Valentine's Day is all about romance. And by "romance," I mean sex. Whether you're trying to get sex or you're trying to comfort yourself because you're not getting any, chocolate is your friend—and Portland's artisan chocolatiers, shopkeeps and chefs wanna help you get some. Whatever the mood or reason, the following will supply your wildest cocoa fantasies:
Mojo, the monkeylike Pokémon who lords over Mojo Crepes (8409 SE Division St., 208-3195), is a science experiment gone awry. The monstrous Japanese crêpes they serve must have been invented by the same mad genius. Chocoholics should order the Oreo Obsession ($5.25): a crêpe wrapped around Death by Chocolate ice cream, crushed Oreos, bananas and chocolate syrup. Release your own monster and add Nutella to that bad boy.
Six dollars won't even buy you a dessert at most upscale restaurants. At Cool Moon (1105 NW Johnson St., 224-2021) you can get a sundae big enough for two ($5-$6). Start with the semisweet Wicked Chocolate, easily the best chocolate ice cream in town, topped with their housemade fudge sauce, nuts, whipped cream and amarena cherries and see if you can eat it all. (Warning: Foreign travelers not raised on supersized portions and 7-Eleven Big Gulps, those prone to brain freeze, and people named "Chauncey" should not attempt to eat this accompanied by fewer than three people.)
It's almost a disservice to put Cocanú (cocanu.com, available at Cacao, 414 SW 13th Ave., 241-0656) in the "fun" category. The local chocolatier creates some of the most deftly devised blended bars in Portland. But then again, it came up with the Moonwalk ($4): Cluizel's Concepcion single-origin chocolate from Venezuela seeded with chocolate nibs and Pop Rocks. It's seriously good chocolate, but it's all fun and shit, too.
When Sahagún Chocolates first opened, Elizabeth Montes, the owner, gave me a thin swirl of unmolded chocolate from one of her favorite chocolatiers (DeVries) and included very specific instructions on how to eat it: Warm it up by my car's heater until just beginning to melt, let it cool in my hand, warm it up again and then pop it in my mouth. While her shop closed late last year, Montes' chocolate perfectionism lives on in her confections (available online at sahagunchocolates.com or at Cacao, Cheese Bar, Foster & Dobbs and other shops around town). The Oregon Kiss, her gold-dusted chocolate-hazelnut truffle ($16 for five pack, $3 each at Cacao) is a delicious gourmet version of a Ferrero Rocher, those overly sweet, crunchy, gold-wrapped Nutella truffles you get at supermarket checkstands.
There is no better medium for tasting the complex character of chocolate than in liquid form. Cacao's "shot" of drinking chocolate ($2) comes in three varieties—a blend of Venezuelan milk and dark chocolate with cinnamon, a classic 72 percent Ecuadoran dark chocolate, and that dark chocolate amped up with smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, ginger and coconut milk. The bold beverage is like a chocolate 12-gauge to the palate, coating the entire mouth with such intensity it's impossible to indulge in more than the daintiest of cups.
As for more leisurely experiences, Wildwood's single-origin chocolate terrine with cocoa nib praline ($8, 1221 NW 21st Ave., 248-9663) is one of the simplest desserts at a fine-dining restaurant I've had in ages. At first I was bored by it, or at least the presentation of it—not much more than a slab of mousse on a plate. But a week later, I'm still craving it. The simplicity showcases the tart fruitiness of Valrhona's Tainori chocolate from the Dominican Republic. It was about the chocolate.
"C" IS FOR COOKIE
Two Tarts (2309 NW Kearney St., 312-9522) should be renamed "Two Temptresses." The siren song of this Nob Hill bakery and farmers market stall graduate are diminutive cookies that beg to be eaten by the handful. Their best are cream-filled creations, such as the Lil' Mama (80 cents each), an Oreo knockoff, with two crisp, chocolate wafers sandwiching a vanilla buttercream center.
Another farmers market alum, Hillsdale's Baker & Spice (6330 SW Capitol Highway, 244-7573), is too often neglected by Portlanders, while in-the-know Southwest residents line up out the door with good reason. Pies, cakes, croissants and an excellent loaf of challah all warrant a car trip. Be sure to grab a box of chocolate crackle cookies ($1 each)—mud-black, coated with a thin sugary crust as white and crisp as a February frost.
WHEN SAVORY MET SWEET
Chocolate's oldest use was as an unsweetened drink spiced with chile, an elixir reserved for Mesoamerica's kings and priests. Out of this savory tradition came the 16th-century colonial Mexico invention of moles, complex sauces with 20 or more ingredients, often subtly flavored with chocolate. Northeast Portland's Autentica (5507 NE 30th Ave., 287-7555) serves pollo en mole guerrerense ($20), a half a chicken simmered in a housemade sauce consisting of everything from nuts, chiles, bread, plantain and tortilla to cinnamon, clove, garlic, anise and, of course, chocolate. It's a dish from Chef Oswaldo Bibiano's home state of Guerrero and a superbly balanced introduction to moles.
Curries are the moles of the Southeast Asia. At Alma Chocolates (140 NE 28th Ave., 517-0262) the tropical aromas of Thai curry—coconut, lemongrass, galangal and chile—are blended with every kid's favorite better-together-than-alone combination of peanut butter and chocolate, creating one of Portland's very best bites, the Thai peanut butter cup ($2.25 each).
Nobody does yin and yang better than David Briggs' Xocolatl de Davíd truffles (available online at xocolatldedavid.com or at Cheese Bar, the Meadow, Cork, Foster & Dobbs and other shops around town). There's his famous bacon-chocolate truffles, the numbing "salt and pepper" bonbons with Szechuan peppercorns and, my favorite, the olive oil truffle, with its silken ganache and very un-sweet fruitiness ($2.50). If it's fromage you crave, then Pix Pâtisserie's Royale With Cheese ($7.50, 3901 N Williams Ave., 282-6539), a creamy chocolate mousse "bombe" packed with hazelnut praline filling served with a side of pungent French Brillat Savarin cheese, is your ultimate mashup. And then there's the Vietnamese chocolate tart ($9) at Paley's Place (1204 NW 21st Ave., 243-2403). Who else would nestle a nuanced custard filling of chocolate, coffee, cinnamon and sweetened condensed milk in a bitter cocoa shell and accompany it with a savory, salted-butter ice cream?
When I ordered the chocolate-hazelnut sundae with brownies, Frangelico ice cream, chocolate-honey fudge and hazelnut toffee ($7) from The Country Cat (7937 SE Stark St., 408-1414) the other night, the bartender quickly apologized, explaining that the dessert was on the previous week's menu. "Thank God it's gone," the server next to him mentioned. "It tasted so damn good I gained five pounds!" Country Cat is one of the unsung heroes of pastry work in Portland, its desserts echoing the savory kitchen's focus on comfort food with Michelin-star attention to detail and devotion to top-notch ingredients. I wasn't a bit disappointed with the sundae's replacement, a chocolate-almond upside down cake with amaretto whipped cream and honey hot fudge ($7)—a springy cake, black as a pint of Guinness, enameled with a single layer of crunchy, caramelized almonds.
Local restaurants often rotate their desserts, so grab these plates if you spy them on the menu: Irving Street Kitchen tempts with an intensely fudgy chocolate blackout cake with salted pistachio brittle and vanilla ice cream ($7.50, 701 NW 13th Ave., 343-9440); Gabe Rucker's new French bistro Little Bird takes flight with a light and slightly crisp hazelnut-milk chocolate financier with kumquats and praline ice cream ($8, 219 SW 6th Ave., 688-5952) while Castagna's artwork on a plate, the Chocolate in Three Textures, translates to moist cake, chewy burnt caramel, and crisp meringue with crystallized sunchokes and coconut sorbet, presented like a forest scene with the chocolate as rocks and logs surrounded by the greenery of tarragon, fennel and chervil ($10, 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 231-7373). Bet you'll never look at a bar of chocolate the same way again.
FINDING MR. GOODBAR
Good chocolate has the complexity and distinction of fine wine. Yet, the same people who turn up their noses at wine from a box, Velveeta or Bud Light often have no problem grabbing a chocolate bar from the supermarket shelf. It's time to really taste chocolate. Here's what you do:
Walk into a legit chocolate shop, like Cacao, Cork or The Meadow, that carries a selection of the best brands—true chocolate makers like Italy's Amedei and Domori, France's Cluizel, Pralus and Valrhona, or America's Patric, Rogue, and Amano. If you've never been a fan of dark chocolate, start with a quality milk chocolate, like Cluizel's Mangaro Lait or Patric's Dark Milk bar. A local chocolatier, John DePaula, sells bars at several chocolate shops around town using milk chocolate from quality Swiss maker Felchlin. These bars will have 40 percent to 50 percent cocoa, as opposed to the 10 percent found in a typical milk chocolate bar. Yet, the flavor will be buttery-sweet, nutty and nuanced.
For your first dark chocolate—or your first good dark chocolate—something in the range of 65 percent or more cocoa, try Cluizel's Concepcion, a single-origin chocolate made with beans from Venezuela. It's nutty, giving it that familiar chocolate flavor, yet floral and fruity. Another good choice is a bar from Madagascar, such as Valrhona's Manjari. Bars from Madagascar tend to be dominated by a tart fruitiness, bringing to mind dried cherries or fresh raspberries, making them very easy on the tongue.
When you're ready to challenge your palate, start with a set of 75 percent tasting squares from Pralus; each of the eight will be dramatically different, ranging from fruity, to tart, to citrusy, to leathery. You'll find yourself hating some and loving others. Next, try Patric's 75 percent Madagascar bar. No other chocolate maker in the world captures the intensity of the Sambirano Valley like Patric. The sourness is almost overwhelming, a sharp contrast to the bitterness normally associated with a dark chocolate. Finally, taste some chocolates that can take your palate on a rollercoaster ride of flavors: Domori's Rio Caribe with notes of currants, nuts, and grass or Cluizel's Los Ancones with notes of licorice, green olive and cherry.
One final note: Your first taste of a chocolate is not always the best measure of its lasting appeal. Think about the first time you tried a hoppy beer, a pungent cheese or a minerally wine. Appreciation takes time. Live with a bar for a while before passing judgment. And don't be afraid to come back to a bar a year or two later after your palate has developed.
Contributor Nick Zukin is the co-owner of Kenny & Zuke's Delicatessen and SandwichWorks. He also runs the local food sites portlandfood.org and extramsg.com, and is a voracious consumer of under-the-radar ethnic cuisine and American grub.