Thursday, February 21, 2013

Belgium #2

Ok, where was I?  Oh, right, Europe.

Pierre Marcolini:

So I stopped by the home base of Pierre Marcolini.  Instead of getting a bar, I got macarons and bonbons.

The grand cru macaron was excellent -- rich and chocolatey -- but slightly too crusty texture-wise.  The regular chocolate macaron tasted a little like candy in comparison.  It had too high of an outside-of-the-macaron-to-inside-of-the-macaron ratio.  This is a common problem for macarons, for me, because the inside is inevitably richer.  Anyways.  It was still really good.  If you offered me one, I would eat it.

Then I got 7 grand cru, single-origin bonbons.  Like you do.  (You do do that, right?  Good.)  Anyways, I started with the Pierre Marcolini Grand Cru Bonbon, which tasted a lot like the Venezuela Grand Cru Bonbon, which tasted exactly like you'd expect a Venezuela Grand Cru Bonbon to taste -- delicious.  The Ecuador was fruitier than expected, with a coffee finish.  That is what my notes say, at least, but that sounds pretentious even for me.  I called the Madagascar one "raison-y," but that's just because that's probably what I expected it to taste like.  The Brazil was fruitier than the Ecuador bonbon, and then one of the two unmarked bonbons was fruitier still.  The last bonbon, unmarked, was relatively nondescript.  

I didn't get pictures of any of the Marcolini stuff I got in Belgium, but here's a picture of the bar I got in Paris but forgot to upload with that post:

you can tell i got this in paris and not belgium from the way the picture was taken somewhere between atlanta and north carolina inside of a car

In summary: a decent use of my stomach space.  Marcolini obviously has his reputation for a reason -- his chocolates are high quality, complex, and varied.  The bonbons really did taste notably different.  That said, while I enjoyed it all, he was far from my favorite chocolatier in Brussels.

Planete Chocolat:

Next stop was Planete Chocolat.  The Chocolate Planet.  To answer question, yes, they do make you wear a space suit for the duration of your visit.

No they don't.

I lied to you.

I apologize.

Why would I even do that?

So here are the things I bought (minus a dark chocolate bonbon):

what i mean is this plus a dark chocolate bonbon are the things that i bought.  math.  space math.

The bonbon was excellent and rich, surpassing probably all of Marcolini's offerings.  

I purchased two chocolate bars: a 100% bar and a speculoos bar.  For those of you who don't know speculoos... you've got problems.  I'm not even going to tell you, because you might buy the last jar at Trader Joe's, and then they'll be sold out for a month again.  Anyways, the speculoos bar was amazing.  Obviously.  It was probably the best flavored bar I had all trip.  The 100% bar... wasn't.  By that I mean it wasn't 100%, despite being clearly marked "100%."  It was probably something like 85%?  It wasn't sweet, but it was definitely not 100%.  Perfectly good, though.

I got a box of hazelnut shells, because I secretly love Guylian-brand chocolate seashells more than anything, and these looked similar.  And, to my complete lack of surprise, they were!  In fact, they were near-identical.  On the one hand, that speaks very well of these, because I totally love Guylian.  On the other hand, it speaks very well of Guylian, because they are mass producing world-famous-artisanal-chocolate-hazelnut-shells-quality chocolate-hazelnut-shells.

And then I got that bag of cocoa beans.  Now here's the thing.  The first few times I ate them, it sort of triggered a gag reflex.  But it was still delicious.  I don't know how that's possible.  In any case, I got over that, and now they are regular delicious, and they are sitting on my desk at work.  Since writing this, I've reached over about 5 time to eat one, but then I realized it was Ta'anit Ester.  I'm breaking the fast this year with City Bakery's Darkest Dark Chocolate Hot Chocolate.  Last time I tried to get it, it was sold out, and I almost broke down in public.  Wish me luck!  (Ok, this took a little longer than I expected to post.  End result: success.)

Tourist Shop:

My next stop... was a tourist shop. 

but i'm no tourist!  i'm different from all those people!

I walked past about one hundred tourist shops selling chocolate, but this one sold Dolfin-brand chocolate, and that is important.  I tried Dolfin's 88% bar when I was in Boston with Kasey a year or two ago, and I thought it was the bee's knees.  Actually, the bees' knees.  The knees of every bee.  There was no bee knee that it wasn't.


I wound up going overboard:

tourism: a boon for belgium's economy.

They gave me a speculoos-almond-chocolate mini-pile to taste.  It was surprisingly excellent.

I then bought a bunch of bars from Dolfin, from Zaabar (a Brussels-based chocolatier that I did not have time to visit directly), and from the store itself.  

The store's bar was actually quite good.  It was straight up decent milk chocolate.

The Zaabar mint bar and Dolfin mint bar were reviewed as part of Leila and my tasting on my return -- so you will see the results shortly.  

But the Zaabar dark chocolate was quite good.  It was very rich, but very sweet and fairly candy-like.  I didn't like it as much as some of my friends, even ones who like high percentage chocolate.  If I had to give it flavor notes, I would say nutty and cinnamo-yn.  My friend Josh thought it tasted of spices.

The Dolfin dark chocolate bar, though, was spectacular.  It was just as good as I remembered it.  Not only did it blow me away (again), but it equally impressed a big group of people who are not high-percentage fans.

I also tried two different Dolfin milk chocolate bars.  Both were quite good -- similar, with different percentage cacao -- but neither stood out the way the 88% did.


So the next stop was Mary.  I was really excited about Mary from my San Francisco stop.  After having been to most of the best chocolate shops in the world since, I wondered if my standards had changed any.  I had a feeling I wouldn't be when I realized they had 7 different pure chocolate bonbons, without even getting into origins.  I bought all 7.  Plus a dark chocolate truffle.  Plus a gianduja bonbon (because why not).  ... Plus a bar.

davidlabs researchstation.  aka the airport.

So four of the bonbons were called "Lady," and they had a Lady printed on them.  They were four different gradients of dark.  One of them was the one I had in SF.  The darkest one was immediately possibly the best bonbon I'd ever had.  It wasn't even sweet at all.  I'd never had a bonbon that wasn't sweet before.  Next was the dark chocolate bonbon, which I suspect is what I had in SF, because it was basically the platonic ideal of a dark chocolate bonbon.  The milk chocolate bonbon was unsurprisingly the platonic ideal of a milk chocolate bonbon.  The last one was of a certain, very creamy style that is not for me.  It is featured quite prominently in chocolate from Bruges -- as you will soon see.  But basically they upped the cream to chocolate ratio beyond my tolerance.  Still, it was better than any of the Bruges-based versions of this that I had.

I also bought two mousse bonbons -- a dark chocolate mousse coated in white chocolate.  Amazing.  Then an extra dark chocolate mousse coated in milk chocolate.  Even better!  I find mouse bonbons usually not to be as good as regular ganache bonbons, but these beat just about any ganache bonbon I'd ever had not from Mary.

Even the Gianduja bonbon and milk chocolate bonbon were amazing.

Finally, I had the dark chocolate truffle again, and I was again blown away.  I knew it was between that and Chapon for best on the trip.  Upon returning home with a larger supply and sampling more of each, I decided that Mary did indeed make my favorite truffle.  It was less the platonic ideal of a truffle -- the cocoa powder coating was less intense than Chapon's, and the inside was fudgier than it was creamy.  And it was definitely sweeter than Chapon's.  But it was just so intense and chocolatey that I was totally sold


That said, I purchased a bar (probably 70something percent), and while it was good, it did not stand out among the many amazing bars I purchased.  Accordingly, I will pronounce Mary my favorite in the world for bonbons, but perhaps the overall prize will rest with Passion or Chapon.

Francois Manon:

Manon was right next to Mary.  It had a very unpretentious vibe, which I really liked.  My expectations were somewhat low coming in, for some reason, but as soon as I started talking to them there, I realized it might be a sleeper.

The truffle was the low point, but only because it went for that creamy Bruges-style that I don't really like.

That said, the milk ganache bonbon was great.  The dark ganache bonbon was even better.  And the extradark palet d'or ganache bonbon was really wonderful.  At this point in my trip, I was not about to have this kind of reaction to anything but the very best, and that bonbon was at that level.

Frederic Blondeel:

My last stop in Brussels was Frederic Blondeel.  I sat down to take a break and wayyyy over-ordered.  I started with a 100% dark chocolate hot chocolate, sweetened only with honey.  It was delicious, and its bitterness (and relative thinness) reminded me of Taralucci e Vino in NYC -- one of my very favorite hot chocolates in the city.

I moved on to the set of four bonbons I ordered, plus the two that came complementary with the hot chocolate.  The Sao Tome-origin bonbon was very good.  It was bright but not fruity, similar to Venezuelan origin chocolate, but I think I'm more used to Venezuelan brightness at this point.  I kept expecting to get hit by fruitness but didn't.  Good experience.  Kept me on my toes.  The Papua New Guinea-origin bonbon was not bad but not as good.  It had some hints of raisons.  The Venezuela-origin bonbon was sweetened with honey, which threatened to overpower the chocolatey taste, but the bonbon managed to hold it together and keep a solid B+.

Aside from the origins, I got a truffle, which had a slight coffee-ish taste (though it was not made with coffee), but despite that was still pretty good.  The hazelnut bonbon (complementary with the hot chocolate) was surprisingly great.  That said, the speculoos bonbon (camouflaged in a silver wrapper) was not so great.

remember that this was like my twelfth or thirteenth stop of the day.

I also got a brownie.  Texture-wise, it was fudgey -- just how I like it.  But it was somehow unsatisfying.  Perhaps it did not have a sufficiently rich and deep flavor.  It wasn't bad.  I couldn't really point to the problem.  Maybe the problem was that I was full.

i tried to science it and could not uncover its mysteries.

Lastly, I purchased two chocolate bars.  A 75%, Venezuela origin, which was excellent, and very Venezuela-y, but not as good as the Idilio or the Richart.  Next was an 85%, Ghana origin, which was also very good, but did not really stand out amongst all the great chocolatiers in Brussels.  As a comparison, it was not as good as the Ghana-origin bar at Chapon.

As I was sitting there, I heard someone comment that it was time to "make like a tree and leave."  I hadn't heard that one since the 90's, but you know what?  That dude was totally right.  I hopped the next train to Antwerp.

Bottom Line:  Brussels legitimately rivals Paris for being the best chocolate city I've been to.  Its top tier was better than Paris', led by Passion, Mary, and Gerbaud, but Paris was just an unending assault of quality.

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