By Mollie McWilliams
By Molly Gore
By Pete Kane
By Pete Kane
By Anna Roth
By Alex Hochman
By Joseph Geha
By Anna Roth
My name is Meredith, and I am not a chocoholic.
Berkeley, CA 94710
Region: West Berkeley
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Open for breakfast Monday through Friday from 7 to 10 a.m., for lunch Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for brunch Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 9 p.m.
Reservations accepted for parties of six or more at brunch and lunch, and for any number at dinner
Parking: easy (lot and street)
Noise level: low (at dinner) to high (during the day)
Oh, it's not that I don't enjoy the confection. In fact, at any one time, there may be as many as half a dozen items containing chocolate inhabiting my kitchen. (I just made a quick check, and I exceeded my estimate: There's a can of unsweetened cocoa made in Germany for a Belgian company, and another of sweetened Mexican cocoa; two containers of Trader Joe's candy -- I like the dark chocolate-covered ginger, but I purchased the chocolate orange sticks thinking they were stuffed with peel and not the yucky jelly they are, so they're ready to be recycled to a more tolerant and enthusiastic consumer; three chocolate bars, two "unique origin" dark chocolate bars, one from Ecuador, another from Venezuela, and a Valrhona "Le Noir," provenance also Trader Joe's; a bag of Hershey's Kisses; and mint chocolate chip ice cream in the freezer. Missing today is the frequent box of chocolate cookies, often Orange Milanos.) I've made the requisite pilgrimages to taste Sacher torte (dry) at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna and to sip hot chocolate (very expensive) at Angelina in Paris, and I remember when 8 ounces of Teuscher champagne truffles, now $32, cost about half that and seemed well worth it to me.
My tastes are catholic: I find myself in sympathy with author Steve Almond, whose affection for mass-produced, cheap chocolate -- including such vanished treats as the Choco-lite bar and Hershey's Cookies 'n' Mint -- led him to visit small regional candy makers all over the country and recount the saga in Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America. But I'm also enthralled by the rather more elitist Mort Rosenblum, who comes out as an enthusiast of French rather than Belgian in the first chapter of Chocolate: A Bittersweet Saga of Dark and Light, and who uses the language of wine ("The Manjari came in a rush of ripe raspberries. It peaked and then settled into a long, lush finish") to describe his reactions to the sweet.
When I peruse a dessert menu in a restaurant, my appetite is more often piqued by creations made from seasonal fresh fruit (even in the fall and winter) than chocolate. I love the flavors of caramel, butterscotch, cream, and eggs. I get excited when chefs introduce unexpected herbs and spices (basil, cilantro, pepper) into their confections. Last year I attended a panel discussion featuring some of New York's top pastry chefs, and they all admitted to wishing they could jettison the inevitable flourless chocolate cake -- of which I've had some brilliant variations -- from their menus. But it's the default setting for many genuine chocoholics, who can't conceive of a day (or a meal) without chocolate. They are the subscribers to such magazines as Chocolate, Chocolatier, and Chocolate & Confectionery International; the purchasers of some of the 11,433 titles currently listed under "chocolate cookbook" on Amazon.com; the consumers who hang cartoonist Sandra Boynton's chocolate calendar yearly and keep her postcards magneted to the refrigerator. They're ready to TiVo the Food Network's entire "Chocolate Obsession" weekend (Feb. 12-13), and their favorite holiday (guess which) is right around the corner.
(Valentine's Day is my favorite, too, but more for the cards and their kitschy iconography than the candy, seductive as the image is of a negligee'd cutie, reclining on lacy cushions, negligently plucking bonbons from a puffy red satin heart.)
Many point to the Bay Area's Scharffen Berger as the source of the foodie world's chocolate renaissance. I'm quite fond of the company's ubiquitous, discreetly packaged bars, especially now that it has added milk and mocha varieties to the semisweet, bittersweet, and extra dark ones that made its name. (I don't understand why milky flavors are extolled in, say, cheese and denigrated in chocolate.) And I was excited to visit Scharffen Berger's Café Cacao, a restaurant attached to the factory in Berkeley, especially because I have a nephew who evidenced a preference for, not to say an addiction to, chocolate at such an early age that, lacking any vocabulary, he could only roll his eyes to show his bliss.
Sadly, my first and second visits to Café Cacao -- brunch with my now-talking nephew Ben and lunch with Aline -- were pretty much disastrous, not so much from the food standpoint as from the service. Both times we opened the door to join a tense clot of people squeezed into an ill-defined waiting area while awaiting the arrival of a greeter or hostess. The young staff seemed untrained, without any sort of systems in place to efficiently bus tables and seat patrons or serve them from the counters up front, which dispense coffee, hot chocolate, and pastries to go. I don't like confusion, and there were continual service errors in the meals that followed, and the dishes (egg breakfasts, sandwiches, salads, and chocolate specialties), more ambitious in conception than execution, weren't stellar enough to compensate for the missteps. I forgot about the place.
But when Joyce called and suggested that I meet her and Phil at Café Cacao for Sunday brunch before some foraging at Urban Ore, it had been more than six months since my last visit. Surely by now things had settled down. I'd heard only happy comments about the free tours that shuttle dozens, even hundreds, of pilgrims through the adjacent sweet-smelling factory daily.
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