My top 100 things to eat in San Francisco

Incomplete,never finished, and probably completely out of date after the aftermath of coronavirus. Check out my foodie map instead (although most likely just as out of date).

  1. The caramelized onion and sesame baguette at Noe Valley Bakery
  2. The chocolate-cherry breakfast bread at Noe Valley Bakery
  3. The combination seafood salad at Swan’s Oyster Bar
  4. The clam chowder at Ferry Plaza Seafood
  5. The mushroom pizza at Delarosa
  6. The salted caramel ice cream at Bi-Rite Creamery
  7. The “crunchy sticks” (sesame-poppyseed-cheese twists) at Esther’s German Bakery (available at Rainbow Grocery and on Thursdays at the Crocker Galleria)
  8. The El Rey chocolate toffee semifreddo at Bix (seasonal)
  9. The pistachio macaroons at Boulette’s Larder
  10. The burnt caramel and chocolate covered hazelnuts at Michael Recchiuti
  11. The chocolate feuilletine cake at Miette
  12. The belly buster burger at Mo’s Grille
  13. The hazelnut hot chocolate at Christopher Elbow
  14. The princess cake at Schubert’s Bakery
  15. The ricciarellis (soft bitter-almond macaroons) at Arizmendi
  16. The Charlemagne chocolate feuilletine cake at Charles Chocolates
  17. The chocolate hazelnut tarts at Tartine
  18. The croissant at Tartine
  19. The caramelized hazelnut financier at Craftsman and Wolves
  20. The bordeaux cherry ice cream at Swensen’s, in a cone and dipped in chocolate (the ice cream itself, not the cone)
  21. The flatbread at Universal Cafe
  22. The Umami truffle burger
  23. Captain Mike’s smoked tuna (Ferry Plaza farmer’s market)
  24. The mushroom empañadas at El Porteño
  25. The Tcho chocolate liquid nitrogen ice cream at Smitten
  26. The macarons at Chantal Guillon
  27. Pine nut Bacetti (Howard & 9th)
  28. The Atomica pizza at Gialina’s
  29. The salted hazelnut and chocolate shortbread at Batter Bakery
  30. The chocolate velvet cupcake at Kara’s Cupcakes
  31. The lobster roll at Woodhouse Fish Co.
  32. The gianduja and pistachio at Coletta Gelato
  33. The croissants and pains au chocolat at Arsicault (Arguello & Clement)
  34. The lasagna served bubbling hot from the oven at Pazzia
  35. The wild mushroom benedict at Mission Beach Cafe
  36. The farm egg ravioli at Cotogna
  37. The cioppino (spicy tomato-fish stew) at The Tadich Grill
  38. The sada (plain) dosa at Dosa Fillmore
  39. The French and Fries burger at Roam Artisan Burgers
  40. The lasagna at Trattoria di Vittorio

Divine Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Truffle

Divine Chocolate is owned by a Ghanaian cocoa farmers’ cooperative. All the profits go back to the farmers, unlike the “Fairtrade” scam where the expensive certification primarily benefits self-aggrandizing Western auditors and marketers. For that reason alone it is a brand I would like to love. Unfortunately, my experience with their products to date has been underwhelming—not bad per se, just very ho-hum.

I experienced chocolate cravings today and stopped by the SF SOMA Whole Foods despite its mediocre range (Whole Foods’ selection is mostly abysmal, but they are the only grocery within walking distance of my office). They had a new bar by Divine, and I tried it out. This tuned out to be good call.

The bar itself is really a dark chocolate gianduja, I guessed they dumbed down the name to “truffle” to avoid confusing the mainstream consumer. I personally prefer a lighter, milk chocolate based giandujas, my benchmark being the Venchi Blend bars and the Callebaut blocks meant for bakers, but this bar has a clean taste, and the hazelnut taste comes out well.

It is not as good as the Poco Dolce Bittersweet Hazelnut bar, but is also significantly cheaper at $4 each. I am not sure how long they can keep the price, given the bar is 20% hazelnuts by weight, and that the price of hazelnuts on world markets has jumped by 60% due to poor Turkish harvests (Turkey produces 70% of the world’s supply of hazelnuts, and 25% of the world’s hazelnuts are snapped up by Ferrero, makers of Nutella).

My favorite hamburgers in San Francisco

(updated 2013-04-21)

See also this list of cloth napkin burgers.

  1. Bix
  2. Mission Beach Cafe
  3. Marlowe
  4. Roam
  5. Umami
  6. Slow Club
  7. Magnolia
  8. Mos Grille
  9. Custom Burger
  10. Bistro Burger
  11. Super Duper
  12. In-n-Out

As a bonus, the most overrated burgers:

  1. The Burger Bar in Macys—the Las Vegas one was OK, but the SF one is a wreck, far worse than even a McDonalds, with inedibly gristly meat the one and last time I had the misfortune to go.
  2. Zuni Cafe—the shoestring fries are lovely, but the burger itself blah
  3. Joes Cable Car—OK, but nothing to write home about
  4. Five Guys—this East Coast chain is starting to make an appearance in the Peninsula (they have a location at Tanforan), it’s OK but I can’t understand the rave reviews

Amano Ocumare Milk

Amano Ocumare DarkAmano, based in Salt Lake City, makes the best chocolate in the USA, their Ocumare bar, using only Venezuelan criollo cacao (the best in the world).

art_pollardThe founder, Art Pollard (photo taken 2 years ago at Fog City News in San Francisco) claims he gets superior results from roasting at high altitude in Salt Lake City, but I think superior conching technique is primarily to credit.
They recently introduced milk chocolate bars, the Jembrana and Ocumare. Despite its lovely green wrapper, the Jembrana leaves to be desired — it just doesn’t taste chocolatey enough. The Ocumare Milk comes through with wonderful texture, a rich, complex cocoa flavor while avoiding over-sweetness, the downfall of too many milk chocolates, specially in the USA.
It also avoids the harshness of some bars made by chocolatiers new to the world of milk chocolate — the abysmal Scharffen-Berger 68% cocoa “dark milk” bar comes to mind.

Amano Ocumare MilkAmano Jembrana Milk

Ty Couz

One of the best values in San Francisco dining, their $8.50 scallop galette (Breton for buckwheat crêpe).

Update (2012-07-13):

Sadly, it closed a few months ago.

Anthony’s Cookies grand opening


Another gourmet treats shop joined the burgeoning scene in the Mission. Anthony’s Cookies opened today to a line that stretched around the corner.


As one of the officials present said, it takes courage to start a business in this economic climate. Specially in as business-hostile a city as San Francisco, if I may add.


Inside the store was a buzzing hive of activity, with the eponymous proprietor busy preparing batches of free cookies for the awaiting hordes. At $5 for a half dozen, these cookies are a steal. I tried the double chocolate chip, it came fresh from the oven and had a strong chocolate aroma and the right texture. All in all, a great addition to a neighborhood that already has more than its share of good places to indulge a sweet tooth. I added him to my Google map of recommended bakeries, ice cream parlors and sweet shops in San Francisco.

r n m restaurant

rnm entrance

I have just eaten what is hands-down my best meal of the year at r n m restaurant (their capitalization, not mine), on Haight & Steiner in the Duboce Park/Lower Haight district of San Francisco (not to be confused with the formerly raffish and now utterly commercialized Haight-Ashbury).

The restaurant is named after the chef-owner Justine Miner’s father, Robert Miner, a co-founder of Oracle. The food was so good I am almost ready to forgive Oracle for their sleazy extortion tactics…

I started with the Parisian style tuna tartare with waffle chips, microgreens and a quail egg, a very classic dish (and one too often botched by careless chefs), given a little pep with a slight acidity. It was followed by an absolutely outstanding pan-roasted local halibut on ricotta gnocchi with asparagus and morel mushroom ragout, meyer lemon vinaigrette and mâche. The halibut was crisp outside, flaky inside. The ragoût was simply wonderful, a deep, rich and tangy broth, also slightly acidulated, with a generous helping of precious black morels. To top it off, the dessert, a Peach and cherry crisp with home-made blueberry gelato combined two of my favorite summer fruit in an unbeatable combination.

Be advised the parking situation in that neighborhood is particularly nightmarish, even by SF standards. If I had realized they offer valet parking, I wouldn’t have had to park halt a mile away (after seeking a place in vain for nearly half an hour).

Update (2012-09-05)

Unfortunately, it closed at least a year ago.

Christopher Elbow chocolates

A few months ago, a new chocolate shop opened in Hayes Valley. Christopher Elbow chocolates is based in Kansas City, not a place that immediately springs to mind when the Great American Chocolate Renaissance is discussed. I had bought some of their products from Cocoa Bella, however, and knew they were good, if pricey.

Christopher Elbow

They sell moderately expensive chocolate bars (the No. 10 41% milk chocolate with hazelnuts is pretty good), drinking chocolate, and bouchéees. The latter are a little too bleeding edge for my taste (spices do not belong in chocolate), but the Bourbon Pecan is to die for, a light and moist, pecan marzipan, almost creamy despite the deliberately roughly chopped texture, and topped with ganache. Not surprisingly, it is usually sold out at the other outlets..

The real draw, as far as I am concerned, is the hot chocolate. Dark, rich, creamy and thick, specially if you ask them to blend it with genuine praline, it is absolutely delicious. You can enjoy it in the twee little salon in the corner of the store before a concert at the nearby Symphony, or shopping in Hayes valley. If you are in the neighborhood, try also Miette Confiserie.

The San Francisco chocolate lover’s shortlist

Here are my picks for the best chocolate places in the city (note: updated 2013-04-20):

  • Chocolate merchants: Noe Valley’s Chocolate Covered has made leaps and strides in the last 5 years, and beat previous favorite Fog City News
  • Honorable mentionFog City News, an impressive lineup tended by the knowledgeable owner, Adam Smith. Also the chocolate section at Rainbow Co-op.
  • Chocolate bouchées: Cocoa Bella. This shop is a chocolate integrator: it collects chocolates from small chocolatiers across the world and brings them under a single roof. They also make hot chocolate.
  • Honorable mention: Michael Recchiuti makes scrumptious confections, and his burnt caramel chocolate covered hazelnuts are to die for, as are many of his bars. Try also his Chocolate Lab in the Dogpatch for a cafe experience.
  • Chocolate maker: Guittard. This fourth-generation family of chocolatiers, originally from France, have been supplying professionals like Recchiuti for a century and half. The best dessert I ever had in America was a Guittard chocolate and cherry cake at Eno in Atlanta, of all places. They now have a retail line of very high quality.
  • Dishonorable mentions:
    • Scharffen-Berger: part of the evil Hershey empire, who are lobbying to have FDA standards watered down (so mockolate made with margarine can be passed off as real chocolate)
    • Tcho: overrated, and very simplistic, although their “Tchunky Tchotella” bar is amusing
    • Dandelion: sleazy hipster outfit that turns good raw ingredients into crude dreck
    • L’Amourette: another overrated local brand. The packaging for their “70% Dark Chocolate Gold” screams “Venezuela” and “Sur Del Lago”, but only mentions in small type they use the inferior Trinitario cacao instead of the noble Criollo the provenance (and price) would imply.
  • Hot chocolate: Christopher Elbow on Gough & Hayes has an intense hazelnut-flavored hot chocolate.
  • Honorable mention: Charles Chocolates (disclaimer: I am an investor)
  • Chocolate pastries: Cafe Madeleine, a.k.a. Jil’s Patisserie, formerly of Burlingame, now made in their New Montgomery Street shop (with two additional locations on California and O’Farrell).
  • Honorable mentions: Miette in the Ferry Building. Tartine’s chocolate hazelnut tart. B Patisserie’s chocolate Kouign Amann.
See also my Google map of the best places for sweets in the City.


Chuao Chocolatier Caracas bar

CaracasI am partial to milk chocolate with high cocoa content. It combines the best of both worlds: the rich flavor of dark chocolate, and the smoothness of milk chocolate. The better grades will be made of cocoa coming from a single region, ideally Venezuelan criollo. The natural candidate would be El Rey, a Venezuelan maker, but I don’t like the milky aftertaste of their Caoba 41% cocoa bar. My favorite, Michel Cluizel, makes superlative bars with 50% cocoa content, but the cocoa is from Java or Madagascar. They even used to have a 60% bar blended with almond cream, unfortunately it seems to have been discontinued.

A new specialty chocolate store, Bittersweet Cafe, opened recently on Fillmore Street in san Francisco. They have a good selection, almost as good as Fog City News, with some brands I haven’t seen before. One of those was this bar made from Venezuelan Chuao criollo beans, with a mix of chopped almonds, hazelnuts, and interestingly, pistachios. It is made by Chuao Chocolatier, a small artisanal company based in San Diego (but we won’t hold their unfortunate choice of location against them).

The bar has a rich, deep flavor, and is not over-sweetened as is unfortunately too often the case with milk chocolates. The cocoa content is not indicated, but I would estimate it at around 40%. The nuts are crunchy and fresh, with no hint of rancidity. This is no small feat, hazelnuts and pistachios spoil easily and are tricky to work with. Fran’s, based in Seattle, won’t even ship some of their Oregon hazelnut confections outside Washington State out of fear they will lose their freshness by the time they arrive. At $6.50 ($6 if you buy direct in packs of 4), this is by no means cheap, but at least they give you an unusual 110 gram portion, none of that wimpy 75 gram size companies like Scharffen-Berger (now a part of the despicable Hershey group) are turning to in order to increase profits.

Merry Christmas to all, hopefully one rich in cacao…

Update (2012-12-13):

They changed the packaging and name. It is now called the “Milk chocolate nut nirvana”.

Update (2013-04-20):

Sadly Bittersweet Cafe’s Fillmore location is no more.

Nob Hill’s culinary renaissance

I live in San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Nob is a contraction of Nabob, itself a corruption of the Urdu word Nawab, meaning the governor of a province in the Mughal empire. Of course, many locals call it Snob Hill, even though many bourgeois-bohemian neighborhoods like the nearby Russian Hill or Telegraph Hill are in reality far more exclusive, but this is where the big four robber barons of nineteenth century California, Crocker, Huntington, Stanford and Hopkins built their palaces.

I live just across Grace Cathedral, former location of the Crocker spite fence, which gives a good illustration of the robber barons’ arrogant contempt for the law or common decency. They monopolized energy and the vital railroads that transported agricultural produce to the principal markets in the East Coast, and bled farmers white with high fares, with the complicity of venal politicians. The populist backlash around the turn of the century led to the initiative system that features so prominently in California politics, and renders it to a large extent ungovernable.

The nabobs have left, and their mansions have been converted into fancy hotels, public parks or a cathedral. Despite the hotels, Nob Hill had a reputation for being a gastronomic wasteland, specially when compared with Polk Gulch and Russian Hill, but that has changed dramatically in the four years I have been living here.

Last week, I went to Rue Saint Jacques, a new French restaurant that opened a mere seven weeks ago. I once lived at 123 rue Saint Jacques in Paris, when staying in a dorm at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, so I got a kick from the name. It is apparently named after a tony restaurant in London where the chef once worked. The starter course, a salmon tartare on a bed of Belgian endives was somewhat lackluster, but the next course, a filet of beef in a foie gras sauce, was absolutely heavenly, as was the nougat glacé, a sort of ice cream studded with candied fruit and nuts to resemble Montélimar nougat.

Another restaurant that opened its doors recently is C&L, a steakhouse which replaced the Charles Nob Hill restaurant. You could be excused for thinking this place does not want your business — the only sign of their presence is a very discreet brass plaque on a residential building. Charles Nob Hill had a good French nouvelle cuisine style menu, but unsurprisingly marred with affectation and not offering great value for money. These defects have been mostly addressed in the new restaurant, which has the same owners and is managed by the same staff.

The canonical steakhouse in San Francisco is Harris, but C&L does not compete with it head-on. The waitstaff is far more friendly, for starters, and the preparations are more refined as well. This is not to ding Harris, which is a very solid, if traditional and conservative steakhouse, regularly featured among the top ten in the nation — Harris’ filet mignon Rossini is a must-experience for meat lovers. That said, C&L’s menu is more innovative, albeit with smaller portions. I had their tangy mussel soup, followed with their “pot pie”, a chunky steak served with glazed vegetables in a copper pan lined with dough and cooked in an oven, at once relatively light and bursting with flavor. I cannot vouch for their desserts as in the two times I have been there, I did not have enough appetite left, which is saying something, as I am somewhat of a dessertarian.

Nob Hill is also home to two restaurants that offer surprisingly good value, at least by San Francisco standards. Watergate is a French restaurant with an Asian accent, e.g. traditional French preparations like duck magret in truffle sauce, paired with exotic vegetables like Bok Choy, or their warm lobster martini with jasmine pearl sauce, a perennial favorite. I am not overly fond of “fusion” cuisine as it is often a lazy attempt to thrill jaded palates, at the expense of authenticity or the internal coherency of a culinary tradition. Watergate avoids this trap – their menu is original but impeccably executed in the best of French tradition, which strives for quality ingredients and balanced preparations that emphasize rather than overwhelm delicate flavors with too many spices.

The other bang-for-the-buck restaurant is Rue Lepic, which is the opposite of Watergate in that it is a scrupulously classical French restaurant run by a Japanese chef. They offer an excellent five-course menu for $38 that would pass muster with the crustiest of French traditionalists.

Michael Recchiuti Hazelnut Praline

The dukes of Praslin-Choiseul stem from one of the most illustrious noble families in France, but they are best known because one of their pastry chefs invented the confection known as praliné in honor of his patron. Brillat-Savarin famously wrote “the invention of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star”. Apparently it does wonders for a family’s name recognition as well.

Praliné is basically a blend of finely ground hazelnuts and almonds and cooked with boiling sugar (otherwise, it would just be another form of marzipan). If it is mixed with chocolate, it becoms gianduja. If the nut fragments remain discernable in a matrix of caramelized sugar, the result is nougatine, one of the heights of French pastry-making. One interesting variety is feuilleté praliné, where the praliné is blended with pieces of extremely fine and crisp wafers to yield a confection that has at once the smoothness of praliné and the crispiness of a flaky pastry. When I was a kid, I would often buy “Lutti Noisettor”, a hard hazelnut-flavored candy where the core had this same stratified laminated and crunchy texture, but it seems it has been discontinued, perhaps the fabrication technique was too complex to be profitable.

Michael Recchiuti is a chocolatier who moved to the San Francisco about a decade ago to start his confectionery business with his wife Jacky. He has a boutique in the Ferry Building food court and a number of the better groceries in the city carry his products. A small operation like his cannot make its own chocolate couverture, and it appears he relies on Guittard, another reputable San Francisco company. In addition to his lovely chocolate bouchées, Recchiuti makes a line of chocolate tablets.

Recchiuti Hazelnut Praline wrapper

My favorite one is the Hazelnut Praline, which is actually a feuilleté praliné. A safety disclaimer ought to be mandatory on the wrapper, as biting into a piece is an amazingly intense experience. The couverture is excellent, but it is the praliné that grabs your attention: rich, dark, clearly made with a high proprtion of nuts to sugar and blended with dark rather than milk chocolate, and with the delightful crispy texture of feuilletine. Everyone I gave a taste of this bar had the same reaction of utter amazement, it is that good.

Hazelnut Praline detail

The chocolate bar is clearly made by hand, as you can see from the irregular shape on the other side of the mold. This is unfortunate in a way, as it means distribution will remain limited for the foreseeable future. I have worked it into my standard tour of San Francisco for visiting friends and relatives, as they are unlikely to experience it elsewhere.

Update (2006-11-24):

All good things come to pass, and this product has been discontinued. The other Recchuti bars seem uninspiring.

Chocovic Ocumare

OcumareThe world’s best chocolate comes from the criollo variety of Venezuela, renowned for its complex and subtle flavor. Unfortunately, this variety, the original and purest variant of cacao, is fragile and has poor yields, making it expensive to produce. That’s why bars like Amedei Porcelana sell for more than $10 per tablet.

Fortunately, there are inexpensive alternatives. For those who live near that great South California institution, Trader Joe’s, run, don’t walk, to stock up on Chocovic Ocumare, which retails for a mere $1.79 a bar. Chocovic is based in Barcelona, and has a line of single-origin Southern American chocolates named in honor of their places of origin (Ocumare is a coastal cacao-growing district of Aragua state in Venezuela). Few people immediately associate Spain with chocolate, but the Spaniards are the ones who first imported the cocoa bean to Europe, and Spain obviously maintains a close relationship with Latin American nations which produce the best cacao (unlike the more industrial but lower grade stuff that comes from Ghana/Ivory Coast and South-East Asia).

As with all criollos, the Ocumare is relatively mild but has a very rich taste that lingers in the mouth. It may seem like sacrilege to use it for cooking, but when made into a ganache and poured as a frosting over a cake, it is simply phenomenal. Just make sure the cake in question is exceptional enough to deserve this truly regal treatment…

You say “tomato”

coverBritain is not known for being a gastronomic haven (although the situation has improved dramatically in London over the last 20 years or so). Still, they have some decent grocery products, like shortbread or Ribena blackcurrant drinks. US specialty groceries carry some, but by no means all British delights.

A few weeks ago, a small shop specialized in imported British foodstuffs opened in my neighborhood. The product it carries are the kind you would expect to find in a regular grocery store in the UK, don’t expect esoteric Fortnum & Mason luxuries here, but a solid and growing selection, and a good destination for anyone who would like a little diversity in their daily vittles.

You Say Tomato, 1526 California (between Larkin and Polk), 415-921-2828

Annals of idiotic California legislation

Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on Wednesday a bill to ban the production and sale of foie gras in California in 2012. The bill was pushed by his outgoing horse-trading partner, Democratic state senator John Burton. The highly dubious rationale is that the force-feeding of ducks or geese to produce foie gras is “cruel”. I can think of many culinary preparations that would qualify, such as lobsters or crabs boiled alive. Then again, many more people eat crustaceans than foie gras, thus they are not as safe a target for a grandstanding politician who has no compunctions about trying to stuff his unwanted offspring down San Francisco voters’ throats.

I think the last thing San Francisco’s stricken economy needs is another coup de grâce to its’ restaurants, one of the few local industries that can (just barely) survive its business-hostile climate (our restaurateur mayor Gavin Newsom seems to agree). In the meantime, better to make your reservations at the French Laundry while you still can. In seven years’ time, the only place you will be able to get your fix will be from shady characters in the dark alleys of the Tenderloin, if its gentrification is not complete by then. If you think foie gras is expensive today…

The Bay Area, a bread basket?

Bread is the staff of life. – Jonathan Swift

Atkins faddists notwithstanding, bread has been with us ever since mankind migrated from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture, and to urban civilization, its corollary. Bread plays an important role in religious symbolism, from the unleavened bread of Jewish Passover, the transsubstantiation of Christ and the Lord’s Prayer, or Muslim tradition according to which the cause of Adam’s expulsion from Eden was wheat, not apples. The emblem of the Nizam of Hyderabad, my parents’ birthplace, was a “kulcha”, a sort of flat bread. Legend has it, a hermit prophesied the Nizam’s dynasty would last for seven generations because its founder ate seven kulchas while the hermit’s guest.

You can travel fifty thousand miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread. – Henry Miller

The Bay Area is gifted with a plethora of artisan bakers, preparing all sorts of delights from the Noe Valley Bakery cherry-chocolate bread, to the more touristy (but perfectly acceptable) Boudin sourdough bread. There is even a website dedicated to local bakeries (it does not seem to have been updated very recently, however). Indeed, America has San Francisco to thank for the artisan bread revolution, started by Alice Waters and Acme Bread, just as Seattle is responsible for improving coffee standards nationwide. In America, restaurant critics inspect restrooms. In France, they ponder the quality of the bread and coffee served…

How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex? – Julia Child

What’s more, good bread is actually cheaper. The plastery Wonderbread, originally introduced by the ITT conglomerate, retails for $3.69 a loaf at my local Cala Foods, whereas a loaf of Acme’s delightfully nutty “Upstairs Bread” is a mere $2.50. Some bakeries like Southern California’s La Brea Bakery are helping popularize bread by shipping frozen semi-cooked loaves to the large grocery chains, who finish baking on their premises. While purists sniff with disdain at the technique, it is very close in quality to the real thing, and miles ahead of industrial bread.

Etienne Guittard Soleil d’Or

Guittard Soleil d'OrGhirardelli is the best-known chocolate maker from San Francisco, but by no means the only one. The Bay Area is very serious about food, and boasts many fine chocolatiers such as Guittard, Scharffen-Berger, Joseph Schmidt, and Michael Recchiuti, all of which uphold a much higher standard of quality than Ghirardelli (while not inedible dreck like Hershey’s, Ghirardelli is over-sweet and fairly lackluster).

Guittard is not as well known, as they used not to sell retail (their chocolate is used, among others, by See’s Candies and Boudin Bakery, and I once had a wonderful cherry and Guittard chocolate cake at Eno in Atlanta). This changed when they recently introduced a line of premium chocolates, named after the firms’s French founder, Etienne Guittard.

They probably don’t have an extensive distribution network yet, but their products are starting to trickle into finer San Francisco groceries like my neighborhood one, Lebeau Nob Hill Market (“People in the Know / Shop at Lebeau”).

Guittard new packagingI bought a 500g box of their “Soleil d’Or” milk chocolate, packaged as a box of “wafers” (little quarter-sized pieces reminiscent of Droste Pastilles). In this form, it is intended for cooking, but the bite-sized wafers are also perfect for snacking. It has a relatively high cocoa content for milk chocolate (38%, the usual is more like 32%), which gives it a satisfying taste that lingers in the mouth. This chocolate is also well balanced, it does not have the malty harshness of Scharffen-Berger milk chocolate or the milky aftertaste of Valrhona “Le Lacté”. In fact, it comes close to my personal favorite, Michel Cluizel “Grand Lait Java”, no small achievement, specially when you consider the difference in cocoa content (38% vs. 50%) and the price difference ($9 for a 500g box vs. $5 for a 100g tablet).

Update (2004-12-30):

Guittard updated their packaging (shown right). The newer one is more classy and eschews the pretentious “Soleil d’Or” and “Collection Etienne” labels, but the chocolate itself is unchanged. The box is also slightly lighter (1lb or 454g vs. 500g for the older one, i.e. a 10% price increase…), but at $9.99/lb, you are still paying Lindt prices for near Cluizel quality

Amedei Porcelana

PorcelanaI recently purchased a bar of Amedei Porcelana chocolate. Fog City News sells them for $11 here in San Francisco. When a bar of chocolate is individually numbered in a limited edition, you know it is going to be expensive… There are two reasons why boutique chocolates bars made in small quantities are better than mass-produced ones.

The first one is they don’t adulterate the cocoa butter with vegetable fats (a.k.a. margarine). The European Union yielded to British lobbying efforts and allowed this indefensible practice. Not that chocolate is the only product that legendarily taste-impaired nation tampers with. I lived in London in 1982, and remember my horror at finding out that vanilla “ice cream” included such fine ingredients as fish oil…

The second one is that big manufacturers like Nestle, Kraft Jacobs Suchard, Cadbury or Lindt produce such large volumes they can only retain cocoa varietals that are also grown in large quantities in industrial scale plantations, just as McDonald’s uses standardized potatoes grown to order. Furthermore, several varieties are usually blended for homogeneity, at the expense of character (echoes of the debate between proponents of blended vs. single malt Scotch whiskey). Smaller companies or smaller production runs do not have these constraints and can purchase high-quality cocoa beans that are grown in small quantities.

Venezuelan Criollo cocoa is widely considered the finest variety. It is not as strong (some may say harsh) as Forestero varieties, but has much more refined and complex flavor. It also has poor yields, making it unsuitable for the mass market. Porcelana is the most genetically pure variety of Criollo, and like the others, has mild but incredibly subtle aromas, without the aggressive acidity of some.

I find self-proclaimed connoisseur reviews that speak breathlessly of “fantastic tangy flavor, that evolves through wine and blue cheese to almost too sharp citrus” faintly ridiculous at best, and more than a little unappealing in how they are obviously patterned on wine snobs. That said, Porcelana is definitely a superlative chocolate. I don’t think I will be feasting regularly on it, due to the price, but it is certainly worth trying on special occasions.