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Chocolate U 

It takes more than the sweet stuff to educate us on Café Cacao's charms

Wednesday, Feb 9 2005
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My name is Meredith, and I am not a chocoholic.

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.

Yet when I entered at 12:30 on Sunday, I saw the usual overflowing entry, with no hostess in sight, Phil pressed up against the wall by the unruly crowd, and a wild-eyed Joyce waiting in vain by the front counter. I strolled up to Phil and said, cordially, "I hate this place," whereupon his eyes bugged out in horror (who is this madwoman?), and I had to spend the next several minutes apologizing to him (hey, I thought I was being funny). The hostess eventually appeared, and good-natured Joyce atypically informed another supplicant, curtly, "I was here before you," while attempting to add our name to the list.

In fairly short order things had calmed down, and we even found a place to sit while waiting; I got coffees for us from the to-go counter, where the no doubt long-suffering server felt obliged to caution me that a macchiato, even the double that I'd ordered, was a tiny thing, just in case I was expecting some massive Caramel Humongo Macchiato as served at Starbucks, whose establishments I do not frequent (more for reasons of taste -- the company overroasts its beans, as far as I'm concerned -- and sticker shock than philosophical aversion, although that figures into the equation, too).

However, the usual bumbling ensued. Phil and I received our hot cooked dishes (scallion scrambled eggs with gravlax for me, a pressed ham and Gruyère sandwich with mustard fruits for him) not too long after we'd ordered them, and we proceeded to nibble around their edges while waiting for Joyce's cold salad to arrive. After 20 minutes, I beckoned our server over and asked after the salad. "Oh, I'll get right on it," she said. Another 20 minutes later (I do not exaggerate, I kept looking at my watch with disbelief), she appeared with a salad. But not the persimmon, roasted chicken, and chicory with cocoa nib vinaigrette that Joyce had ordered. "We've run out of persimmons," our server told us, more than three-quarters of an hour after we'd ordered. "I hope apples will be OK." Joyce, famished, started eating, mentioning that the salad "needed something -- maybe a citric kick?" "That," I said grimly, "would have been provided by the persimmons," which are acidic.

We weren't charged for the salad, nor for a good chocolate croissant bread pudding, but that was only appropriate. I'd had plenty of time to remember how Ben and I had been led to a table in direct sunlight and, when I'd asked if a nearby, shadier table could be cleared so we could sit there, was informed that the people sitting there weren't through and would be returning momentarily; of course, the table remained empty (and unbused) all through our meal. And how I'd watched as Aline's bowl of cream of parsnip soup sat cooling on the open kitchen ledge for 10 minutes; I'd never done such a thing before, but I got up and fetched the soup myself. (No one noticed.) The herb-dusted, house-made potato chips we'd ordered never arrived (they looked good sitting on luckier tables); when they appeared on the check and we requested that they be taken off, there was no apology or murmur of surprise.

But my main disappointment was with the lack of invention in the desserts. Chocolate goes well with any number of other flavors, but nobody at Café Cacao seemed interested in exploring those options: At three meals, I was offered chocolate mousse, a rich chocolate tribute cake, chocolate chip cookies, cookies made with crunchy chocolate nibs, a slice of chocolate pavé (buttercream-filled spongecake) -- nothing with fruit, spices, or nuts, save a Reine de Saba cake made with (nearly invisible) ground almond meal. What was up with that?

On a rainy night Peter and I ended up at Café Cacao almost by default. My expectations were nil, so wouldn't you know we had a good -- very good -- meal and a lovely time. The quiet room seemed posh, simply by the addition of snowy white tablecloths, and the sole waiter took good care of the four tables occupied. We started with a soothing soup of the day, polenta thinned out with chicken stock and topped with freshly grated Parmesan, simple but expertly made, and a very good salad of crunchy julienned jicama and carrots with a cilantro vinaigrette, capped with suave chunks of sweet, slow-roasted steelhead trout dabbed with a mustardy crème fraîche sauce.

The main courses weren't quite as winning but were still satisfying: braised short ribs in an almond mole, heartily sided with mashed rutabagas and garlicky sautéed beet greens, and two thick cuts of pork loin, which betrayed little of their advertised ginger marinade but were nicely complemented by a casserole of apples and leeks, and basmati rice. (I was also intrigued by the petrale sole cooked en papillote with fennel and Meyer lemon, and the Niman Ranch lamb burger with portobellos, roasted jalapeños, and fontina.)

Even so, it was with the dessert menu that I finally capitulated to Café Cacao's charms. There, to my surprise, was the first mention I'd seen of fruit and other flavors in the restaurant's sweets in my four visits: a "divine panna cotta," flavored with orange and espresso as well as chocolate, and a rum-chocolate tart with sautéed bananas (alongside the expected chocolate mousse, chocolate pavé, and chocolate-nib cookies). The two-layered panna cotta, in its own little footed glass dish, was indeed divine, and I liked the cookie crust of the tart and its circlet of sugar-crusted banana slices, though the raw flavor of rum in the ganache filling was almost overpowering. Now not all of my memories of Café Cacao will be bittersweet.

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Meredith Brody

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