Ambiance: Snazzy coffeehouse vibe
Jael and Dan Rattigan will cure you of eating cheap chocolate forever.
I’m not much of a chocolate fan: I’d much rather finish my meal with a cheese course than something sweet. If any of my tastebuds were tuned up to enjoy the stuff, their enthusiasm was tamped down by the endless chocoholic gags cynically aimed at women, like the birthday cards with the pathetic punch lines indicating a willingness to trade everything in life for a slice of molten lava cake. Many restaurant pros apparently consider these cards non-fiction reading, since there’s no shortage of servers who ring the word chocolate like a Pavlovian bell.
Still, there are times when I want to cap an office lunch with something approaching dessert, and I’m not averse to snagging a leftover Halloween Hershey’s miniature from the communal kitchen. At least, I wasn’t until I tasted what the Rattigans rightly call chocolate. Store-bought candy now seems repellently gritty, artificial and dry.
Of course, it was always thus. Swearing off chocolate on the strength of an American conglomerate’s mass-produced interpretation is probably akin to scoffing at the prices of wine because you’ve never had anything in a box worth more than what you paid for it. But even by the high standards set by artisan chocolatiers, I’m persuaded the Rattigans are doing something special.
The Rattigans, who recently opened The French Broad Chocolate Lounge on Lexington Avenue, first made their acquaintance with chocolate as fugitive grad students living in Costa Rica. “Dan was going to law school, I was getting my MBA, and we fell in love with a tiny town on the Southern Caribbean,” Jael says. “So we moved there.”
Once established in Puerto Viejo, the couple decided to open a shop selling homemade breads and chocolates, for which the cacao was harvested from nearby farms. Although Dan dismisses their early efforts as amateurish (“Make no mistake, we are not schooled,” he says), living amongst the cacao trees helped hone the appreciation and understanding of chocolate that feeds their current project.
The Rattigans decided to move back to the United States to raise their young children, a relocation Jael describes in slightly more flowery terms: “Not very many people can move with great intention,” she says. “We felt a need to be proactive about our destiny, so we started talking to our customers about where we should go. There were two places that came up a lot: Ashland and Asheville. And, of course, we loved it here.”
They soon after endeavored to open another chocolate shop, one invested with all the idealism they carried with them to Costa Rica. Their truffles were intended to be good, of course, but the Rattigans saddled their wares with a slew of other adjectives that made the task of producing tasty treats even costlier and more time-consuming: They ventured to make their truffles local, fair and organic.
There was a bit of wiggle room in their business plan: Organic trumped all, which sometimes meant trucking in raspberries from a faraway certified grower. And their commitment to steering clear of the human-rights abuses which have plagued the chocolate trade, like many other industries associated with developing countries, caused them to hunt for suppliers thousands of miles from home who could guarantee their workers weren’t mistreated.
But underlying the whole enterprise was the Rattigans’ passion for really wonderful chocolate. Indeed, a visit to their swanky chocolate, beer and wine lounge—which sometimes sloughs off a share of its glitz when young families like theirs herd gleeful children into the shop for cups of ultra-rich melted chocolate—is almost like a seminar in the Aztec delicacy. Almost. Since the backstory of chocolate is so essential to enjoying it, the Rattigans generously offered to fully explain the foodstuff to me—and, by extension, Xpress readers.
Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree, which quite literally absorbs the flavors of the land in which it grows. Although chocolatiers talk about terroir, a term swiped from enophiles, it doesn’t take quite so refined a palate to sense its presence in cacao. While only experience will instruct a taster in the fundamental differences between Dominican and Peruvian chocolates—native to South America, chocolate today is cultivated in tropical environments throughout Africa and Central America—it’s easy to detect the influence of neighboring crops on various cacaos’ flavors. “Cacao tastes different according to what’s planted near it,” Dan explains. “If there’s papaya, it might taste of papaya. If there are bananas, it will taste like bananas.”
Once cacao pods are collected, they’re slashed open for fermentation. The beans are then roasted, which can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Small-scale operations may dry their beans in the sun, while bigger outfits opt to fire the beans to doneness. “How it’s dried produces a completely different flavor profile,” Jael says.
The shrunken seeds are removed from the pod husks, producing cocoa nibs, which are solid expressions of chocolate’s essence. “We’re very excited about nibs,” Jael says. “We use them in our brownies instead of nuts. It adds complexity.”
Dan adds: “All of the good press chocolate has been getting for health benefits are most apparent in the nibs.”
(For those who haven’t been keeping track of developments in chocolate nutrition, those benefits may include lowering blood pressure, boosting brain function and reducing the risk of cancer.)
How a processor handles the nibs is the most important factor in determining the final product’s character. In Costa Rica, for example, a chocolate maker may run the nibs through a mill and combine the resultant paste with cane juice. His chocolate won’t taste anything like the chocolate favored by Europeans, in which the nibs are finely ground, then “kept molten and moving for three days,” Dan explains. “The cocoa butters and solids are broken down into elemental form, and the liquor obtains its smoothest texture.”
“We’re very supportive of the sensual properties of European chocolate,” Jael says.
Those properties are enhanced by the addition of emulsifiers: Once processors find what they consider the right proportion of butters to solids—the dual components of liquor, or melted nibs—they can add sugar, milk powder or condensed milk to the mix.
Long considered an adulterated version of the real thing, milk chocolate had lately won over some very vocal fans. The New York Times recently outed a group of pastry chefs willing to declare their allegiance to the once-questionable stuff, much to the Rattigans’ delight.
“We started out being dark chocolate fanatics, but we really appreciate what milk chocolate has to offer,” Dan says.
“What we found was some of our truffle flavors paired better with milk chocolate than dark chocolate,” says Jael. “Like the Indian Kaffir, it battled against the tannins of dark chocolate. Or the Marsala Chai: That’s a drink that’s served with milk, so it just works more beautifully.”
Whether made with milk or dark chocolate, every truffle on the lounge’s extensive menu, which ranges from vanilla bourbon to double mint, is remarkable. There’s a restrained jasmine truffle that oozes the immediately recognizable aroma of calm, and a delicate maple truffle, sprinkled with sea salt, which luxuriously recalls snowy Sunday brunches. The vanilla-scented kaffir truffle tastes like the planet’s very best street-cart dessert, while the lounge’s brownies are almost painfully decadent.
Jael and Dan urge customers to sample their single-origin truffles, which Dan describes as “snapshots of what cacao from that country tastes like.” Their offerings include a buttery, citrus-spiked truffle made from Madagascan chocolate; a rougher, banana-flavored truffle with Peruvian roots; and a spicy Dominican truffle.
“It’s really exciting,” Jael says. “Blended chocolate hedges its bets against climate issues and funguses, so the flavor remains consistent.”
Cacao directly traceable to one country isn’t so predictable, as Jael’s distributors keep reminding her. “There are definitely times when we call our supplier for a 25-pound bag of Peru, and we can’t get it,” she says.
All of the Lounge’s single-origin truffles have a cocoa mass of at least 60 percent. Hershey’s bars, by comparison, have 11 percent.
“We want people to have a tasting experience that will heighten their senses, so the next time they have a little more in their back pocket,” Dan says. “Close your eyes, breathe out through your nose, and let your experience guide you.”