Friday, February 17, 2006

the candyman can. . .

I'm very excited because I am going to see my chocolate pimp on Sunday!

Nope, I'm not talking about Snoop Dogg. I've had the pleasure of meeting him and that's a whole other story. Besides, I happen to know that his favorite candy is more in the vein of, say, Now & Later. Or Laffy Taffy.

My chocolate pimp is Jack Epstein, proprietor of Chocolate Covered in SF's Noe Valley. While waiting for a table at nearby Lovejoy's Tea Room, we happened upon Mr. Epstein's compact shop. Without noticing the store name at first, it just seemed like a gift shop featuring unique, handmade boxes with photos of various streets of San Francisco. But we soon discovered it was a lot sweeter than that.

It didn't take long before we engaged Epstein on his favorite topic. I didn't notice how or when the brainwashing process started, but I do know that I didn't leave until I had spent $16 on exotic chocolates (very unsensible, given my current economics). My friend Susie spent a dollar more, leaving with only ONE bar of chocolate. But it was a limited edition, hand-numbered dark chocolate from Spain. The way he described it gave me the same warm feeling when I talk to my fellow record collector geeks about rare pressings, and Susie's eyes danced with the excitement of possibility of sampling such a treat.

My loot that day:

*A dense milk chocolate bar studded with caramelized Rice Krispies from Charles Chocolates, a local chocolatier that I am very happy to learn about (and will hopefully be writing about in depth soon).

*Emperor's Ginger Tea bar from Splendid Specialties, a luscious combo of milk chocolate, ginger and green tea. Missy got the chocolate-chai version, and I couldn't decide which was better.

*Naja bar from Chicago's Vosges, the self-proclaimed purveyor of "haut chocolat." Milk chocolate with sweet Indian curry powder and coconut flakes. I am saving up so I can mail-order the Naja chocolate chips (they also have them in a cinnamon-chili version, which we'll have to snap up as well). I can only imagine the yummy experiments that will result once those get into my kitchen. Vosges has an intriguing product line with some incredibly unusual flavors, including an "Italian Collection" that features fresh cream truffles filled with various cheeses. But, as you'd imagine, such creativity comes at a dear price. Where is your Sugar Daddy when you need him?

The real kicker, the thing that will keep us coming back to Chocolate Covered like the true fiends we are, was the sample he sprung on us right before we left: A dark chocolate bark with chili-dusted pistachios (from, of course, New Mexico). Obviously, I am a milk chocolate baby, but even this got me to convert. The heat of the chili doesn't come out until well after the first swallow, but when it does, it is simply graceful in its approach. At $4.50 for a few little slivers, it ain't cheap. But few great intoxicants are.

Chocolate Covered is located at 3977 24th Street in beautiful San Francisco. 415.641.8123

cactus, cocoa and cucumber

These are some blurbs I wrote for the food and drink section of the annual "Best of SF" issue in SF Weekly. Hopefully, I will be able to write more this year:



1750 Market (at Gough), 626-9866,
Tastes vary widely in our gastronomic metropolis, but most refrigerators have something in common: They tend to have overcrowded top shelves, home to those various ingenious accents that can turn a plain cut of meat or a raw vegetable into something spectacular. This affliction ensures that even if the rest of the fridge doesn't contain a lot of food, it still holds jars of sun-dried tomato walnut pesto and cucumber lime marinade. At Yum, such condiments are properly revered. This food emporium offers tastes of a cross-section of its oils, schmears, marinades, and sauces, not to mention pretzels, chips, crostinis, and other decadent munchables. How fortuitous if a packet of dipping crackers just happens to be in your bag when you stop in to sample the in-store delights.


Scharffen Berger
914 Heinz (at Eighth Street), Berkeley, (510) 981-4066,
The Bay Area boasts a holy trinity of chocolatiers (Ghirardelli, Joseph Schmidt, and Scharffen Berger), which proffer their exceptional morsels of delight to decaying teeth all over the world. Ghirardelli is an obvious tourist attraction, and you might have to know Mr. Schmidt himself to get in on one of the special private tours there, but Scharffen Berger offers free factory tours every day. On this journey through the production process, those interested in the intricacies can learn about the functions of the winnower (a fancy bean cracker/sifter) and the melangeur (a mixer/grinder), while those simply waiting to scarf the Scharffen can partake. If you're aching for more sweets after the free tastes on the tour, the attached Cafe Cacao offers full meals plus a host of decadent chocolate desserts (such as a bittersweet chocolate rum tart and chocolate-cardamom soufflé).



Ananda Fuara
1298 Market (at Larkin), 621-1994
Vegan desserts get a bad rap in general for being dry, flavorless, and a bit overly nutty or grainy. But those who have their doubts about being able to find dairy-free dessert options that actually taste sinful instead of sawdusty have yet to try the chocolate cake at Ananda Fuara (translation: "fountain of delight"). Rich, fudgy frosting tops the surprisingly moist cake, making for a treat that mimics traditional dairy-filled recipes so well in texture and overall appearance that it is fairly easy to fool a room full of meat eaters with it.


New Eritrea Restaurant
907 Irving (at 10th Avenue), 681-1288
The physical border between Ethiopia and Eritrea has historically been contentious; indeed, the two countries argue its location in the U.N. to this day. But the nations' local cuisines live in harmony at a charming Inner Sunset restaurant (because, when it comes right down to it, there's little difference between them anyway). New Eritrea offers enough of the appropriate décor to represent its namesake without overwhelming patrons in cascades of beads and frills. Put yourself in the hands of the capable waitstaff and order a mixed meat or vegetarian family-style serving and soak it all up with a glass of tej (honey wine) and the addictive injera, a flat Eritrean bread that doubles as your platter.

(These two bars are unfortunately now out of business, but are fun to read about anyway)


Chocolate Cake Shot at The Top DJ Bar

The Top
424 Haight (at Webster), 864-7386
Forget the chocolate martini -- that's sooo yuppie. Lower Haight bar the Top, which hosts DJs nightly for its various house, drum 'n' bass, and downtempo parties, favors the Chocolate Cake Shot. It seems an impossible bit of science that a mix of vodka and hazelnut liqueur chased down by a sugared lemon slice can end up tasting like chocolate cake, but just mix 'em together and voilà! You've just shot the alcoholic equivalent of a Yoo-Hoo, a wonderfully childish offering that teases and confuses the senses almost as much as the eclectic beats that blare out of the bar's speakers.


Agave Wine Cocktails at Movida Lounge
Movida Lounge
200 Fillmore (at Waller), 934-8637
Best Use of Cactus
From California cactus salads to spicy Southwestern cactus jellies, the family Cactaceae is quickly turning into the Swiss army knife of the plant world. But we think that cactus is a drink best served cold, preferably with chunks of yummy seasonal fruit, as in the agave wine margaritas and sangrias at the Movida Lounge in the Lower Haight. This joint cleverly gets around being just another beer-and-wine bar with its creative cocktails, which include fierce sake Mojitos and Cosmopolitans. "But does agave really stack up to its more potent cousin tequila?" you query. Ask us again after you've had three of these things. That is, if you can still talk.