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Holiday Report Part 1: Soho Chocolate Tour

The holiday spirit was slow to visit me this year, and I still mean to address and mail the rest of the cards. Despite that, I've had a lovely time this last week or so. If all goes as planned, the rest of this week and the New Year's festivities are likely to be equally enjoyable. Fingers crossed, as always. Fingers crossed, knocking wood, and All That Jazz....

If I wait to write up the whole thing, it will never get written at all, so I decided to focus on a couple of the highlights to give friends a taste of my seasonal joy.

What better place to start than with my Soho Chocolate Tour?

Back on December 16th, about 15 minutes after I made plans to be Baskerville's dog sitter while Joe and Edie were in Florida, tammylc posted her Chocolate Report. Her description of the truffles from Kee's Chocolates in Soho left me eager to taste them myself. I was already planning a day trip into New York in conjunction with going down north of the city to pick up the dog. Thanks to Tammy, I now had a specific destination in mind. Kee's doesn't ship, so I offered to pick up truffles for her as well as for myself.

Tammy mentioned that I could find subway stop information for Kee's if I Googled for the article she'd found on the 10 Best Chocolate Shops in New York. Okay.

I printed out the article, noticing that two other chocolate shops were also near the Spring Street subway stop on the C & E lines. Mmmmm. Very promising.

Then there was the transit strike. Visions of truffles grew ever more distant as the strike entered its second day, then its third. I came up with several alternate plans. Some of them involved driving in the northern reaches of the city, but not in Manhattan; others were to explore more of the communities up near Yorktown Heights.

I drove down to Joe and Edie's on Wednesday afternoon so I'd have time for a visit before they left a day later. On Thursday, the transit workers agreed to return to work, and suddenly my Soho chocolate adventure was back on. Huzzah! Friday morning, I drove down to the Bronx, parked a few blocks from Ben's house, and quickly caught the 1 train heading toward Manhattan. At 168th Street, I switched over to the A train express route, and continued knitting as we sped south. Ninety minutes after I left Joe and Edie's, I was in Soho, walking the couple of blocks to Kee's Chocolates. For the cost of a gallon of gas and a $2 subway ride. That fit my budget. Heck, it was less than the parking alone would have been if I'd opted for a Metro-North train instea. The less money I spent getting there, the more I could allocate to chocolate!

However, my first attempt to buy chocolate was soon foiled. I arrived during Kee's normal business hours, and the door was unlocked, but they were so busy filling orders that they weren't selling to the public. Tammy had suggested I call ahead to ask that they make pineapple lychee truffles that day, since that was the flavor I'm most interested in trying and they don't make all of the flavors every day. Between the transit strike, and the fact that it was December 23rd, I figured I'd not bother them and instead make do with whatever flavors they had on offer when I arrived. Oops. That was a mistake. It hadn't crossed my mind that "whatever flavors they had that day" might translate to "no flavors at all; no chocolates at all."

It was 12:30 pm. Kee's estimated that they might be done filling orders around 3pm, and that they'd open to the public then if they had any chocolates left to sell. I was encouraged to call before coming back that afternoon -- the impression I left the shop with was that the odds of them having any chocolates left were someplace between, oh, maybe 1-2% if one was an optimist as I am.

Even though I left the shop without any chocolate in hand, the aroma alone was wonderful. I look forward to returning at a less-crazed time. And, yes, I'll probably call ahead and place an order so I'm sure to leave with truffles for Tammy and me! FYI, the Kee's Chocolates website is under construction, but it does have a PDF of their chocolate menu. It's a tasty read!

I wasn't ready to give up on the 3pm possibility of Kee's chocolate, and I had at least one other chocolate shop I knew I wanted to check out, so I made my way to MarieBelle. The Top 10 list promised that MarieBelle chocolates are as delicious as they are artful. Years of trying to like Joseph Schmidt chocolates left me doubtful but curious. If I could find a gorgeous chocolate that tasted as good as it looked, oh, my, that would be fine indeed.

The shop was busy enough -- and their pricing structure was such -- that I decided to live dangerously. I picked up a box of MarieBelle River Rocks and went to the counter. I had several minutes to consider flavors while the workers were helping other customers. Without tasting a single chocolate, I opted for a box of 16, picking 2 each of 8 flavors I wanted to try. That way, I'd have chocolates to share and still be able to taste each flavor myself. If it turned out I didn't like them, well, I'd regret the impulsiveness of buying that many without first tasting at least one. But I could tell from their appearance that they weren't anywhere near as waxy as the Joseph Schmidt chocolates that were such a disappointment each of the times I tried them. So I plunged right in. And soon found myself wishing I'd opted for a box of 25 -- only $12 more for 9 more chocolates...and 4 more flavors to choose from before going with any singletons.

Oh, well, I was splurging rather a lot already. Enough. I left with dulce de leche, pistachio, passion fruit, hazelnut praline, saffron, mandarin, manjari, and dark lemon.

Enough in the way of boxed chocolates, anyway. Behind the counter were windows looking into the Cacao Bar, a small cafe promising another kind of chocolate adventure. I had the time; I could at least look at the menu and have a cup of cocoa if nothing more.

I ordered a 6 oz. cup of their spicy Aztec cocoa made American style (with milk). The 24 years I spent in Minnesota left their mark -- I fall well into the "white food" range when it comes to spicy hotness. Okay, that's an exaggeration. I do order Szechuan and Hunan dishes voluntarily, but anything hotter than "medium hot" will do be in there as well as in Indian restaurants. I like spice when it's used for flavor, not for heat. I figured the milk would help temper the heat of the spicy mix.

Either I didn't need to bother with the milk, or they made a mistake and served me a cup of the regular Aztec. It was excellent hot chocolate, truly lush and delicious, but the only heat I noticed came from the serving temperature. If there was any chipotle in that cup, it didn't register on my taste buds. There could have been cinnamon and nutmeg, but unlike the times I add those ingredients to my own hot chocolate, the flavors blended into a full-bodied, complex, rich chocolate, rather than "cocoa with cinnamon added."

Next up, a chocolate sandwich. It was described as a baguette spread with lavender butter and warm chocolate. It was served with 5 strawberries thinly sliced part way through and fanned open then sprinkled with powdered sugar. Again, there seemed to be a missing ingredient -- no discernible lavender. Was it my weak sense of taste, or was it missing? I was curious, but not overly so -- mostly because I was too busy enjoying the marvelous interplay between the excellent baguette and the utterly scrumptious chocolate. I've never before been a fan of bread and chocolate. This was delightful. I enjoyed it so much that I didn't regret ordering it even though it left no room for MarieBelle's signature dessert, which I was also quite interested in trying. Here's the dessert's description: "Manjari or Passionfruit Chocolate Terrine crafted with a combination of dark and milk chocolate served with a petit pitcher of dark chocolate sauce and garnished with pistachios." Next time. Maybe. If I can resist the chocolate sandwich.

The Cacao Bar serves non-chocolate sandwiches and salads, several of which sounded delicious.

Vosges was just a few blocks away. Soho streets weren't deserted, but the overall feeling was somewhere between abandonment and an extremely quiet afternoon. Not the New York bustle I remember from years past or expected to find that day. No problem, though. I enjoy quiet streets and being able to move about at a relaxed stroll without being in anyone's way while doing so.

From Tammy's description and my own visit to their website, I hadn't been all that interested in Vosges. Their flavor sensibilities are not mine, and they seem more focused on proclaiming their fashionable status than on making knock-your-socks-off chocolates. But they were nearby, and there were still most of two hours until Kee's might possibly open, so I figured I'd at least look. Uh, right.

I left with a pound of their Aztec Elixir cocoa mix, a box of chocolate and toffee covered caramel marshmallows, and 8 truffles. Two of each flavor again for easy sharing: chef pascal, budapest, absinthe, and gianduia. It was the first time all holiday season that I pulled out a credit card to pay for related shopping and I knew that Christmas checks were in the cards from my Mom and Dad under the tree at Toad Woods. So I was covered, but it was time to be careful about anything more. Impulse is so easy...until the bills come due.

There was a Smith & Hawken not far away. After wandering through the store, enjoying the amaryllis and orchids in bloom, I joined another passerby on one of their benches out front and called tnh. As luck would have it, she and pnh were in Union Square and about to meet back up for the trip home.

I inadvertently complicated things rather than simply waiting a few minutes until she and Patrick reconnected. I hopped a subway for the short ride to 14th Street, walking by Kee's Chocolates on my way to the station. A quick glance showed that they were still not open, and still busy filling orders. The complication revealed itself went I emerged from the station and called P&T. "I'm at 14th and 8th; where are you?" I should have spent more time studying my subway map before jaunting off -- they were at 14th and 4th Avenue. Oops. Turns out there are something like 4 different 14th Street stations, and even more different subway lines running through each of them. Who knew? (Okay, everybody who's familiar with the New York Subway system. I'm the sort who thinks there should be no duplication of station names in different locations in any given transit system.) Anyway, we all started walking, and soon met up between 6th and 7th. I took extra long, 'cause the direction I first headed turned out to be toward 9th. Can you say, "Not a native New Yorker"? Indeed not, nor anywhere close.

We'd all had lunch, but Teresa hailed a cab and we headed toward dba for a drink. A few minutes of conversation and schedule-checking later, and we changed plans, heading to Brooklyn instead. Teresa was delighted to hear I've taken up knitting; I was delighted to hear about things they've been up to recently, and about various folks planning to come to Boskone. Pack your Hawaiian garb, and your cowboy hat, too. Come Saturday night, we'll all be "Space Cowboys on Hawaiian Holiday."

Once we'd settled in at P&T's, I started pulling out the chocolate, asking Teresa for small containers we could put various bits in. We started out with a MarieBelle River Rock (described on their web page under the "CONFISERIE COLLECTION"). Teresa of course identified all of the different rocks -- the quartz, the granite, the red jasper, and more -- before tasting a single one. Yum. Seriously yum. Worth the $$$; when they're made of candy, you get a lot of rocks in a pound.

Teresa brought out a serving board, dishes, and a knife. Instead of simply taking several of the duplicated "sharing" chocolates to enjoy later, we selected one -- Saffron -- and she carefully quartered it. I popped one of the tiny morsels into my mouth. My tastebuds burst open, in every good way imaginable. Actually, it was beyond anything I could imagine. How could there be so much flavor in so small a piece of chocolate that was so quickly melting away? How could there be so much rich smoothness? It. Was. Amazing.

It was also the best chocolate candy I can remember tasting in my entire life. I had no idea I liked saffron so much, or that it would mix with chocolate so well.

None of us was in a hurry for another chocolate. After considerably more conversation, we tried the mandarin. It was a creamy white candy throughout. Patrick tasted it before Teresa did. "You're going to want to bathe in this," he predicted.

No, the flavor wasn't in the least bit soapy. It was citrus cream, and Teresa's body language told me the mandarin was doing to her what the saffron had done to me. Oh, yes. Amazing.

More conversation, finding a container to share some of the Aztec Elixir -- it smells promising! -- and, eventually, the quartering of one of the marshmallows. Teresa's verdict: "This is what a candy bar is supposed to taste like."

We quartered one more of the MarieBelle chocolates. Passion fruit, we guessed. The flavor was less distinct than either of the other two pieces, and I was still trying to match my memory of the favors I'd chosen to their picture key. Many of their top designs were changed for the holidays (or have been changed for good), and there wasn't 100% continuity between the flavors in the booklet and the flavors I'd seen in the store that day.

At this point, you will notice that between three of us, we've eaten a total of three MarieBelle chocolates and one Vosges chocolate-toffee marshmallow, plus a couple of candy rocks each. But the flavor explosions were such that none of us was inclined to try any of the Vosges truffles. Supreme Happy Mouth already reigned; there was no need to add anything in an effort to enhance it.

I tucked a couple of the Vosges truffles into P&T's container, along with a selection of the other candies. Teresa and I returned to knitting talk; Patrick played his guitar in the background. "Hard times, hard times, come again no more...." Indeed.

It is a sign of just how taken I am by the knitting bug that a few short minutes later, I willingly walked out of the apartment where live music was flowing from Patrick's fingers on his guitar in order to follow Teresa down to the basement for a visit with the Yarn Santa. But that's another highlight, another part of my holiday report.....

Whisperado's CD release party is likely to coincide with the next time I'll be dog sitting Baskerville in late January. If all goes well, I'll be able to fit in a return visit to Soho, and will leave with more chocolates to share.

I'll gladly indulge in MarieBelle chocolates, river rocks, and the Cacao Bar whenever the opportunity presents itself. I haven't yet tried the Vosges Aztec Elixir, though I'm betting it's good. Their caramel marshmallows are a delight, but for me, their truffles will always lose out to pretty much anything MarieBelle has to offer. I'm really looking forward to seeing how Kee's & MarieBelle compare and contrast.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 28th, 2005 04:10 am (UTC)
That was a delightful visit! Come back soon.

And those were ENORMOUS chocolates. Not in the literal sense of size, but in REALITY. You know what I mean.
Dec. 28th, 2005 07:43 pm (UTC)
Indeed I do.

Many thanks -- I'll be in touch after I confirm January timing for my next trip down.

(P&T Stereo Rocks!)
Dec. 28th, 2005 04:20 am (UTC)
Lovely chocolate, and delighted to have you visit. I'm still thinking about that saffron/chocolate combination. That was a very large flavor.

The rocks have been fun. The rose quartz had a dried apricot half at its center. I think it was the pink granite that had a chocolate mantle and a marzipan core.

Oh, and there's another ball of that multi-stranded turquoise/green/blue/purple cotton stuff. You must have it. It'll be lonely without its sibs.

Do please come again.
Dec. 28th, 2005 04:21 am (UTC)
Stereo. Not the first time you've heard us do it.
Dec. 28th, 2005 11:58 am (UTC)
All that chocolate sounds amazing. I wonder if we can persuade LJ to implement Smell-o-vision as a new feature?
Dec. 28th, 2005 02:46 pm (UTC)
Sounds wonderful.
Jan. 9th, 2006 07:58 pm (UTC)
Hi, I said I'd leave a comment about working on LACon if I hadn't heard from you. So, here I am! *waves*
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


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