Thursday, February 7, 2008

Chuao Chocolatier: Bonbon Vivant in San Diego Via Venezuela

First things first—in case you were wondering, Chuao is pronounced “chew-Wow.” And, yes, it’s a fortunate play on words for this decadent house of chocolate, but it also happens to be the name of a small village in central Venezuela, famous for its cacao plantations.

With Valentine’s Day approaching, it’s all hearts and sweets at the various Chuao Chocolate Cafes. But, nothing like what you’d find at your momma’s chocolate shop. There’s chocolate with chevre, chocolate with Earl Grey tea, chocolate with cabernet caramel, with lemon tequila, with green tea and with Meyer lemon pulp. And, my favorite, the Spicy Maya—a dark chocolate, both in bar form and as hot chocolate, infused with pasilla chile and cayenne pepper.

Chuao Chocolatier, which is based in Carlsbad with several cafes in San Diego as well as Irvine and Miami, was started in 2002 by Venezuelan brothers Michael and Richard Antonorsi. The two had first come to San Diego in the ‘80s to attend UCSD. Michael studied biomedical engineering and Richard computer sciences. They returned to Venezuela and launched businesses in networking and telecommunications.

Michael, however, always wanted to cook, so at age 38, he took off to Paris with his wife and kids to follow his dream, enrolling first in the École Supéríeure de Cuísíne Francaíse Ferrandi and then the École Lenotre, where he was trained as a pastry and chocolaterie chef. “The French are the architects of food,” he says.

Because the brothers already owned property in San Diego and Richard was married to a San Diegan, they decided to return to the area to start a chocolate business, using Venezuelan chocolate, of course, with Michael as chef and Richard running the business. The business started with a small shop in Encinitas and has expanded to include several cafes; a thriving wholesale, corporate gift and online business; and even hands-on bonbon making classes at their Carlsbad headquarters.

“At the time, there was nothing here but See’s Candies and Godiva,” says Michael. “There were no traditions in chocolate here so we were free to think outside of the box and take advantage of the exposure here of so many cultures. Since I’m a chef and that’s my passion, I want to push the limit all the time, crossing over with ingredients.

“Our vision is to arouse the senses with unusual and unexpected chocolates that are delicious,” he explains. “I find chocolate incredibly satisfying. Women love it. Men who have developed their feminine side love it. It’s truly sensorial and connects deeply with people.”

My connection began at their cafe in University Towne Centre with the luxurious Spicy Maya hot chocolate. It’s deeply rich and thick. Sensuously chocolate, wrapped in a velvety heat sans the pain. It made a chilly day more than tolerable.

The café has a variety of drinks, including bittersweet Abuela hot chocolate, Caramelo, espresso drinks, tea, blended frappuccinos and chocolate milk. Chuao Chocolatier also has a pastry chef, who works with Michael to develop a number of exotic pastries. There’s a flourless wild truffle cake, flourless chocolate cake and the deeply dark Black Magic—coffee mousse over chocolate rum cake topped with a bittersweet chocolate glaze and dipped in caramelized cocoa nibs.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I wanted a heart, so I took home a “Love Letter”—a blackberry tea mousse on a ginger shortbread cookie, all topped with a dark chocolate glaze. Light and airy, the pastry is beautiful to look at and a wonderful counterpoint to rich meal.

Along with the café, is a shop filled with all things chocolate. Little packages of treats, large exotic bars, cacao powder, chocolate nuts, froufrou Valentine’s Day gifts and elegant wine-tasting boxes that pair chocolate with wine. The store sells small bags of "coco nibs" for snacking, as a topping on ice cream or other desserts or even as part of a marinade for steak.

And, they have a whole section dedicated to hot chocolate, with Bodum hot chocolate jugs, traditional wooden hot chocolate whisks called molinillos and, of course, packages of their various hot chocolate mixes, including a customer favorite, Winter hot chocolate, that blends bittersweet chocolate with ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and pepper.

Finally, there’s the tremendous selection of truffles and bonbons on display that you can choose from to create a unique box. Some are caramel filled, others with rich ganache or buttery cream, with nuts and fruits and intriguing spices.

The flavors that Michael Antonorsi has played with come off beautifully. The Cacique dark chocolate bonbon, filled with California raisin and rum dark chocolate ganache was a favorite. The unusual flavors melded naturally with the chocolate. I also enjoyed the Framboise, a layered hazelnut almond praline and raspberry “pate de fruit.”

In the fun and frivolous department is a terrific surprise—the Firecracker confection. Offer one to a friend and watch the reaction to the first bite. There’s quite literally an explosion in the mouth, thanks to the popping candy that envelops the mixture of caramel fudge, chipotle chile and salt.

“You have to stay in the world of chocolate,” says Michael. “I’ve done stuff with garlic and rosemary. It’s tasty but confusing. So what can we use that respects the chocolate but also respects the spectrum of people’s experience, that would make you want to repeat the experience? It’s a way of offering chocolate entertainment that creates a connection.”

Chuao Chocolatier has several locations:

The Lumberyard, 937 S. Coast Highway 101, Suite C-109 in Encinitas

Del Mar Highlands Shopping Center, 3485 Del Mar Heights Rd, Suite A-1 in Del Mar

Forum at Carlsbad, 1935 Calle Barcelona in Carlsbad

Spectrum Shopping Center, 95 Fortune Drive, Suite 603 in Irvine

University Towne Centre, 4465 La Jolla Village Dr. H-09 in San Diego

70 Miracle Mile in Coral Gables - Miami, FL

Coupa Café, 538 Ramona Street in Palo Alto

Coupa Café, 419 N Canon Drive in Beverly Hills

Have some thoughts about Chuao Chocolatier 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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