Not Just for the Sake of Crazy
Like me, you grew up thinking the best chocolate comes in a hard, colorful shell that protects the chocolate inside, allowing it to deliquesce in your mouth rather than on your hands, and so the idea of paying a buck-75 for a single piece of Chuao Chocolatier's Grignottines (roasted and caramelized almond slivers, mixed with finely chopped pistachios and orange peel and blended with dark Venezuelan chocolate) is likely to seem to you, as it did to me, dumb, the very summit of conspicuous consumption (about which see Thorstein Veblen) and commodity fetishism (Antonio Gramsci), and thus not for you—the you presently holding a cup of Starbucks coffee ($4.25) and laughing down your aquiline nose, the bridge of which (nose) supports a pair of super-fine black-matte Hoven sunglasses ($84).
I first read about Chuao in Forbes, where the Carlsbad-based chocolatier achieved the dubious distinction of appearing on the magazine's list of "most expensive chocolates"—at $79 a pound, well below something called Chocopologie by Knipschildt ($2,600 per pound) but considerably more than a 10-pack of Reese's for a buck. The woman behind the counter at Chuao's museum-quality Spectrum store (halogen spots beaming down dramatically upon each jewel-like candy) giggled when I asked if there was anything in the way of a peanut-butter cup. No, she said, not peanut butter, but how about a Chevere? Pardon my French, I said, but isn't that goat-something? Indeed it is: goat cheese, butter cream and black pepper inside Venezuelan chocolate. It's surprisingly good—tart, sweet, spicy and weird.
Venezuelan chocolate turns out to be the foundation upon which all Chuao chocolates are made. Founder Michael Antonorsi, a Venezuelan, brags that his homeland produces the world's greatest cacao, what he calls a "trinitario blend." "It's more aromatic, fruity" than conventional cacao, he said, and, comprising just 10 percent of the world's cacao, rare. Chuao blends that chocolate with some obvious ingredients (caramel, strawberry and macadamia nuts), but it's the weird pairings that catch your eye and sting your palate (chipotle, balsamic vinegar, pasilla chile or cayenne pepper). Some ingredients seem two or three times removed from reality (organic fennel pollen?).
Are these mere accidents, the result of collisions in a kitchen?
"I think of food and flavors all the time, even when I sleep," Antonorsi told the Weekly. "When I can't sleep, I start thinking about combinations and flavors until I fall asleep. I love to cross over ingredients from the savory world to the sweet world, challenge the conventions and stretch the imagination, but always making sure that the end result is a delicious one."
So how about sardines? Or tuna? "We have a lot of fun imagining things and making them work, always within the realm of a chocolate confection," he said. "But I am sure that a sardine-flavored chocolate or tuna salad bonbon will not be in our assortment. I am not into the crazy ingredients just for the crazy sake. What I want is for people to say, 'Wow! I would not have imagined that this combination could taste so good.'"
Which is why I'll be eating my tea at 4 p.m.: Chuao's Earl Grey bar ($5)—the bergamot-infused tea steeped in and blended with Venezuelan milk chocolate.
Chuao Chocolate Caf, Spectrum Shopping Center, 95 Fortune Dr., Ste. 603, Irvine, (949) 453-8813.
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