The Pursuit of Chocolate in Manhattan
Handmade chocolate bonbons are fresh, delicate, and a revelation to the palate.
Mama Gump, the mother of Forrest Gump, was fond of telling her son, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Mama Gump was probably talking about a Whitman Sampler, but these days an increasing number of artisans are making high grade candy using the finest chocolate as a base, selling them in their own shops, and also marketing them to food emporiums and specialty stores. So along with the chocolate bunnies you may buy for your grandchildren this Easter, go directly to the shops listed below and be sure to sample their bonbons with exotic fillings prepared as ganaches (a rich creamy filling), nougats, or caramels.
John Down, one of the top chocolate artisans in New York, was originally an artist who began making and selling high-quality chocolates over a decade ago. “I was and still am a painter,” says Down. “Years ago, I made chocolates for one of my gallery openings. Someone else brought chocolates from Paris. People at the opening raved about my chocolates, saying they were so much better than Parisian chocolates. That got me thinking I might have something. Then it happened again for a gallery opening in Japan. One of the people attending the opening knew of Japanese investors. That’s how it started.” Eventually he and a partner opened Christopher Norman Chocolates in Manhattan (named after Down’s middle names).
Pure chocolate is made from the fermented beans of cacao trees that grow in the “the cocoa belt”—countries near the Equator in the Caribbean, South America, and especially West Africa, where roughly two-thirds of the world’s chocolate is now produced. The Aztecs began drinking bitter-tasting pure cocoa beverages as far back as 1100 BC, but it was not until the 19th century that Europeans developed ways to extract fat from cocoa beans to make powdered cocoa and cocoa butter. In 1828 a Dutchman, Coenraad Johannes van Houten, patented the first known chocolate bar; in 1849 the Cadbury brothers in England produced a chocolate bar. Henri Nestle, Rodolphe Lindt, and Milton Hershey soon followed with brands that still dominate the market.
While no one would deny the flavor of these popular chocolates, there are many factors that separate fine chocolate from the after school treat: These include the origin and processing of the cocoa bean, the quality of non-chocolate ingredients (like sugar and butter) that give cocoa its sweet flavor and texture, and the technical expertise and artistry that go into the finished chocolate. “Artisanal” chocolate is produced by small chocolate makers who have a distinctive approach to flavor and texture.
According to chocolate historian and educator Alexandra Leaf, Valrhona, a high-grade chocolate produced in France, is the “gold” standard; it is not made with vegetable fat and is the chocolate of choice for many top chefs. “A chocolatier using Valrhona as a base is always happy to tell you what chocolate they’re using,” says Leaf, who conducts customized tours of chocolate shops in New York City (see sidebar).
Chocolatiers take pride in producing signature bonbons, molding them into different shapes, hand painting them, and covering or sprinkling them with spice, salt, cocoa, colored sugars, and other ingredients. The techniques they use include molding—pouring thin layers of chocolate into molds that are filled with ganaches, butter creams, truffles, nougats and caramels—and enrobing—pouring the chocolate over fillings.
Anyone who loves chocolate deserves bonbons—especially those listed below. Prices range from a modest $1.10 per bonbon at L.A. Burdick’s Café to $2.50 per bonbon at Chocolat Moderne to $3.00 for an L.A. Burdick penguin, but when you learn what goes into making stellar chocolate it is worth the price.
Chocolat Moderne, 27 West 20th Street, Suite 904, 212-229-4797 Joan Coukos had her chocolate epiphany a decade ago, about ten months before she lost her job in finance. “I read about Belgian chocolate on the plane to Belgium,” she recalls. “The next morning walking through La Place du Grand Sablon I saw chocolate molds in the market and I bought them. That trip put chocolate on my foodie radar. When I returned home I started making chocolate molds in my kitchen as a hobby. I jokingly said, ‘If I lose my job I'll know how to make something with my hands.’ And when I lost my job, I realized I could turn my hobby into something big and timely.”
Visitors at her shop Chocolat Moderne on West 20th Street can watch bonbons being made and hand painted. “The Pursuit of Happiness” is a collection of small, egg-shaped bonbons that reference Ukranian Easter Eggs. The eight-piece “Pursuit” collection is $15 and a 24-piece collection is $38. The shop also sells large, beautifully painted, filled eggs that range in price from $9 to $45. Or sample some of the more than 50 different fillings and chocolate combinations: Classic fillings like ganaches, caramels, and nougats may be combined with non-traditional fillings—Kalamata Olive, Adzuki Bean, Macadamia Ginger, and others. A single bonbon is $2.50
L.A. Burdick’s Café and Chocolate Shop, 5 East 20th Street 212-796-0143, 800-229-2419. Larry Burdick, who lives in Walpole, NH, imports high quality chocolate from France, Switzerland, Madagascar, Venezuela, and Grenada, where he is currently building a chocolate processing factory in partnership with a farm collective. “It’s hard to overstate the effect of the ecosystem on chocolate flavor,” says manager Cathy Watson. “We don’t use extracts, concentrates or flavorings. Complementing flavors come directly from their sources. Our chocolate is minimally sugared and contains real vanilla. And we don’t use chemicals so we take our chocolates off the shelf after 10 to 14 days.”
Burdick’s signature chocolates are shaped like mice or tuxedoed penguins and go through 12 hand-worked steps. The company uses only a hint of natural non-chocolate flavors from such fruits as raspberry and pear and the French Poire William; the focus is on the texture and flavor of fine chocolate. Pave glace is made with a silky ganache. There are enough flavors to please almost any palate. I loved Trinidad, Baton Framboise, and Poire Baton.
Christopher Norman Chocolates 518-822-0300. Also sold at Dean & DeLuca and Whole Foods. John Down recently moved his workshop to Hudson, NY, but his chocolates are still distributed in fine food emporiums throughout New York. Christopher Norman makes a haunting creamy, not-too-sweet caramel that balances perfectly with dark chocolate in its signature “Domino Box.” Prepare for a possible new addiction: Christopher Norman chocolates include an amazing hazelnut gianduja, zabaglione petit fours, blood orange, Ooh-la lime—it goes on.
Xocolatti (pronounced Choco-latti), 172 Prince Street, 212-256-0332, Shainel Shah’s family, who originally settled here from Bombay, was in the jewelry business for three generations. But Shainel wanted a new challenge, so he started making chocolates. His small shop is lined from floor to ceiling with bonbon boxes and you sense his heritage. “It’s still a family business,” says Shah, who works with his mother.
They often find inspiration from their travels, creating a sake truffle with high-end sake from Japan; a pineapple truffle with a hint of Habanero pepper, and Rose Hip Pistachio made of white and dark chocolate sprinkled with rose petals and high quality Iranian pistachios. “It’s important to me what food looks like,” Shah explains. “Indians have a lot of color in their lives and we like our food to appeal to all the senses.” This may explain the stunning bonbons coated in gold leaf and beautiful colored sugars.
Kate McLeod has written for Edmunds.com, ForbesAutos.com, Houston Chronicle, The New York Daily News and is the author of Beetlemania, The Car That Captured the Hearts of Millions.