Photos by Anne Fishbein1985 was the year of tiramisu; 1994 was the year of the blood-orange sorbet; and 2002 was the year you started finding breakfast cereal incorporated into expense-account desserts. But last year was probably the year of hot chocolate in Los Angeles, the first time in history where a request for a cup of the beverage in a decent restaurant might result in something better than a mugful of Swiss Miss or a drizzle of bar syrup diluted with a torrent of hot milk — might result, at least occasionally, in something very close to the mercury-weight hot chocolate at the Parisian teahouse Angelina, the chocolate fancier’s equivalent of pure crack cocaine. Devotees of hot-chocolate month at New York’s City Bakery, of the bitter cups of goo served with churros in Madrid cafes, of Angelina itself, no longer needed to travel quite so far. Angelina’s hot chocolate, known as Africain, is made with black, dense bars of Valrhona chocolate, melted, patiently boiled down with heavy cream, and served in tiny, elegant teapots at concentrations high enough to give an endorphin rush to the entire Rue de Rivoli. You could probably walk on this chocolate if you were to gather enough of it together, caulk a leak with it, or power a chocolate-fueled rocket to Alpha Centauri. The first time you down a cup of the stuff ranks with the first time you consummate a romantic encounter or smoke a decent cigar — it feels as if your head is ready to explode, and you can’t wait to do it again.Nancy Silverton worked for a while at Angelina when she was attending pastry school in Paris, and the hot chocolate she developed for Campanile is pretty close to Angelina’s: potent, bitter and distinctly not for kids, it is currently on the dessert menu lightened with housemade marshmallow cream. Suzanne Goin worked for Campanile long enough to learn the secrets of the Angelina chocolate, too: If her restaurant Lucques isn’t too crowded, you can usually get somebody to boil some up for you. Annie Miller cooked at Campanile for years, and her Clementine, on a side street just across from Century City, serves a delicious, rather mellow version, milky but with a deep backnote of fruity chocolate bitterness just strong enough to punch through the sticky sweetness of the fissured marshmallows with which she tops the brew. Minibar’s notorious marshmallow stew is another variation on the melted-candy-bar school, served in coffee cups one-third filled with viscous white fluff, hot chocolate so concentrated as to seem almost venomous in its intensity. (top): Clementine'shomemade marshmallows (bottom): Le Pain Quotidien The Mexican-style hot chocolate at Olvera Street’s intimate Casa de Souza is a different kind of thing, I think, chocolate that demands to be seasoned with fragrant incense and long philosophical discussions. The Mexican hot chocolate at Black Cow in Montrose, flavored with orange peel, is as weightless and sugary as a Sunday afternoon. Something as profound as good hot chocolate demands reflection, contemplation, investigation. Last week, my daughter Isabel, photographer Anne and I stopped by the Mexican restaurant Senor Fred’s in Sherman Oaks, ostensibly to try the fish tacos, but really to check out the hot chocolate, which I had heard was truly Spanish in style: short, intense and very dark, concealed under a solid layer of freshly whipped cream — one of the better desserts in the San Fernando Valley. The hot chocolate was as formidable as I had heard, thickened with cornstarch in the Spanish manner, served with wonderful fresh churros (as well as less wonderful Jewish bakery cookies), but the dangerous bitterness was not quite designed for a 10-year-old’s tum. We drove over the hill to Clementine, whose hot chocolate Isabel found too bitter, although she adored the giant marshmallows, and we went to Susina Bakery, where the light, sweet, milky hot chocolate was the kind that you make yourself on a rainy afternoon: not a serious cup, although the buttery puff pastry stuffed with spinach and garlic was pretty great. We had the slightly grainy hot chocolate served in footed bowls at Le Pain Quotidien. We had the sweet Mexican hot chocolate at Sabor y Cultura. We tried the thin hot chocolate at Ghirardelli (abundant whipped cream). We didn’t have the hot chocolate at the swank new chocolate shop Boule (they don’t serve it, apparently), although we stopped just long enough to pick up a delicious chocolate-filled pastry called a zebra. We discovered that it is indeed possible to have too much chocolate in a single day. Isabel found her favorite hot chocolate at the Leonidas Chocolate Café, a spinoff of a Belgian-based candy-shop chain whose estimable slogan is “Hot Chocolate and Mocha Made With Fresh Melted Belgian Chocolates.’’ Leonidas looks like a chain coffeehouse, and has a bit of the stale-coffee aroma of a chain coffeehouse too, but the café pours several kinds of hot chocolate, including one delicately perfumed with raspberries and a “Mexican” chocolate flavored strongly with almonds and cinnamon. Isabel took one sip of the smooth, refined “regular” hot chocolate, and refused to let me near her cup. “This is the best hot chocolate in the world,’’ she said. “In the world.’’ It was fine hot chocolate, suave and full, with a subtle but distinct aftertaste of pralinated nuts. Leonidas’ hot chocolate is perhaps the finest I have ever had the pleasure of sipping from a paper cup. Ghiarardelli'stop-heavy treats A short drive to Venice brought us to the shaded patio of Jin Patisserie, an exquisite little chocolate shop whose customers all seem to have the reed-thin bodies and calm dispositions of people who spend at least as much time contemplating the fine points of Pilates equipment as they do the wispy chocolates scented with tea. A teapotful of Jin’s pure, strong hot chocolate has a flavor as lithe and disciplined as the body of a yoga master, muscular but practically without mass. Isabel hated it. Anne liked Jin’s hot chocolate a lot. But it must be said, at the end of a long day of chocolate drinking, not even an NFL lineman could have wrestled the cup of sludgy, powerful, two-sip Starbucks Chantico hot chocolate from Anne’s cocoa-engorged right hand. Like a pack of unfiltered Camels or a double espresso, Chantico does the job. Black Cow Café, 2219 Honolulu Ave., Montrose, (818) 957-5282. Campanile, 624 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 938-1447. Casa de Souza, 634 N. Main St. (entrance at 19 Olvera St.), downtown, (213) 687-0363. Clementine, 1751 Ensley Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 552-1080. Ghirardelli, 110 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 564-8818 Jin Patisserie, 1202 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 399-8801. Le Pain Quotidien, 8607 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, (310) 854 -3700; 316 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 393 6800; and other locations. Leonidas Chocolate Café, 331 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 917-4496; 49 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 577-7121. Lucques, 8744 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 655-6277. Sabor Y Cultura, 5625 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 466-0481 Senor Fred, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 789-3200. Starbucks. Every street corner and shopping mall in the known universe. Susina, 7122 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 934-7900. Zona Rosa, 15 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, (626) 793-2334.
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