Sunday, December 9, 2007

The International Chocolate Salon

On Sunday, I attended the International Chocolate Salon at the Pasadena Convention Center. Billed as "the first major chocolate show in the Los Angeles area this millennium," the advertising puffery promised "the finest in artisan, gourmet & premium chocolate in one of the world's great culinary metropolitan areas." (We can debate the primacy of Pasadena as a "great culinary metropolitan area" at some later date).

The Salon (apparently a more romantic term than "trade show") featured 23 participants, mostly chocolate purveyors as well as a few wineries, publishers and one dealer of chocolate liqueur. It also featured speakers on topics such as chocolate as an aphrodisiac.

As a registered chocoholic, I went with high expectations and envisioned myself tasting amazing new chocolates from the word's finest purveyors. Instead, I found the Salon, which charged $20 admission, to be disappointing. Most of the chocolates were mediocre. There was a fair amount of schlock, such as the inevitable melted chocolate fountain and decorative dipped strawberries, and a few things that were truly awful (a grainy, vegan chocolate curry sauce served over Rice Dream frozen dessert product gave me bad memories of mid-1970s carob). The wines were mediocre and the chocolate liqueur was downright bad. And as to the "International" designation of the event, I'm not sure which of the participants could be deemed international, except inasmuch as the chocolate was harvested abroad, as almost all chocolate is, since the climate of 49 of our states is inhospitable to cacao.

That being said, I found four tables to like at the Salon.

1. L'Artisan du Chocolat

I've praised L'Artisan du Chocolat in the past as one of LA's best chocolatiers. Christian Alexandre and his wife Whajung Park make wonderful truffles out of their modest First Street store. Rather than a slick marketing rep, as some of the bigger companies had, Alexandre staffed the stand himself and gave out samples of some of his wonderful chocolates. I love L'Artisan's adventurous flavors including their delicious Kalmata Olive. The newest of these was Korean Red Bean - though, sadly, it was not available for sampling. He did have samples of his excellent plain chocolate truffle, one of the best around.

2. E. Guittard

Longtime Bay Area purveyor E. Guittard was at the Salon with samples of a wide range of their excellent chocolate bars. My favorite was the Nocturne, which weighs in at a dramatic 91% cacao. Other ultra-dark chocolates (i.e. over 90%) are too close to baking chocolate to eat plain, but the Nocturne was a fantastic bar, packing a deep chocolaty punch but lacking the bitter finish you might expect at that level. I also loved the 72% bar, which had wonderful flavor, and the various wafers, chocolate discs intended for cooking but just as good for snacking. Overall, I thought Guittard's blended bars were better than their single origin bars, having a more balanced flavor.

3. Chuao Chocolatier

I was excited to try the well regarded San Diego based Chuao Chocolatier, which I have heard good things about but never sampled. Chuao brought a delicious assortment of bon bons and bars. I particularly liked their passion fruit caramels and their chili spiked "picante" choco-pods. Unfortunately, they did not have any plain chocolate bars, which I really would have liked to try.

4. Malibu Toffee

I love toffee, but good toffee is, alas, hard to find. Malibu Toffee is a recent entry into the toffee game. Founded in 2006, it is essentially a one-woman show, run by founder Sheri Swist. Swist's is a small operation sold through her website and Malibu retailers. Her toffee, and toffee is her only product, is quite good, with a nice buttery crunch. Swist staffed her booth and showed the enthusiasm so good to see in small producers. I asked Swist what direction she is going in with her business, and she said she would love to get a contract for hotel turndown service...a great idea. I'd much rather have a piece of handmade toffee on my pillow than that boring old mint.

Overall I'd say the Chocolate Salon was a bust, and I doubt I'd pay $20 for the pleasure next year, but it's great to see small producers like Sheri Swist and Christian Alexandre show up to personally stand with their wares and give people a chance to pull away from that chocolate fountain and have some truly great chocolate.


TaraHarmon21 said...

Just wanted to let you know that Chuao does have a line of plain and simple chocolate bars (which are delish!) with different percentages of cacao called "Percentage Bars", which are fashioned after Venezuelan beaches.

Chuspa - 41%
Choroni - 61%
Todasana - 74%

Unfortunately they may have been out during your visit. :-(

sku said...

Thanks for the clarification Plumeria. What I meant to say was that they didn't have any at the table. Hopefully, I'll get to try some of those soon.

Cybele said...

I debated going but was afraid that it would either be overwhelmingly crowded or that the chocolate exhibitors would be stingy.

Instead on Saturday I stopped at Chuao in Irvine and spent my would be $20 entry fee (plus another $10) on some tasty treats.

sku said...

Good call Cybele. It was actually not that crowded, nor were the exhibitors stingy. The problem was the small number of exhibitors and the quality of those exhibitors.

Anonymous said...

I gave some Malibu Toffee to a friend as a Chanukah* present. While I though it was quite delicious at the "salon", she did a Malibu vs Almond Roca taste test along with some co-workers and they found the two to be nearly identical.

*(Chanukah is a holiday during which jews light candles and celebrate the deliciousness of fried and shredded potatoes.)

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm glad that this event exists in LA... but I hope it's more rewarding in the future. Hm, no Kron or Compartes?

I actually just started an LA chocolate company, and maybe I'll try to be a part of it next time.

sku said...

SweetNapa, I'm always looking for new chocolates to taste (and review). Where is your store?