In Lenox, Chocolate Springs is a sweet oasis
LENOX - In Joshua Needleman's Chocolate Springs Cafe here, glass cases are filled with artisan chocolates named Sweet Fire, Venus Rum, and Raspberry Love. Some, like Paris Tea, are colorfully decorated. If you sit down in the 30-seat cafe and order a cup of hot chocolate, it arrives topped with freshly whipped cream, in a stoneware mug set on a small Japanese lacquer tray.
"I wanted to make great chocolate where you would come and meet great people," says Needleman, 36, who spent three years working in New York's famed La Maison du Chocolat. He also wanted to create an oasis. Maize and burgundy walls are dressed with luminous landscapes. The room has a piano (guests occasionally play; on Saturday afternoons, a regular performer mixes jazz, classical, and new compositions). Above the piano, a painting shows clouds turning to shells, forming a graceful arc, and falling into the sea.
There are Asian accents all over the shop and in the confections. Handcrafted dark and milk chocolates, truffles, mousses, and pastries are the specialties. Needleman makes his own ice cream. Almost everything at Chocolate Springs is either entirely chocolate or has a serious chocolate element, though a few treats - scones and biscotti, for instance - go well with hot chocolate or espresso. Unique items are the chocolates with infusions. Chai This, for example, combines chai, ginger, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon mixed in a dark ganache, covered with dark chocolate. Green Tea Bonsai is a Japanese matcha tea infusion coated in dark chocolate and stenciled with colorful bonsai trees.
In fact, Chocolate Springs Cafe may be more New Age than Berkshire Gilded Age. In his hometown of Lebanon Springs, N.Y., a few miles away, Needleman was raised near mineral springs. The health benefits of chocolate reminded him of those associated with thermal springs, thought to heal everything from circulation to digestion. So he used the word springs in his cafe name. In his hometown, Shuji's Japanese restaurant was a favorite Needleman family spot. At 16, he worked there as a dishwasher, and then moved to making appetizers, tempura, and teriyaki. Shuji's set him on his culinary course, and taught him his aesthetics. "It was my second education," he says.
He received a third education at the Culinary Institute of America, and afterward made pastries and desserts at Wheatleigh and Cranwell, both Lenox Gilded Age cottages. Later in Paris, he worked in a pastry shop and at a restaurant. "I liked the precision of chocolate," he says.
Needleman was living in New York on 9/11. "I decided life is too short," he says. His goal: "Do what you want to do."
He opened his shop in 2003. At Chocolate Springs Cafe, he can make fancy chocolates, but also dabble in chili chocolate, and dip Swedish fish in chocolate. A chocolate model for a new World Trade Center sits atop a high shelf. His chocolates appear at special events, like Shakespeare & Company's chocolate-and-champagne "Love Lounge" taking place after Saturday's performance of "Bad Dates." Needleman has co-presented lectures with a Williams College chemistry professor about the properties and benefits of chocolate. In 2006, Saveur magazine called Needleman one of the 10 best chocolate makers in the country.
Since the cafe has played host to many first dates, for Valentine's Day, Needleman has created rose tea bonbons with romantically evocative swirls and pink hearts on dark chocolate.
But the chocolate maker thinks that no one needs a date to enjoy chocolate. It gives that much pleasure.
Chocolate Springs Cafe, 55 Pittsfield Lenox Road (Route 7), 413-637-9820, www.chocolatesprings.com. Chocolates are available at Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750.