NYC's sweet craze

Is New York the Big Apple -- or the Big Bonbon? Connoisseurs say the city is turning into a destination for chocolate-lovers.
"The whole reason I want to move here is chocolate," said Sharon Wang as she sipped thick hot chocolate at Payard, one of a half-dozen Manhattan cafes known for fine chocolate. Wang studied at the Culinary Institute of America in California, but she's come to New York to pursue her dream -- a career in chocolate.
"New York is giving Europe a run for its money in the fine chocolate department," said Tish Boyle, editor-in-chief of Chocolatier magazine. "As American consumers have become more discriminating about their chocolate -- and a Hershey bar with almonds just doesn't do the trick anymore -- pastry chefs are realizing that opening a chocolate shop can be a profitable endeavor, particularly in a cosmopolitan city like New York where a high-price point can actually be a lure."
When organizers of a yearly chocolate show in Paris wanted to expand, they chose New York as a second venue. Last year, 30,000 people attended the fifth annual Chocolate Show in Manhattan. The Washington Square Hotel, which offers a chocolate-lover's package in conjunction with the show, already has a list of guests waiting to reserve rooms for the 2005 event, scheduled for Nov. 10 to 13.
The show's success "is a sign of New Yorkers' interest in chocolate," says Pierre Cluizel, son of -- and spokesman for -- the renowned Parisian chocolatier Michel Cluizel.
But New York is not yet on par with Paris. "Paris, Brussels or Geneva are the three chocolate capitals in my opinion," he said. He added, however, that "New York is now evolving very quickly."
"There are more and more people ... who live or pass through New York, who are now looking for quality chocolate. This didn't exist several years ago," he said.
New York's draw
San Francisco's renowned Scharffen Berger chocolate-makers opened a store on Manhattan's Upper West Side four months ago. Vosges, a Chicago chocolatier, recently opened a cafe in Soho. La Maison du Chocolat has five locations in Paris and two in New York; and the logo for the exclusive Richart chocolatier's Manhattan boutique says "Paris-Lyon-New York."
But can upscale chocolate be appreciated by Americans raised on M & amp;M's and just-add-water Swiss Miss? What if you can't tell a truffle from a trifle, or if your first impulse upon hearing the word "ganache" is to say "Gesundheit"? (Ganache is a base for many confections made from chocolate and heavy cream.)
Relax. Even the hoi polloi can tell this stuff tastes better than anything you ever got on Halloween. And you needn't be a millionaire to try it. At most cafes, chocolates from the display case are $1 to $3.50 apiece; desserts requiring a fork run $5 to $8. Hot chocolate so thick you'll need a spoon and a cold water chaser runs $3 to $7.
Punch and personality
Each cafe has its own personality. The Chocolate Bar, in the West Village (48 Eighth Ave., near Jane Street), has the fun feel of a collegetown hangout, with '80s music and bold decor -- brown, beige, orange and white stripes, like a Mondrian painting in chocolate. The chocolate tea here is a light, palate-clearing alternative to the thick hot chocolate, and the treats are creatively flavored -- rosehip chocolates, for example, and seriously spicy brownies.
Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven (350 Hudson St., near King) is like a scene from a children's storybook. Torres is the only New York chocolatier to make his chocolate from scratch, starting with the cocoa beans. If you stand outside the building's picture windows, you can watch the candymakers in white gowns assembling goodies amid the mini-factory's gleaming silver tubes and vats. The spacious, light-filled, unpretentious cafe has a warm and welcoming staff. Cookies and other treats are also available.
Warm up at Payard (1032 Lexington Ave. near 73rd Street) if you've been out in Central Park looking at Christo's orange fabric gates (through Feb. 27). You can have a meal or any type of pastry at this busy patisserie and bistro, but chocoholics should sit at the bar and order from the Masterpiece collection of chocolates named for painters. Picasso is dark chocolate flavored with Earl Gray; Van Gogh is chocolate with pistachio, and Chagall has pralines.
Nearby, La Maison du Chocolat (1018 Madison Ave., near 78th Street), offers a quietly elegant salon a few blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Togo, dark chocolate filled with mousse ($6), is a nice alternative to individual chocolates. There's another Maison at 30 Rockefeller Plaza if you're ice-skating or visiting the newly reopened Museum of Modern Art (53rd Street near Fifth Avenue).
In Soho, spend the day migrating among chocolate shops, designer boutiques (Chanel, Ann Taylor, Nicole Miller), and one-of-a-kind stores like Evolution -- which sells skulls and other artifacts -- or Morrison Hotel -- which sells photos of musicians.
The trendy Vosges Haut Chocolat (132 Spring St., near Greene) offers unusual combinations, like white chocolate with olive oil and Kalamata olives, and "Budapest" -- dark chocolate with Hungarian paprika.
A few blocks away, Lunettes et Chocolat (25 Prince St., near Mott), gives new meaning to the phrase eye candy. The store sells eyeglass frames -- $225 to $1,000 -- and MarieBelle chocolates -- two for $7. Chocolates here are miniature works of art, topped with colorful, edible geometric designs and silhouettes, all silkscreened on cocoa butter with natural food coloring. Wash them down with spicy hot chocolate, containing cinnamon, nutmeg and chipotle. (Another MarieBelle is located at 484 Broome St., near West Broadway.)
For an evening of chocolate, The Ritz-Carlton Battery Park (Two West Street, at the foot of Manhattan, near the Bowling Green subway station) has a "Chocolate Bar," Fridays and Saturdays in February, at 7 p.m., 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., plus 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Monday, which is Valentine's Day. The $65-a-person buffet includes champagne, tax and tip; scrumptious chocolate martinis are worth the extra $15. (Reservations: 917-790-2571.)
The view from the Ritz of New York Harbor, with the Statue of Liberty and city lights twinkling against a winter's night sky, is as stunning as the desserts, which include a warm, molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream; tiny chocolate pyramids; strawberries dipped in chocolate; plus mousses, cremes, candies and other creations.
The hotel's chocolate chef, Laurent Richard, is also a sculptor. Look for his chocolate renderings of a chess set, Willy Wonka and the Statue of Liberty, along with a lifesize statue of himself.
Children with a generous sugar daddy -- or mommy -- might try the $100 Volcano at the newly reopened FAO Schwarz (58th Street and Fifth Avenue). This chocolate-and-ice cream concoction, with candy boulders and chocolate caramel lava, serves four; kids get hardhats and shovels before digging in. Also at FAO's sweet shop: M & amp;M's in more than two dozen colors, and an edible chocolate toy chest with candy and ice cream.
Cocoa mecca
Despite New York's burgeoning chocolate scene, it will never be a native New Yawk tradition. Nicolas Bernarde, pastry expert at Paris' famous Cordon Bleu cooking school, points out that cocoa beans come from the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, New Guinea, Indonesia and Brazil. Those beans are processed, for the most part, in Europe. New York chefs then use that chocolate to create their treats.
But chocolate could be another immigrant success story. "You just need to promote five or six chocolate cafes that open, a good advertising slogan so people talk about it, good chocolates ... and it will take off," Bernarde said.
Still, French chocolatier Michel Richart says New Yorkers looking to make their city a cocoa mecca "still have work to do ... Europe will remain the world capital for chocolate for a long time yet."
XAssociated Press Writer Kate Brumback in Paris contributed to this story.

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