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Apr 21, 2006 04:56 PM

Charles Chocolates at Laurel Village (SF)

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I know it's a local outfit, and we all want to eat locally when it's really delish, so I stopped in at the new Charles Chocolate store at Laurel Village today (after the novocaine wore off - have you ever noticed there seem to be hundreds of dentists at Laurel Village? Why?). I've been really looking forward to trying Charles' bon bons because I'm a choxaholic. So, I'm kind of sad to report that I don't like the taste of this chocolate all that much - not as much as I like Dove Dark Chocolate pieces (available at Walgreens - half a block west). Charles is neither as smooth as the Dove, nor as sweet. Sort of a bland chocolate, certainly much nicer than, say, nasty Hershey's chocolate, but Charles is lacking the kick of other high end chox, such as Godiva. But if you definitely want to buy a local chocolatey treat, there's a See's on Clement near 9th. Ave. (have you tried See's hard candy chocolate lollipops - they are fabulous!) Nevertheless, I certainly wish Charles Chocolates well.

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  1. "Premium" chocolates generally aren't very sweet -- they're supposed to be formulated to allow all the various subtle flavors of the cacao bean come through. I say "supposed" because I think many premium chocolates are mostly snobbery and hype (although I can't speak for Charles chocolates specifically).

    It's also just a matter of taste and what qualities you're looking for in your chocolate. For example, I'm bitter-sensitive, which means most of the trendy ultra-high cocoa solids bittersweet chocolates are too bitter for me to enjoy. I also like a smooth, creamy mouthfeel for my chocolates, and many of those ultra-high cocoa solids chocolates are kind of dry. Some people love Scharffen-Berger; some people don't like its distinct cherry undertones.

    Although it was hot stuff when it was first widely marketed in the US, I don't think Godiva is considered particularly high-end any more. Personally, plebian as it might be, I'd rather have a box of See's than a box of Godiva -- I find most Godiva chocolates to be too smooth and oily, too sweet, and many of their flavors too artificial tasting.

    14 Replies
    1. re: Ruth Lafler

      Actually, as far as the See's vs. Godiva debate goes, I think the majority of the population agrees with you. There was an article in the Chronicle a couple of years ago on Valentine's day, and they did blind taste-testing with a large number of subjects, including See's, Godiva, and a bunch of other brands (don't remember which). Anyway, See's won hands down, beat out Godiva by a long shot. Godiva is just way too waxy.

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        For me the appeal of See's is the fillings, like the peanut crunch and the mint creme, and not the chocolate itself. I do have to admit to liking their dark chocolate almond bar, which is a bargain at a buck and can often be bought from charities (doing good by eating well). The Awesome bar is actually kinda awesome.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          "I think many premium chocolates are mostly snobbery and hype"

          After having done quite a lot of top chocolate tasting over the past few months, pouring over notes on how to taste chocolate ... is that a taste of tobacco? ... I have to agree with Ruth.

          However, I will admit that I probably don't have a sophisticated palate. I was just so damn glad to have a Hershey bar after all that pricy chocolate. And really, I do prefer See's bon bons to any of the pricy ones I've tried.

          I never did like Godiva even when they were one of the few 'upscale' chocolates in town and again agree with Ruth's assesment. At that time I was into those Neuhaus choclates that Nieman Marcus used to fly in weekly from Switzerland.

          Really one of the few artisan chocolates I like are those xox truffles and Bittersweet's sea salt truffle. Have you tried either of those?

          Oh yeah, there's that Chuao passion fruit caramel, but that is only sold in Palo Alto.

          That being said, what I do like about the high end chocolates are the interesting flavor combinations.

          I haven't had a Charles chocolate bar, but I did have some of his bon bons at Bittersweet. The one I tried that I really liked was the heart that had a mint/lime filling. That was pretty good and did a nice little dance of flavor on my tounge.

          I was hoping you were going to report back on some of the chocolates that Charles Chocolates is not selling elsewhere.

          How is the set-up of the shop. Are they nice to customers? Any samples?

          Like any chocolate, even See's, there are favorite flavors and not so hot flavors ... still don't like jellies, ick. So I rarely judge chocolates by one piece. It took lots of $$ to find the one good-to-me chocolate at Adagio ... habenero.

          I do like chile in chocolate. Have you been to Bittersweet on Fillmore? They sell a bar called Casa Don Puglisi Chocoslab with chili that I like a lot. Though it breaks every chocolate rule.

          I also like pepper in chocolates. The only Dolfin chocolate I really like is the pink peppercorn. However, given your taste for Godiva and Dove, you might like Dolfin. Bittersweet sells little sampler packs with about a dozen flavors. Again, iteresting ... one time ... but nothing I'd buy again other than the pink peppercorn (which BTW, is the one Bittersweet DOESN'T sell).

          My other question is ... really? novacaine? Are you sure your tastebuds were not compromised?

          PS. Thanks for a few other hints elsewhere on the board. I remembered your original post about the farmers cheese at New World Market and made notes. There are a few other posts, but I'm blanking on the right now. Thanks though. Something else about Polish food that I noted. Did you ever catch the post about linzer tortes at The Bread Garden in Oakland. Yes, I know a stretch, but if you are ever in the area of the Clairmont Hotel ... some of the best Eastern European breads there as well, IMO.

          1. re: rworange

            Ooh, I have to disagree with that one :-) There certainly is a real there there with really good chocolate, although certainly there are a lot of paths that an individual palate won't prefer. There is snobbery and hype as well, sure, but that's true in wine, in cheese, in olive oil, in coffee, etc., etc. Doesn't stop me from enjoying those!

            I think it's important to differentiate the discussion between confections and straight chocolate--these are very very different creatures and should be thought of in different contexts.

            For what it's worth, both Charles Chocolates and See's use the same couverture: Guittard. One of my favorite things of his are the chocolate coated almonds...

            1. re: Faisal

              Actually, I did try the Charles choc. almonds. One of my own little theories of food tasting is that if you listen, even before you start intellectualizing about what's going on with the flavors or textures or whatnot, your mind/mouth synergy pops up with a spontaneous one word critique. (Suzuki Roshi said "first thought, best thought")Mine said, "Eh, boring." Sorry, Charles.

              My next thought was that I needed to walk the half a block west to Walgreens to stock up on a few bags of Dove Dark Chocolate pieces. I don't know what couverture (?) the fine folks at the Mars megacorp central are using, but, very honestly and with no pretentions to being a chocolate expert, to me Dove Dark tastes richer, deeper, yet less rough than than any other chox I've tried. But I could do without the
              presumptuous little messages on each piece. "Temptation is in is even better" Yeah well, ask the drunks at AA about that. DO I look good in red? Maybe. But that piece of chocolate is in no position to know whether I do or not, and should just keep its opinions to itself.

              So, OK - for just plain chocolate - it's Dove Dark for me. But for chocolate bon bons and novelty confections - it has got to be See's. Was there ever a better slogan than "the happy habit"? Feeling down? Head for See's and pick out a mixed box of old favorites and risky new experiments - you can't lose!
              Go ahead and ask for a free sample of the Key Lime Pie bon bons - suddenly you've forgotten your little troubles and there's a party in your mouth. Thank you, Mary See. May your black and white Art Deco dream go on forever.

              1. re: Niki Rothman

                I like the key lime confections at See's a lot; in another thread I mentioned that although I'm not a big white chocolate fan, I think it works well with the delicate key lime flavor.

                My all-time favorite, though, has to be the raspberry buttercream. And amazingly enough, it tastes exactly the same way I remember it tasting 30 years ago (with the exception that sometimes I get a bad one, or a bad batch, in the summer ... don't know why, presumably something to do with the cycles of the raspberry season, but if you get one where the filling isn't as richly raspberry colored as the picture, you'll know it's the wrong time of year).

                It's nice to patronize a business that's smart enough to know that "new and improved" ... isn't always.

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  For me, it's the See's bordeaux flavor. A lifelong and continuing favorite.

            2. re: rworange

              Hi rw, I used to make my own imaginatively flavored truffles and ganache all the time - my specialty was making them sweetened with honey. It's so easy. And such fun. That's why I'll never pay boutique premium chocolate prices. It's not that I'm a cheapskate, but my whole rationale for eating prepared foods of any kind is that I'm only paying for what I don't know how to cook, or is too much trouble to cook myself.
              The very fair prices of Dove and See's, and the easy availability, mean I'll always have some of both waiting in my pantry.

              How kind of you to mention enjoying my previous posts. Yes, my love affair with the New World Market (Geary/20th. ave.)continues unabated - only more so. Latest tips: their generic sour cream. It has that heavenly aristocratic flavor that distinguishes Plugra unsalted butter. Best sour cream I've ever eaten, and I've tried TJ's organic sour cream - not in the same league. And yes, that farmer's cheese is a must-have for anyone who loves to cook. There is no substitute. Why isn't REAL farmer's cheese (not grainy - so creamy, so smooth) available anywhere else? And love those pickled tomatoes! OK, how about World Market's many varieties of pelmeni and varenecki? I tried the potato and the meat varenecki and the meat pelmeni. The big winner: the meat varenecki. I boiled them for a few minutes and then sauteed briefly with a light, very slightly sweet/sour tomato sauce and shredded cabbage, cooked just to wilt the cabbage - beautiful red/bright green contrast on the plate. With a dollop of that sour cream - stellar! Next time I go I'm going to try the sour cherry varenecki - of course with more sour cream, & honey and lemon juice perhaps.

              What makes New World so special is that they are mass producing so many otherwise impossible to get very high-quality authentic Eastern European soul food items and packaging them so conveniently. A Russian friend of mine is having New World cater her wedding.

              About my still unrequited search for linzer torte in SF - still no luck. I've been reduced to taking Walker's Sortbread (Price Charles' favorite brand), spreading it with marzipan and then Bon Maman raspberry preserves. Surprisingly authentic flavor - but the texture is wrong. Thanks for that tip about the Bread Garden in Oakland. I'll look forward to trying their linzer torte and breads. Do you know if they are near a BART station? I'm in Rockridge every couple of weeks, but unfortunately I don't drive.

              Recently, in that thread about cilantro you made the insightful comment that traditional Eastern European cooking does not feature cilantro. Cilantro is coriander. Eastern Europeans use coriander seeds all the time for pickled type items. Why not the leaves, then? That genetic thing?

              1. re: Niki Rothman

                "Cilantro is coriander. Eastern Europeans use coriander seeds all the time for pickled type items. Why not the leaves, then? That genetic thing? "

                While cilantro is indeed coriander, different cultivars are grown for the two uses. When the leaves are the desireable part, a non-bolting variety is grown.

                1. re: Niki Rothman

                  I agree wholeheartedly about your comments on World Market. I, too, was blown away by their sour cream. Where do they get it?! And it's so inexpensive, too.

                  That store is a real gem. And I also adore their potato vereniki.

                  1. re: redtomato

                    I never like to correct anyone's spelling, but in your case I'll make a rare exception. I think it's spelled "varenecki". But my name being Niki, and seeing how much I love New World Market and the delicious meat varenecki, maybe my new handle should be "vareniki"!
                    : )

                    1. re: Niki Rothman

                      Are you sure? In three of my cookbooks, it is spelled (tranliterated) vareniki.

                      1. re: wally

                        My mistake! You're right, I just checked a bag in my freezer. All the more reason for me to eat them vareniki's!

                    2. re: redtomato

                      The meat varenecki comes out great for me consistently, but I had a slight problem with cooking the potato varenecki - one time they came out great and twice I ruined them. Could you tell me how you cook them on the homecooking board, or email me - if it's not inconvenient for you.

              2. Well, I still stand by my recommendation of Charles Chocolates, but I guess chocolate preference (like pizza) is very individual. Personally, I dislike Dove dark because it's too smooth and milky tasting to me. I prefer more of a snap. However, sometimes I am in the mood for sweeter chocolate, and do enjoy See's. But I wouldn't want to eat plain See's chocolate - it has to have other stuff, preferably caramel and nuts. I do like Godiva and probably like Charles about the same. I really, really love Woodhouse in St. Helena and Wittamer in Belgium.

                1. I stopped by the temporary Charles Chocolate store today. They are in the old Viking Home Chef location. The old sign is still there.

                  While they are in this location they will have Chocolate sampling on Saturdays. Here is the schedule:

                  4/29 - Pate de Fruit in 5 different flavors: Raspberry, Blood Orange, White Peach, Grapefruit and Passion Fruit.

                  5/6 - Orange twigs

                  5/13 - Chocolate truffles

                  5/20 - Fleur de Sel Caramels

                  5/27 - Chocolate butterflies

                  Those chocolate butterflies are the second favorite chocolate I've tried to date. It is like a Reese's peanut butter cup mated with a butterfingers ... using good chocolate. There's this pleasant little crispiness in the chocolate.

                  Anyway, I'm with you Niki about being underwhelmed by the store. I do like their bon bons, but still haven't tried a chocolate bar yet. To tell you the truth, my experience there today so creeped me out that I won't be returning. I can do future sampling of the line at Bittersweet.

                  The temporary store is supposed to have chocolates that are not available at the over 30 locations that sell these chocolates.

                  It is all boxes and bars. Unlike the chocolate at Bittersweet the chocolate is not sold by the piece.

                  With a box starting at $25, that's a big commitment to something untried. Also there is no choice of flavors. So if there is a chocolate you don't like, there's nothing that can be done about that.

                  So, for me, the Bittersweet method of buying one at a time and then putting together my own box works better for me.

                  So that was disappointment one. I was in there prepared to throw money around, but the without the option of selecting the chocolates I wanted, that wasn't going to happen.

                  I found a parking space in front. While I was looking for change, I noticed people would stop in and immediately leave.

                  I walked in the store and the conversation went something like this:

                  Me: I understand the temporary store has some chocolates not sold by the retail stores that sell Charles Chocolates.

                  Charles Chocolate Sales Associate (CCSA): Yes

                  Me: What would those be?

                  CCSA: We have our whole line here

                  Me: Yes, I understand that but what would the chocolates unique to this store be

                  CCSA: We have our whole line

                  Me: I understand. I buy Charles Chocolates at Bittersweet. What do you sell here that isn't sold at Bittersweet

                  CCSA: Look around

                  Me: Well, I haven't tried everything at Bittersweet, and I'm not familiar with the whole line so if you can identify the unique items

                  Finally I get walked around and shown the boxes, still not getting clear info about what is different about this store, I think I finally narrowed it down to the orange twigs and pate de fruit.

                  Then before I can even look around, CCSA says, "Thank you for stopping by, I hope you'll stop by again".

                  Me: Well, I was planning on looking around.

                  Somewhere in there I picked up the flyer for the sampling and somehow was offered a pate de fruit. I also had one of the triple chocolate almonds. At this point I'm getting the feeling that if they give me free chocolate, maybe I'll get the hell out of the store. I'm feeling like I'm Earl from the tv show "My name is Earl" or Rosanne Barr in the fancy candy shop.

                  You know, I went in there to buy chocolates. I didn't really want free samples. At that point, getting the freebies, I was at least going to buy a bar until ...

                  CCSA: Thank you for coming, stop by again.

                  Well, gee ... fine. I don't need to work this hard to buy chocolate.

                  BTW, the almond was only ok. Super thick chocolate coating which was a little too sweet and overwhelmed the almond flavor ... if there was any.

                  The pate de fruit was juicy but had absolutely no taste of orange, let alone blood orange.

                  My favorite Charles Chocolate to date remains the mojito ... the mint/lime combination do a lovely little dance of flavor.

                  Then again, maybe it is not me. I'm looking at the site and they have the P.M.S. assortment becasue "You don't need us to tell you just how important chocolate can be once a month."

                  No, really. It says that. And to make this even more special there are 6 and 12 month 'P.M.S prescriptions' that can be mailed to you once a month.

                  I'm telling you if anyone ever sent this to me, I'd give them P.M.S.