Illustration by Christine Haberstock
ENVY ME. IT'S A WARM, BRIGHT Tuesday, and I'm driving chocolate maker John Scharffenberger around Los Angeles to sample and discuss some of my favorite chocolate desserts.
Scharffenberger is a very tall, slim, youthful man who grew up mostly in Southern California, went to college at Berkeley, and became a botanist, agricultural historian and champagne maker, running Scharffenberger Cellars until five years ago. He and his business partner, Robert Steinberg, bought vintage European chocolate-making machines; located top-grade cacao growers in Venezuela, Trinidad, Ghana and Papua New Guinea; and, in 1997, began making artisan chocolates, thus becoming the first new U.S. chocolate factory in 50 years that imports, roasts and grinds its own beans. Scharffenberger brings his sophisticated winemaker's palate to chocolate, as well as a dazzling knowledge of its history and production. The chocolate he and Steinberg produce has already gained the esteem of chefs and cooks everywhere.
Our first destination is the Border Grill, for Oaxacan mocha cake and a brownie. En route, we talk milk chocolate, which John dismisses. It is, he says, essentially a byproduct of cacao production; it is made from inferior beans and stretched with caramelized milk and sugar. The countries with big dairy industries — Switzerland, the Netherlands, America — developed milk chocolate. Countries like France, Belgium, Italy and Spain had colonies that grew cacao beans, but didn't have big dairy industries. And so they developed dark-chocolate traditions.
The Border Grill's dessert case is crammed and, as usual, breathtaking to behold. We get our lavish desserts to go and head for a nearby coffeehouse. As we wait for our drinks, John describes the first “chocolate houses” in 18th-century Europe, where a frothy drink of ground cocoa beans, sugar, rice milk, cinnamon and cardamon became Europe's first stimulant. “Can you imagine?” he asks. “A civilization that's sodden with alcohol suddenly getting a stimulant?”
Not surprisingly, he says, chocolate was outlawed in the puritanical American colonies as an evil drink. As we dig into the Oaxacan cake, I feel like a proud impresario desperately wanting her favorite performers to enchant. But the normally creamy cake seems cold and hard to me, and the first bite seems far more sour than I recalled. It's the crème-fraîche topping. John loves the sourness in contrast to the sweetness. “It's refreshing,” he says, but the cake is too sweet, and so cold the chocolate flavor — such as it is — is muted. The brownies, enormous and beautiful, are very rich, but again “far too sweet.” He admires the texture, “but the sugar's out of balance.” And the chocolate isn't flavorful enough. In fact, he points out, if you tasted this brownie blind, you might not even identify chocolate in its ingredients. I close my eyes, concentrate: He's absolutely right. Oh dear. It's clear that, by the end of the day, some of my favorite pleasures will be destroyed.
John says that chocolate often suffers in the hands of pastry chefs for one of two reasons: 1) The current fad of fancy “constructivist” desserts gives more attention to the visual elements than the flavors, and 2) pastry chefs are often given small budgets and the imperative to turn a big profit, so they can't afford high-quality ingredients. Good chocolate is expensive and therefore routinely diluted. John can't resist a plug: A single $2 1-ounce bar of Scharffenberger chocolate actually contains more chocolate than three 1.5-ounce Hershey bars.
I assure him that many L.A. restaurants don't put such constraints on their pastry chefs, and drive him promptly to Campanile, where at lunch the chocolate dessert is a single-serving-size three-layer frosted chocolate cake served with a shooter of milk. The first bite is a revelation: barely sweet, it has both a lot of big, friendly fruit up front, and then deep flavors, tannins that keep coming and coming. “It's the right size, it's room temperature, it's moist and very very chocolate. It wants milk. And,” John says, noticing that I'm really digging in, “you want to keep eating it.” The cake itself is made with Valrhona chocolate, the frosting with Scharffenberger's unsweetened baking chocolate. Nancy Silverton comes out of the bakery to greet the chocolatier. Now, I think, is a good time to taste some of my chocolate samples. “I don't know why, but these bittersweet chocolate bars from Trader Joe's have a moldy taste.” Nancy and John both take a bite and spit it out. “That's because it's moldy!” they cry. The Callebut is also dismissed out of hand — sour. But the Michel Cluizel is marveled at. (In Los Angeles, you can find this chocolate at Picholine.)
Deep under the spell of chocolate, Scharffenberger begins singing its praises. Did I know that chocolate reduces cholesterol? Chocolate is filled with antioxidants; 40 grams of dark chocolate (about 1.25 ounces) has the same amount of antioxidants as a two-day supply (12 servings) of fruits and vegetables.
This is heartening, as our lunch today is clearly nothing but chocolate. We head for Mimosa, and my favorite pot de chocolat. It is the kind of dessert John likes best: something simple, a template for good chocolate. I feel confident that he'll like the dense, rich, creamy Mimosa version. But today's is a true disappointment. It's frothy and hardly even brown, let alone chocolatey. “It tastes like a caramel pudding,” says John. “Not a bad one, just a little too sweet.”
The recipe could have changed, or the restaurant might have switched to a lesser brand of chocolate. Chocolate changes, as well, from batch to batch, Scharffenberger says. At his factory, the blend is constantly reconfigured whenever specific batches of beans are used up. We swing by Alto Palato to try the amazing gelato: I sing its praises, how the flavor keeps getting bigger and bigger in your mouth. But Alto Palato is closed, and we head west to Spago, for Sherry Yard's various chocolate assemblages in Beverly Hills. Mostly, I want him to taste Yard's chocolate sorbet and her “10-year chocolate sauce,” so-named because it took Yard 10 years to perfect it.
The sorbet tastes different than I remember it, yet still great. “It's got coffee in it,” says John, and he's right. It turns out that Yard had altered the recipe to go with one of her latest chocolate desserts, a tall austere, rectangular box of chocolate topped with a scoop of this sorbet. This constructivist dessert is called a “Manhattan,” and John eyes it warily.
The only way to eat it is to play King Kong: knock it down and smash it. “It's great, beautiful, there's a lot of work in it.” John samples the lavish spill of intense chocolate mousse studded with bites of orange-scented dark-chocolate cake. “It's a bit of a mess on the plate,” he adds and afterward refers to it as “the train-wreck dessert.” Frankly, he prefers the simpler perfect profiterole, a round pastry filled with Calvados ice cream and topped with Yard's 10-year chocolate sauce.
“Better yet,” John waves a spoon at the small ramekin of sauce, “just eat that by itself. It's a seamless chocolate sauce — seamless, stable, shiny, silky. Perfect.”
The lunch hour is over. Scharffenberger is heading to Redondo Beach to lecture on chocolate. I'm exhausted, and all jacked up, and my palate is permanently changed. I now know about fruitiness and tannins, I can isolate the taste of caramelized milk and sugar from the dense complexities of cacao. I go home and toss out any number of chocolate bars. Oh, the terrible price of knowledge.