2021 India St.
As a kid, my family would travel to New York City to visit relatives during the Christmas break. My mother always made a point to pick up some of her favorite chocolate, Godiva. It was nothing I particularly cared for, finding the flavor rather overwhelming, but I distinctly remember that you just couldn't find it outside of New York City, since it came from France. Many years later, as an adult, I began seeing Godiva everywhere. When I sampled the chocolate, it had none of the intense flavor I remembered so vividly from my youth. I assumed that it was simply a difference in perception owing to my more experienced palate.
Boy, was I wrong. Susan Luo, owner of Little Italy's Chi Chocolat, let me in on the awful truth: Godiva was purchased by Campbell's Soup, and the conglomerate is now manufacturing the candy itself. Is there anything corporate America can't screw up by putting its greedy mitts all over it?
Well, yes, as it turns out. Since the old-school products have been thoroughly co-opted and devalued, discriminating consumers can now turn to artisan products that maintain a high level of quality, and are frequently produced locally. Joining the ranks of San Diego's Bread & Cie, Extraordinary Desserts and Caffe Calabria, Chi Chocolat uses high-end ingredients to produce delicious beverages, desserts and handmade candies.
Luo, a former food industry consultant, opened the shop in February after spending eight months going to trade shows and scoping out other artisan chocolatiers in cities like New York and Chicago. Employing local pastry chefs, Luo gives them the latitude to come up with some amazing creations.
"I'm fairly hands-off," said Luo. "I come up with the bars, do design. I also give [the pastry chefs] a lot of freedom to create things. They've worked with, and still do work with, a lot of restaurants on pastry, and they really know what's gonna work, and they have the feel, you know. They also interact with customers, so they get a feel of what works and what customers like."
Chi Chocolat displays its wares on a giant marble-topped table with the chocolates arranged into five- piece sets grouped by style. Going around the table, most sound familiar-chocolates made with caramel, nuts and fruit fillings. But then you hit bins 74 and 74B, and you realize this isn't your ordinary candy shop. Bin 74's flavors are cardamom, chili tangerine, rosewater, strawberry lemon thyme and raspberry topped with peppercorn. Bin 74B consists of crystallized ginger, caramel lavender, marzipan lemon, crème brulee and mint bitter ganache.
"The trick is to do things with spices, but the spices can't overpower the taste of chocolate-so that's what we're trying to do," explained Luo. "If it tastes too much like lavender, if it overpowers the taste of the chocolate, then it just doesn't taste that good anymore. So you add enough flavor to it so you get that sensation, but at the same time you know you're eating very intense, rich, dark chocolate. When we make chocolate we use really good ingredients. We use Cluizel or Callebaut or Valrhona, all European couverture [high-quality chocolate]... and that makes a big difference."
Indeed it does. For example, a lot of people don't care for dark chocolate, finding it bitter and unpleasant. This makes sense when you consider that dark chocolate doesn't have added milk to mask the taste of the often-inferior cocoa mass it's made from. Less than 5 percent of global cacao production is of a high enough quality to be used by the aforementioned producers-which means someone who normally dislikes dark chocolate will probably be pleasantly surprised by Chi Chocolat's dark chocolate creations.
While the chocolates at Chi Chocolat are outstanding, particularly the honey lavender and the chili tangerine, the chocolate fondue shouldn't be missed. A generous quantity of molten Callebaut milk chocolate is served in a martini glass, with an accompanying plate heaped with banana slices, strawberries, pretzels, graham crackers, walnuts, almonds and dried apricots for dipping. My girlfriend and I had a great time working our way through all the different combinations, ultimately finding the graham crackers most rewarding. One of the nice things about high-quality chocolate is that it's so rich you don't need a lot of it, making the fondue an economical and satisfying dessert for two.
Whether you're looking for a casual place to grab dessert, or a better option than See's or Godiva when shopping for special gifts, Chi Chocolat is worth the time and money.