Chocolate Comparison and Survey: Piron (Evanston) vs Chocolate Box (Winnetka) and Other Chocolatiers
Both of these chocolate shops were featured in articles in the Chicago Tribune recently, so I decided to do a comparison between the two. As I started writing up my experiences, I realized that there are other high-end chocolate shops in the area and elsewhere that have been opening recently, so I decided to expand the scope of this topic to include information on many of those as well.
First, it will immediately become obvious that none of these chocolates are inexpensive. If you are happy with chocolates from your local Fannie May or elsewhere for a fraction of the prices noted below, and you think it's silly to spend more, you are welcome to your opinion. I wrote this for those interested in hearing more about what else is out there.
Before I go on, I would like to note that I have observed a very disturbing trend in the sale of high-end chocolates: more and more places are pricing their chocolates by the piece, rather than by the pound. IMO, places are doing this because - just using some typical numbers - chocolates don't SOUND as expensive when they're priced at $32 for a "16-piece collection" as when they're priced at $64 per pound. It's the same reason places sell items for $19.99 instead of $20.00. Now, I don't mind that places price their chocolates this way; that's just marketing. What I STRONGLY object to is that some places actually refuse to tell you how many pieces are in a pound. Product weight is basic information, and is how most foods are sold. Refusing to disclose it smacks of deception and subterfuge; it's one thing to make the price SOUND better, and quite another to refuse to provide basic information about how much product you're actually buying. I have a strong aversion to buying from places that engage in practices that strike me as deceptive. (Maybe others don't, and of course that is your opinion and you are welcome to spend your money wherever you see fit.)
Moving on, here's what I've found.
Belgian Chocolatier Piron
I admit, I'm a longtime fan of Belgian Chocolatier Piron in Evanston. They make the chocolates in the back of the shop nearly every day, using techniques learned in Belgium and chocolate imported from Belgium. Their chocolates use relatively traditional flavors - hazelnuts (gianduja), raspberry, cognac, passionfruit, marzipan, pecans, chocolate truffles, mocha, etc, using white, milk, and dark chocolates - although they recently introduced a chocolate with chipotle chili pepper. In the store, you can pick out the individual items you want. IMHO, they are consistently delicious.
Belgian Chocolatier Piron
509-A Main Street
Chicago Tribune article:
Price per pound: $36 for their premier filled chocolates, $23 for nut barks
The other day I went to a new place, the Chocolate Box in Winnetka. They specialize in more exotic ingredients in their chocolates, such as herbs (e.g. basil) and spices (e.g. habanero peppers, anise). In the store, you can pick out the individual items you want.
The Chocolate Box sells their chocolates only by the piece, not by the pound. They are $1.69 each, or you can buy boxes of various sizes. The largest size is 24 pieces for $36.00. I asked how many pieces there are to a pound and the person in the shop said she did not know. As noted above, the Chocolate Box gets a big THUMBS DOWN from me for this - both because (1) not disclosing this information strikes me as deception and (2) I really doubt that they don't know how much their product weighs.
I bought three pieces of their chocolate, took them home, and weighed them on a postal scale. Based on their weight (1.1 ounces), there are 44 of their chocolates to a pound.
As for taste, they taste very good, but there is an important difference between these and Piron's. Each of Piron's chocolates has a single flavor; their marzipan tastes like marzipan, the fruits de mer taste like hazelnut, the Grand Marnier tastes like... well, you get the idea. The chocolates at the Chocolate Box are entirely different. Each chocolate at the Chocolate Box is made from a combination of ingredients, including fruits, herbs, spices, etc. As a result, no single flavor predominates or is even necessarily identifiable. I bought three chocolates, and I know that the first ingredient listed in each of the three were pear, apricot, and white chocolate. However, when I got home, I could not tell which was which, because none of them tasted a lot like pear, or like apricot, or like white chocolate (and no, that one was not distinguishable by color, either). Maybe you like the blended flavors of their chocolates that result, or maybe you prefer chocolates with a stronger, individual flavor; that's strictly a matter of taste/opinion. Regardless of your preference, if you go to the Chocolate Box, my suggestion is that you take notes and write down the names and/or ingredients of the pieces you buy; that way, you will know which is which when you're eating them, and you'll be able to know which ones you want to buy again in the future.
725 Elm St.
(no website AFAIK)
Price per pound: $65.45 (based on $36 for 24 pieces weighing 8.8 ounces)
Chicago Tribune article:
So, which of these two places "wins" my vote for the "best" chocolate? I think both places offer delicious, very high quality chocolates, but my personal preference is for Piron's chocolates because of the single taste ingredient in each chocolate, rather than the blends of unidentifiable ingredients in the Chocolate Box chocolates. Piron also gets my vote for value in addition to taste, since the Chocolate Box chocolates are almost twice the price per pound as the premier chocolates at Piron. And, again, the Chocolate Box gets brickbats for refusing to disclose their product weight.
But Wait, There's More - Chicago
There are other high-end chocolate places in the Chicago area and elsewhere, most of which I have not yet tried. Here is more information about some of them.
The Tribune article which featured Piron (see link above) also featured three other places:
Love in Disguise of Chicago
2010 W. Fulton St.
Price per pound: Unknown. I just tried calling them and left a message asking about how many chocolates are in a pound; unless and until I hear back, they get a THUMBS DOWN. ($45 for 24 piece truffles, $48 for 24 piece "cocoa sutra" collection)
1635 W. Walnut St.
Price per pound: $35 or more. (I called to ask how much their chocolates weigh and they said they "think the 16-piece box of truffles weighs a pound or slightly under", in their words.)
1101 Tower Rd.
Price per pound: $64 (based on $32 for their "16-piece classic collection" which I called to ask about and they said weighs "around half a pound")
Other chocolate shops that have appeared in the area recently include:
Chocolates by Bernard Callebaut
1970 Tower Drive
825 S. Waukegan Road C-3
Lake Forest IL 60045,
Price per pound: $49.50
Canady le Chocolatier, Ltd.
824 South Wabash Ave.
Price per pound: $33 (according to a 2005 article in the Tribune quoted on their website)
1940 West Division
www.cocorouge.com (They do not yet sell chocolates on their website, but they plan to do so in the near future.)
Price per pound: $82-84 (I called and they said that they offer two 16-piece collections for $41 and $42, and each is half a pound.)
Chicago – Downtown
520 N. Michigan Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
951 W. Armitage
Chicago, IL 60614
Price per pound: $73 (based on $73 for their 32-piece "exotic truffle collection", which they told me weighs one pound in response to an e-mail inquiry)
But Wait, There's More - Internet
By way of comparison, an article in the current (February) issue of Consumer Reports rated upscale chocolates available on the internet from many places (none of the above Chicago chocolatiers were included). They noted per-ounce prices in the article. The highest rated were these eight (the first three have more exotic ingredients like herbs and spices, while the other five are more conventional):
Norman Love Confections
Price per pound: $74
Price per pound: $69
Price per pound: $48
Price per pound: $42
John & Kira's
Price per pound: $58
La Maison du Chocolat
Price per pound: $67
Price per pound: $59
Price per pound: $56
I didn't realize there was a Leonidas store in Wilmette; thanks for the tip. According to their website, their chocolates are also available at Treasure Island stores in the area.
Leonidas Café - Chocolaterie
1157 Wilmette avenue
Tel : 0847 256 5250
231 South Lasalle Street
Tel : 0312 251 8850
I mentioned that the eight chocolatiers listed by Consumer Reports are the ones they liked the best; all were all rated "excellent". They tried six others which they rated "very good", but which I didn't bother listing; Leonidas was among these, along with MarieBelle, Moonstruck, Chuao Chocolatier, Godiva, and See's. They quoted the Leonidas price as $30 for a one-pound assortment.
I like Poiron and have supported them for years. And, I recently posted on this board after getting chocolate from Chocolate Box which I found to be exquisite. I've subsequently visited Chocolate Box and the had the same experiece. Three pieces, is not enough to pass judgement, IMHO.
The criticism about price per pound is misleading. The vast majority of their product is priced by the pound and roughly competitive with Poiron which is to say moderately expensive. Having bought bon bons at Poiron and Chocolate Box, I agree that Poiron is cheaper and also feel strongly that there are heavy style and quality differences.
Some of the other chocolatiers mentioned on this chain and recently in other posts group stylistically. Poiron, Callebaut and Leonidas are "old world" but I think all have there merits. The latter two are chains/franchises and my bias is to support the small producers like Poiron.
Bon Bon (recommend), Canady (who I strongly recommend -- south Loop...worth it), Chocolate Box (strongly recommend), Vosges (a bit expensive and I don't think better quality than the others) and Cocoa Rouge (strongly recommend) group differently. They are conemporary, nouvelle American chocolate which is where my personal taste is right now.
There was a post last week on Cocoa Rouge which opened a storefront. Good product. Beautiful truffles.
Poiron, which can be great at times, deserves major kudos I think. He really laid the groundwork for the others. They are also very nice people.
Ethel's is M&M Mars owned and I think creeps for opening up near Poiron.
It's a nice problem to be debating who is the best small chocolatier in Chicago with so many quality options.
I'm surprised no one else has mentioned Vanille Patisserie on Clybourn.
Great truffles (and other stuff). Give them a try.
As Marilyn noted, it's great having so many "artisan" chocolatiers in Chicago. This seems to be a nationwide trend as well. More choices, especially top-quality ones, is always a good thing for us 'hounds. Especially in chocolate. ;)
I was not familiar with Vanille, but they show some mighty fine chocolates on their website. Here is their info:
2229 N Clybourn Ave
Chicago, IL 60614
Price per pound: $56
I haven't been all that impressed by Ethel's, but here is their information:
Ethel's Chocolate Lounge
(5 locations in Chicago, and 5 more in its suburbs)
I just heard back from Love in Disguise, which I mentioned above. They told me that the chocolates in their Cocoa Sutra collection, and in their truffles, are eight to the pound. So their 24-piece Cocoa Sutra collection ($48), and their 24-piece Signature Truffles collection ($45), weigh three pounds each. So their chocolates are $15-16 per pound.
This points out exactly why weight is important; each piece from Love in Disguise is huge, weighing almost six times as much as each piece from the Chocolate Box. Particularly when you're ordering from a website, you have absolutely no idea how big the chocolates are unless you know their weight.