NEW YORK - For years the Big Apple has been a chocolate buyer's paradise, with European chocolatiers and homegrown talent offering handmade confections. Now the city boasts a handful of cafes centered around chocolate, where visitors can buy truffles and bonbons and relax with hot chocolate, wine, or even cocktails. Whether you crave a simple dessert or a feast of chocolate, here's where you can satisfy your sweet tooth.
The Chocolate Bar aims to feed New York's appetite for both style and sweets. The airy cafe on the third floor of fashion house Henri Bendel opened last year as a place for shoppers to linger and refuel after a long day on Fashion Avenue. The interior is as playful as it is sleek. The cocoa brown and baby blue walls bear gold and silver stencil designs, and the creamy banquettes come with tables decorated with bold graphics.
Owner Alison Nelson opened the first Chocolate Bar six years ago in the West Village as a place to serve fine chocolates without pretension. The flagship location quickly gained a following for its hand-poured chocolate bars with wrappers designed by local artists, and for the attached cafe that whipped up delicious hot chocolates and desserts. The new Chocolate Bar at Henri Bendel steps up the indulgence factor by offering savory fare, wine, and cocktails. A cocktail named after the new location, Bendel's Bellini, is a luscious mix of strawberry puree and champagne. The cafe offers coffee, Italian sodas, egg creams, and a black tea blended with chocolate and vanilla. Visitors can fill up on a variety of sandwiches, soups, and hummus and cheese plates before trying the truffles.
"I kept the menu simple, full of easy items made with quality ingredients so chocolate would remain the star of the show," says Nelson. "People like the idea of eating a salad following up with a brownie sundae." She says two of the most popular items are a peanut butter and jam sandwich on chocolate bread and the Barcelona, a toasted baguette with melted 71 percent cacao chocolate, olive oil, and sea salt.
If the Chocolate Bar marries downtown funkiness with uptown class, The Chocolate Room in Park Slope adds Parisian charm to Brooklyn. Located in a neighborhood of brownstones and tree-lined streets, The Chocolate Room's candlelit interior draws in neighborhood regulars as well as out-of-towners. The atmosphere oozes sophisticated indulgence with dark wood decor, exposed brick walls, and Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background. The restaurant is usually filled with couples and small groups sitting around the petite marble tables or the small curved bar in the back.
Naomi Josepher and her husband, Jon Payson, opened The Chocolate Room in 2005 after years of dreaming about owning a dessert cafe. They had moved from Manhattan to Park Slope in 2003 when the neighborhood was experiencing a burgeoning of boutiques and restaurants.
"There was nothing like the place we were imagining . . . a place where people could go, sit down, and have exceptional homemade ice cream and chocolate desserts in a comfortable, warm, friendly environment," Josepher says. Her husband was in Manhattan one day when he happened upon a book on chocolate, and knew he had found a niche. The couple did extensive research and became passionate about well-made chocolate from quality sources. "We took a leap. We figured most people who would walk into a chocolate dessert cafe had to be in a good mood," says Josepher. "This is proven right every day. People walk in so happy, and it makes us really happy."
Classics like brownie sundaes and chocolate pudding are menu mainstays, while Josepher, Payson, and pastry chef Jennifer Jupiter experiment with weekly specials. For visitors who want an all-out chocolate feast, Josepher suggests a slice of the moist, rich chocolate layer cake and a cup of bittersweet hot chocolate with homemade marshmallow. If you prefer to combine alcohol and dessert into one, the kitchen offers a dark chocolate stout topped with homemade vanilla ice cream.
The bar's specialty is dessert wine. Josepher seeks out dessert wines from all over Europe and the United States and holds regular tastings with her staff to find the best pairings for new desserts. "The right choice is always the wine that produces a full experience . . . taking the dessert and adding another element that rounds it out, making it a fuller taste," she says. For couples, the chocolate fondue for two is a must with the Moscato d'Asti, which, according to the menu, is so "semi-sparkling and very sweet, the two of you could drink this all night."
Back in Manhattan, Union Square has a tiny chocolate nook of its own. At the luxe ABC Carpet & Home, Paris-based confectioner Michel Cluizel opened the first and only US branch of his cafe, Chocolat Michel Cluizel. Located in a small alcove in the center of ABC, the cafe has plush leather seating at both the tables and the bar. Cluizel has joined forces with pastry chef Will Goldfarb, known for his inventive desserts, such as vanilla ice cream with caviar and "chocolate bubbles," made with espresso, Jell-O, and milk foam. "Choctails," such as white chocolate champagne, are popular. The cafe has a full liquor license, which means you can pair chocolates with spirits ranging from cognac to scotch to tequila.
Visitors who want a more family-friendly atmosphere may want to check out Max Brenner: Chocolate by the Bald Man, also in Union Square. The gussied-up chocolate emporium has been packed on weekends since it opened in 2006. The entrance is home to large displays of bonbons and bars, as well as a gurgling chocolate fountain. Walls and glass panes bear etched quotes about chocolate. The fictitious Max Brenner seems to believe that almost anything can be made out of chocolate, including pizza, soup, and cream cheese on bagels. The key to enjoying this Union Square hot spot, however, is to skip the novelties and stick to the classics, like banana splits, s'mores, and chocolate fondue.
Tasting chocolate reaches another level at Jacques Torres Chocolate, where you get to see how it's made from scratch. Torres, a former pastry chef at New York's legendary Le Cirque, already had a successful shop by Brooklyn's waterfront when he decided to open a larger space in SoHo. This time, he wanted to move the entire chocolate production in-house, starting from cacao bean. The SoHo shop and cafe, located inside the 7,800-square-foot factory, have glass walls that reveal the process from bean grinding to melting to molding. The fruits of such labor, like hazelnut bars and champagne truffles, can be enjoyed at one of the cafe's many tables. And don't forget to try the signature hot chocolate, so thick, rich, and filling that it's almost a meal.
Diana Kuan can be reached at email@example.com.