Spaghetti with bottarga, the must-order at La Ciccia.
Some of the best aromatherapy to be had in town right now is free of charge. The other day, I stopped into Dandelion Chocolate, the microbatch chocolate-bar maker and microfactory that opened in the Mission District late last year. Really—who needs to buy a chocolate bar, when you can just breathe it in? The smell of roasting cacao beans at Dandelion is heavenly. If you're feeling a little down in the dumps, this makes for an instant pick-me-up.
Across town at the base of Potrero Hill, another chocolate haven is being established. Charles Chocolates has finally opened its doors. It's situated on Florida Street directly across from Panorama Baking's wholesale bakery, so there are some toasty aromas going on there too. With Heath Ceramics across the street, there's a new gourmet ghetto in town.
Chuck Siegel has been a chocolatier since 1987 when he started his company at the tender age of 25. Today, 26 years later, his enthusiasm for the confections he's brewing up in his new chocolate factory is hardly world-weary. It's infectious.
Last week, Siegel showed me around his new facility, stuffing me with a taste of this and a taste of that. Though he does make truffles, it's his bars that I love. They're the opposite of precious—chunky and bold, studded with everything from whole nuts and dried fruit to peanut praline. "I hate that chocolate bars are trending towards big, but thin," he says. "So we started making ours smaller but bigger so that they can fit whole almonds and hazelnuts in them." One of his new flavors will keep you up at night (and a little cracked out) just thinking about it: The coffee-toffee is made with big pieces of toffee and Blue Bottle coffee beans.
At his new location, Siegel is selling more than just chocolate confections. The little retail shop—where you can watch the makings of the chocolates going on behind glass walls—offers up all sorts of goodies to get you in trouble. There's a chocolate snack cake which is like a brownie on steroids. There are also rustic and delicious tarts, including one made with meyer lemon topped with Valrhona's caramelized white chocolate (the hot new thing). But my favorite pastry has to be Siegel's charlemagne, a silky embrace of hazelnut praline, more of that carmelized white chocolate, whipped chocolate ganache and a thin bit of crunchy feuilletine. Feuilletine gets me every time.
Today's world of haute chocolate often pushes chocolate made with high percentage of cocoa, something that I find austere and often bitter. As a fan of a good milk chocolate myself, I love that Siegel is representing the everyman. Some of his best work is made with mild chocolate. "We've done chocolate a disservice," he says. "We're starting to emphasize the wrong thing. It's not about 70 percent or 50 percent cocoa. It should be about well-made chocolate. It shouldn't be about snob appeal. Chocolate should be about enjoyment and fun." I'll eat to that.