Friday, February 8, 2008

Chi Chocolat: A Spot of Decadence in Little Italy


Jesse Brown is a character. He loves to talk about chocolate, about the way it can be crafted, about its health benefits and how Americans can learn something from Europeans both in how chocolate is made and consumed. In short, Jesse Brown loves to talk.

Fortunately for his customers, Jesse Brown is just as passionate when it comes to actually making his truffles and bonbons. In his small shop, Chi Chocolat, which includes a charming café set with mosaic tables, a place to play chess and a picture window onto the passing world of India St., Brown works his growing skills as an artisan chocolate maker. The open kitchen allows customers to watch the chocolate temper, watch him fill the plastic molds that form his bonbons and roll and dip his truffles. “People are paying a lot for hand-crafted chocolates and I think it helps for them to see the effort that goes into making them,” he says.



Brown and his wife, Tess, have been in chocolates for three years in conjunction with running their thriving catering business. It’s clear the self-taught chocolatier loves what he does and feels he has a higher calling to serve the community through his chocolates.

The bonbons and truffles, made with Callebaut chocolate, hold up to scrutiny. Like many other chocolatiers, Brown is taking his creations to a higher level with the use of a variety of spices and herbs, teas and liquors, salts and curries and fruits and nuts. Brown sees a similarity between wine and fine chocolate—both in their richness, delicacy and complexity and the necessary balance of texture, aroma and taste. He cleverly has organized his chocolates into themed “flights” that highlight various characteristics. These flights include:

Truffle: an assortment of hand rolled rustic truffles

Exotic Spice: Ganaches combined with spices like chile and pink peppercorns

Cosmopolitan: Ganaches such as crème brulee, burnt caramel, white chocolate, dark chocolate and lavender and caramel

Liquer: bonbons infused with an assortment of fine liquors

Tea: Ganaches infused with green tea, earl grey leaves, exotic chai spices, jasmine tea and ginger

Nuts & Flowers: Milk chocolate with roasted almond butter, dark chocolate with marzipan, almonds and almond paste, hazelnuts, pistachios and lavender

I tried a wonderful duo—a long, glossy Jaeden, a white chocolate ganache infused with green tea powder from Uji, Japan, and the Blue French, a lavender and caramel ganache encased in dark chocolate. The Jaeden had just the slightest hint of the green tea. It’s simple and satisfying. The Blue French was like a long drink of lavender bookended at bite and finish with a distinctive crunch of the dark chocolate shell. It was surprising and happily so.

I also enjoyed Brown’s traditional classic dark truffle. Made with 72 percent chocolate and finished with a roll in dark chocolate powder, it was truffle 101—earthy and rich with deeply dark, woody undertones.

In fact, it’s this darkness that Brown emphasizes is so good for us. Forget the sweet, sweet, sweetness of a Hershey’s Kiss. Dark chocolate with its more sophisticated and restrained flavors is, he says, actually good for you.

“We’re regressing from mass produced, highly sugared chocolate to what chocolate is today by understanding that higher percentage chocolates taste better and are better for you,” he says. “Dark chocolate contains high-density lipoproteins, which protect against heart disease.”

And, of course, chocolate is said to contain antioxidant properties and act as an appetite suppressant. These claims all are subject to continued studies, but isn’t it cool to think that eating good-quality chocolates could actually be healthy?

Medical claims aside, Brown’s confections are quite simply deliciously decadent. But, even if you’re not in the mood for them, Chi Chocolat is a wonderful place to stop by for a mocha and bagel or croissant. Brown makes a number of espresso drinks using Caffe Calabria’s roasted coffees and offers paninis and several pastries like cheesecake, chocolate-dipped biscotti and tiramisu.

“This is a place to meet, greet and talk,” says Brown. “We want to welcome people in to sit and enjoy themselves, have some chocolate and be a part of the community.”

Chi Chocolat is located at 2021 India St. at Grape St.

Have some thoughts about Chi Chocolat or other artisan chocolatiers in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:



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