By Chris Good - 11/16/07 07:38 PM EST
Walking into a high-end chocolate shop can be intimidating, with flavors like ancho chili and juniper cassis befuddling even a staunch chocolate lover.
But a new generation of high-end chocolate slingers in Washington makes it easy to stay afloat in a river of chocolate that has been flowing through the District.
Sixty-two flavors of chocolate have arrived in the city in the last year and a half, thanks to the launch of three local chocolatiers and two retail stores, augmenting D.C.’s existing four Godiva and six Lindt stores.
Artisan Confections, Christopher’s Confections and J. Chocolatier are filling what some have called a gap in Washington’s high-end chocolate market, providing District chocolate lovers a needed sugar rush.
And more are on the way, as Belgian chocolatier Neil Piferoen plans to open a retail store for his online operation, Locolat, at Florida Avenue and 18th Street in Adams Morgan.
“A lot of people don’t know what real chocolate is and what real chocolate should taste like,” Piferoen said.
“I knew there was no one doing really high-end chocolate around here,” said Jason Andelman, who opened Artisan Confections in Arlington, Va., as a kitchen and retail store in May 2006. Before Artisan’s inception, Andelman worked for five years as pastry chef at TenPenh on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Monday through Friday, one can see Andelman making chocolate roughly 10 feet from his cash register while his one employee handles sales. On Saturdays, Andelman sits at a desk listening to his iPod, explaining his flavors and sharing his chocolate philosophy with customers.
Andelman’s chocolates feature rich but understated flavor pairings, which he describes as classic. Not a fan of the cutting-edge chili and curry flavors seen in today’s more adventurous chocolates, Andelman says his goal is simply to emphasize the chocolate.
“It’s interesting once, but you’re not going to eat a whole box,” Andelman says of bolder flavors. Andelman buys his raw chocolate from Valrhona, a French company he says has served him well.
The apricot-tea truffle — a two-layered delicacy involving soft ganache filling and a fruit layer reminiscent of apricot preserves — is about as adventurous as Andelman gets.
Andelman’s salted butter caramel truffle, his most popular chocolate, features soft filling in a thin, dark chocolate shell. Along with Tahitian vanilla bean, lemon hazelnut, and Irish coffee, it is one of Andelman’s standout offerings.
For caramel fans, his Fleur de Sel caramels, coated in dark chocolate and sprinkled with a few grains of Fleur de Sel sea salt, are a delicacy not to be missed.
Most of Andelman’s chocolates feature bright patterns, three of which are designed by local Virginia artists.
Biagio Fine Chocolates, located on 18th Street NW between Florida Avenue and S Street, sells Andelman’s goods inside the Beltway. It also sells chocolate made by Christopher Blume of Christopher’s Confections and Jane Morris of J. Chocolatier. Altogether, it has introduced 27 new chocolate bars to Washington.
Biagio Abbatiello opened the store in December 2006 with friend William Knight, a television editor and producer who won an Emmy for MTV’s 2003 Britney Spears series, “Britney: In the Zone & Out All Night.”
Abbatiello agrees with Andelman that the city needed more high-end chocolate vendors.
“Washington was underserved for premium chocolate,” says Abbatiello.
Biagio Fine Chocolates’ store space is nearly as relaxing as its chocolates. Over 50 flavors adorn the shelves, while African art, a slate water fountain and a bright, clear glass counter give the store a calming, clean aesthetic.
Abbatiello, who hand-picks the selection from local and worldwide chocolatiers, asks hesitant customers what flavors they like and makes suggestions accordingly. Abbatiello offers a “for here” option to customers who want to eat their truffles in the store, setting out small square plates on the brightly lit counter.
Biagio offers over 50 flavors of chocolate bars from 10 countries in addition to selling individual chocolates from Artisan, Christopher’s and J. Chocolatier.
Highlights include Amedei’s (Tuscany) Chuao bar, which Abbatiello says is consistently rated the No. 1 bar in the world by experts, and a salty, outlandish, but somehow tasty bar with bits of real bacon, made by Vosges of Chicago.
“We ordered 14 cases of that — and we’ve never ordered 14 cases of anything,” Abbatiello says of the Mo’s Bacon Bar, which led to a rush of customers as word spread nationally.
Biagio also offers two bars that promote labor-supported fair trade agreements and distribute more tax revenue to developing nations that produce the chocolate.
Do political types ever cross his threshold?
“Yes, definitely,” said Abbatiello. “I mean, it’s D.C.”
Among those is Washington Post op-ed columnist Harold Meyerson. “This guy mentioned he was a columnist for the Post,” Abbatiello said, “And I thought, ‘Uh-oh, I hope it’s not somebody I don’t like.’ ” Luckily for both, Meyerson is one of Abbatiello’s favorites.
A lobbyist friend of Abbatiello’s has purchased chocolates for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a known chocolate lover. Pelosi told Jay Leno in April that she eats chocolate ice cream nearly every day, and Leno spotted 25 chocolates in Pelosi’s dressing room before the show.
Abbatiello said he has also been impressed by the talents of the city’s own chocolate makers. After tasting chocolate at events in London, Abbatiello says he thought he had found all the selections for his store.
Not so. Strong, liqueur-based flavors in Christopher’s Confections’ Butter & Scotch and XO truffles — as well as the J. Chocolatier’s Warm Cove and Pearl, which contains actual pearl dust — highlight the local selection.
“I thought, ‘There’s no way I’ll be able to find chocolate of this caliber in the states,’ and then they just sort of came out of the woodwork,” Abbatiello said.