Monday, March 31, 2008

Christopher Elbow on Hayes

It's 9 pm on a Friday night and you're due to meet a friend for a drink in Hayes Valley. Maybe you're pregnant, or your friend is 12, or maybe you're just looking for something a little different and non-alcoholic - that's where the new Christopher Elbow Chocolate Bar makes perfect sense.

Located on the corner of Hayes and Gough, the Christopher Elbow boutique opened in February with a chocolate counter and a separate bar area that is open until 10 pm. The decor is minimalist and sleek, with the rich reds and browns that make their packaging so distinct. The bar looks like a "chill-out" lounge area in a club, and makes me wonder if chocolate martinis are on the horizon. But for now, they offer a drinking chocolate menu with a wide variety of flavors, including "chinese 5 spice," "coconut curry," and "peanut butter." Purists can simply order hot chocolate American or European style, a mocha, or an extra dark. All drinks are priced at $4.50.

According to Elbow, his chocolate powder is made from pure ground El Rey chocolate. Good choice!

I've always enjoyed pointing out Christopher Elbow chocolate on my Tours because guests are so impressed by their beautiful, artistic appearance. Nowhere else in San Francisco can you find such vivid colors and glossy sheens on filled chocolates. I know many classic French or Swiss chocolatiers would scoff at the designs and flavor combinations, but Christopher Elbow appeals to plenty of Americans who want more than a simple "palet d'or."

I sampled a 9 piece box of chocolates from Elbow's Fall/Winter Collection for $20. I like the fact that instead of weighing chocolates and charging by the pound, Christopher Elbow chocolates are simply $2 a piece. Of course, you'll save by purchasing the larger boxes (42 for $75) and I always recommend choosing the chocolates yourself to ensure that your box is as fresh as it can be. Some of the chocolates were too goopy and syrupy for my taste, such as the "fleur de sel," the "lavender" and the "cabernet." (I much prefer the Rechiutti version of a fleur de sel with a more solid ganache.) The "bananas foster" made me forget I was even in a chocolate shop. My favorites were the "vanilla bean," the "fresh lime" and any of the 70% cacao ganaches, such as the "Venezuelan dark" and the "Madagascar."

So will the concept of a chocolate bar take off? Time will tell. And while not everything Christopher Elbow sells suits me, I'm very happy that San Francisco is the first retail location Elbow decided to open after his Kansas City flagship store. Elbow is young and not afraid to experiment. I look forward to sampling his Spring/Summer collection!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Get Your Belgian Chocolate Fix at Leonidas SF

Why buy your secretary another box of Godiva chocolates when there is a new Leonidas in the city? If you love Belgian chocolate, visit Leonidas in their spacious new shop on the ground level of the Crocker Galleria. Your dollar will also go much further at Leonidas, whose $30/pound price is so incredibly reasonable in the world of imported international chocolates. If you don't know what makes Belgian chocolate different from any other kind of chocolate, read on...

Belgians love rich, sweet and creamy filled chocolates. In fact, it was the Belgians (Jean Neuhaus) who first invented the filled chocolate in 1912 and named it a "praline." (Not the same as praliné, which is a mixture of hazelnut and chocolate.) Jean's wife invented the chocolate box (or ballotin) a few years later. Can you imagine the world of high and low end chocolate today without the beautiful packaging and exotic flavors? If you're still not convinced of Belgian's chocolate heritage, just take a look at the amazing number of chocolate museums, demonstrations, events and tours this country offers.

The Leonidas shop offers a wide selection of truffles, butter creams, pralines and liquor-filled chocolates. Unlike the other chocolate shops we visit on our tours, they have creative names for each piece. For example, the "Desiree" is white chocolate with butter cream and pineapple. Yes, the Belgians and the Swiss do not turn their noses up at white chocolate! Or the "Mystere," a dark chocolate butter cream with pistachio. (Wasn't that a Cirque du Soleil hit?) I like the Carré Croquant, a milk chocolate praliné with crisp rice (as in chocolate rice krispie treat!) It's also worth trying their "Pearls," or round chocolate balls that resemble the classic French truffle. Some are dipped in cocoa powder, others in coconut or powder sugar.

Like most of the new chocolate shops, Leonidas also offers a drink menu. What I love is that each drink comes with a free piece of filled chocolate! They say the hot chocolate is made from melted chocolate with steamed milk. It is good, but definitely not the best I've had in the city. It would be great if Leonidas, like Schoggi and Christopher Elbow, had tables and chairs to sit and sip. The modern, clean interior is welcoming and never very crowded. But with the Crocker Galleria tables and heat lamps just outside the shop, there are plenty of spots to linger and enjoy your Belgian treats.