Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Art & Soul of Chocolate: Escazu Chocolates Tour

Chocolate. What can I say that hasn't already been said? I gladly embrace life with a few extra pounds just to have my daily dose of it. And when it's the good stuff, like the handmade chocolates by Escazu Artisan Chocolates, a little goes a long way. Rich and I have been a fan of Escazu since they had a small shop in Glenwood South but then they moved somewhere on the north side of the city. We spent one night driving in the dark into some interesting neighborhoods looking for them and finally gave up. Luckily, I was on their e-mail list and when they reopened on N. Blount Street, we skedaddled over to get our fix. The new shop is a little roomier but with the same Ikea furniture. They've added a glass window with a view behind the scenes into the chocolate-making process. And now they're also offering tours.

Escazu tours are available on the first Friday and Saturday of every month. They're free but you'll need to make a reservation. The cozy shop can only accommodate a limited number of visitors, so spots book up fast. I made my reservation a month in advance because we missed out on the first set of tours in August. My friend Sandi and I had a light dinner at Market Restaurant next door, and then joined in on the tour in progress. The tour lasted about 30 minutes and we were able to see the chocolate in all it's different stages. Escazu actually buys their beans from small farmers in Central/South America, hand sorts them, roasts them in a giant metal ball at a low temperature, tempers them and crafts them into bars and individual filled creations. They even hand wrap their bars. We tasted the chocolate at three different stages, including the cocoa nibs, then queued up for hot cocoa and chocolates to end the tour.

The spicy hot cocoa was divine. We also sampled four or five chocolates, which they cut in half for us to share. The chocolates are around $2 a piece, which adds up quickly. But really, any more of these chocolates in one sitting is asking for insomnia. It's like drinking an espresso before bedtime. My favorite flavors from last night include the caramel (top right), goat's milk ganache (bottom center) and dark chocolate basil (sorry, that one disappeared before I could get a photo). Sandi also really liked the white chocolate raspberry (left), although we couldn't find any hint of white chocolate in it. I think it was mislabeled. I've tasted their bars in the past and really prefer these tiny, potent creations. I'm hoping in the future they'll also add a chocolate tasting (for a fee of course), kind of like a wine tasting but with flights of single-source chocolates so you can taste the differences. I think I would need a designated driver.

A word if you're planning a girl's night to Escazu or Market Restaurant: parking in front is limited to five or six spots but there's plenty of parking on the street, and it's well lit. I'm not familiar with the neighborhood, so don't know how safe it is. We came out after dark and there were two groups of men hanging out across the street and behind the restaurant near some rundown looking apartments. Both areas were poorly lit. It was late and we were glad we'd parked under a streetlight close to the restaurant. Overall, I wouldn't let it deter you from a visit. Just be aware of your surroundings if you'll be coming out of the building after dark.

Also, it was a beautiful night to sit out on the patio at Market Restaurant and enjoy a pitcher of sangria and some ceviche and crab cakes. The food was light and fresh, a good prequel to Escazu. If I lived in the upscale townhouses across the street I'd be there a few nights a week, although I wouldn't drive across town for it. Of course, they're one of the few places I've seen goat on the menu locally, even if they were out of it last night. I'm sure we'll be back.

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