests waiting to reserve rooms for this year’s event, Nov. 10 through 13.

The show’s success “is a sign of New Yorkers’ interest in chocolate,” says Pierre Cluizel, son of — and spokesman for — the renowned Parisian chocolatier Michel Cluizel.

New York is not yet on par with Paris, however. “Paris, Brussels or Geneva are the three chocolate capitals, in my opinion,” Mr. Cluizel says. “New York is now evolving very quickly.

“There are more and more people … who live or pass through New York who are now looking for quality chocolate. This didn’t exist several years ago,” he says.

San Francisco’s Scharffen Berger opened a store on Manhattan’s Upper West Side three months ago. Vosges, a Chicago chocolatier, recently opened a cafe in SoHo. La Maison du Chocolat has five locations in Paris and two in New York. The logo on boxes for the exclusive Richart chocolatier’s Manhattan boutique reads, “Paris-Lyon-New York.”

But can upscale chocolate be appreciated by Americans raised on M&Ms; and just-add-water Swiss Miss? What if you can’t tell a truffle from a trifle or if your first impulse upon hearing the word “ganache” is to say “gesundheit”? (Ganache is a base for many confections made from chocolate and heavy cream.)

Relax. Even the hoi polloi can tell that this stuff tastes better than anything you ever got on Halloween. You needn’t be a millionaire to try it. At most cafes, you can choose chocolates from a display case for $1 to $3.50 each; more elaborate desserts requiring a fork run $5 to $8. Small cups of hot chocolate — so thick you’ll need a spoon and a cold water chaser — are $3 to $7.

As you make the rounds, you’ll also find that each cafe has its own personality. The Chocolate Bar, in the West Village (48 Eighth Ave., near Jane Street), has the fun feel of a college-town hangout, with ‘80s music and bold decor — brown, beige, orange and white stripes, like a Mondrian painting in chocolate. The chocolate tea here is a light, palate-clearing alternative to the thick hot chocolate, and the treats are creatively flavored — rose-hip chocolates, for example, and seriously spicy brownies.

Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven (350 Hudson St., near Houston St.) is like a scene from a children’s storybook. Mr. Torres is the only New York chocolatier to make his chocolate from scratch, starting with the cocoa beans. If you stand outside the building’s picture windows, you can watch the white-gowned candy makers assemble their products amid the minifactory’s gleaming silver tubes and vats. Inside, you’ll find a spacious, light-filled, unpretentious cafe with a warm and welcoming staff. Cookies and other treats also are available.

Warm up at Payard (1032 Lexington Ave., near 73rd Street) if you have been out in Central Park looking at Christo’s orange fabric gates (Feb. 12 through 27). You can have a meal or any type of pastry at this busy patisserie and bistro, but chocoholics should sit at the tiny bar and order from the Masterpiece Collection of chocolates named for painters. Picasso is dark chocolate flavored with Earl Gray tea; Van Gogh is chocolate with pistachio, and Chagall has pralines.

Nearby, La Maison du Chocolat (1018 Madison Ave., near 78th Street), offers a quietly elegant salon a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The creamy Togo, dark chocolate with a fluffy mousse filling ($6), is a nice alternative to a sampling of individual chocolates. There’s another Maison at 80 Rockefeller Center if you’re skating or visiting the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art (53rd Street near Fifth Avenue).

In SoHo, spend the day migrating among chocolate shops; designer boutiques (Chanel, Ann Taylor, Nicole Miller); and one-of-a-kind stores such as Evolution, which sells skulls and other artifacts, and Morrison Hotel, which sells photos of musicians.

The trendy Vosges Haut-Chocolat (132 Spring St., near Greene Street) offers unusual combinations, such as white chocolate with olive oil and Kalamata olives, and a dark chocolate called Budapest containing Hungarian paprika.

A few blocks away, Lunettes et Chocolat (25 Prince St., near Mott Street) gives new meaning to the phrase “eye candy.” The store sells eyeglass frames — $225 to $1,000 — and MarieBelle chocolates at two for $7.

Chocolates here are miniature works of art, topped with colorful, edible geometric designs and silhouettes, all silk-screened-on cocoa butter with natural food coloring. Wash them down with a spicy hot chocolate containing cinnamon, nutmeg and chipotle. (MarieBelle’s own shop is located at 484 Broome St., near West Broadway.)

For a serious evening of chocolate, the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park (2 West Street, at the foot of Manhattan near the Bowling Green subway station) has a Chocolate Bar, with seatings at 7, 9 and 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays in February, plus 8 and 10 p.m. on Valentine’s Day. The $65-a-person buffet includes champagne, tax and tip; scrumptious chocolate martinis are worth the extra $15. For reservations, call 917/790-2571.

The view of New York Harbor from the Ritz, with the Statue of Liberty and city lights twinkling against a winter’s night sky, is as stunning as the desserts, which include a warm molten-chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream; tiny chocolate pyramids; strawberries dipped in chocolate; and mousses, creams, candies and other creations.

The hotel’s chocolate chef, Laurent Richard, is a sculptor as well as a chocolatier. Look for his chocolate renderings of a chess set, Willy Wonka and the Statue of Liberty, along with a life-size statue of himself.

Lucky children with a generous sugar daddy — or mommy — might try the $100 “molten volcano” at the newly reopened FAO Schwarz (57th Street and Fifth Avenue). This chocolate-and-ice-cream concoction is designed to be eaten by a family of four; children get hard hats and shovels before digging in. Also at FAO’s sweet shop: M&Ms; in more than two dozen colors and a chocolate toy chest.

Despite New York’s burgeoning chocolate scene, it will never be a native New Yawk tradition. Nicolas Bernarde, pastry expert at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, says cocoa beans come from the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, New Guinea, Indonesia and Brazil and are processed, for the most part, in Europe.

New York chefs then use that chocolate to create their treats. “It mustn’t be forgotten that chocolate comes from Europe,” Mr. Bernarde says.

But chocolate could be another immigrant success story. “You just need to promote five or six chocolate cafes that open, a good advertising slogan so people talk about it, good chocolates … and it will take off,” Mr. Bernarde says.

Still, French chocolatier Michel Richart says New Yorkers looking to make their city a cocoa mecca “still have work to do. … Europe will remain the world capital for chocolate for a long time yet.”

Associated Press writer Kate Brumback in Paris contributed to this story.


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