Five years ago I did a two part survey of every shop selling chocolates in the Portland area. Part 1 focused on national or international chocolatiers: Godiva, Moonstruck, See’s, Teuscher, and Verdun. Part 2 focused on local chocolatiers: Euphoria, Guanaja, Jaciva’s, Michelle’s, Pix, Sahagun, and Van Duyn. During the following year, there were enough quality local chocolatiers to emerge that another survey was in order, this one covering Alma Chocolates, Art of Chocolate, Depaula Chocolates, Hot Chefs, Pix, Sahagun, Wingnut, and Vosges. (Vosges being a highly-lauded national chocolatier used as a comparison.) I’m happy to say that the best have not only survived, but flourished. Pix, Sahagun, and Alma Chocolates have all received notoriety locally and beyond. Wingnut and Depaula both sell their chocolates directly and through popular local stores, such as Cacao.
But since the last survey — and especially in the last year — there’s been another explosion of local chocolatiers. A new head-to-head tasting is in order. In this report, I’ll focus on truffles from six chocolatiers: Cocoa Velvet, Couronne Chocolate, Ladybug Chocolates, Missionary Chocolates, Northwest Sweets, and Xocolatl de David. I’ll also look at the bars produced by Cocanu. (I tried to purchase truffles from Coco & Co, but my calls were not returned.) As a baseline, I bought a large selection of truffles and caramels from Sahagun and Alma Chocolates, my two favorite local chocolatiers that I believe are making chocolates as good as anything you can find outside of France.
Hopefully you’ll read this in time to spend your money wisely this Valentine’s Day. There are definitely some to seek out and some to avoid.
Before I dive into the reviews, let me just talk a bit about methods and standards. (If you think your eyes might glaze over faster than your hands holding a chocolate bunny on an Arizona Easter afternoon, click here to skip straight to the reviews.) I focused primarily on truffles. By “truffles” I mean chocolates with a creamy ganache center and usually a tempered shell. I stayed away from white chocolate shells and ganaches. I also avoided liqueur infusions and bon bons, partially because I like them less, and partially because they tend to emphasize the quality of the chocolate and skill with the chocolate less. (I often included caramels, though, because my wife loves them and I do, too.)
Whether hand-dipped or molded, I expect the shell on a chocolate truffle to be thin, shiny, and crisp — crisp enough that it snaps when bitten into. A molded truffle will almost always have a smoother and more reflective finish, but a hand-dipped chocolate has a better chance of having a thinner shell. There are no hard rules about what makes a good chocolate confection, but there are some widely held preferences, especially among chocophiles. You want a thin shell so that the creamy ganache, often flavored or made of an especially tasty chocolate, dominates the experience, both in flavor and in texture. Too thick a shell and you lose the creaminess of the filling and it becomes work to bite into it. Too thin a shell and you don’t get that wonderful pop as you chomp down. For similar reasons, you want a truffle you can fit entirely in your mouth. It’s not a brownie or a piece of fudge. Further, the ganache should be creamy enough that it melts quickly in your mouth, coating your entire palate, giving you maximum cocoa pleasure. I also prefer truffles to emphasize the chocolate, at their best using any flavorings as an accent, not the primary focus. But there are a range of styles and this is the part that is most a matter of my own palate.
I started my investigations by cutting several of the truffles in half, as you can see in the photo above. While some of the differences are subtle, careful inspection makes visible what the tongue feels. In the upper-left photo is a delicious truffle, its shell thin and crisp, its ganache smooth and creamy. And you can see that. The shell in shiny, distinct from the ganache. The ganache is uniform in color and texture. The whole truffle is only a half-inch tall, easily small enough to fit in the mouth.
The next truffle to the right is about twice as tall. While the ganache looks uniform, the shell seems to melt into the ganache, rightly suggesting that the shell is out of temper and almost soft like the ganache, rather than crisp. (Out of temper chocolate almost melts more easily in your hands, making such chocolates messier.)
The truffle on the bottom left may not look like it because of its rectangular shape, but it’s also nearly twice as tall as the first truffle. The shell is distinct, but also nearly twice as thick as the one enrobing the first truffle. The ganache itself isn’t uniform, with air pockets and color disturbances that look like open sores. Not surprisingly, the ganache’s texture lacked the smooth, creaminess of the better ones. The image to its right shows more problems. That’s the base from the same truffle and you should be able to tell by the dull, uneven, and bubbly finish that it’s not tempered properly. The little silvery streaks are called bloom, a sure sign that the chocolate was not properly prepared before coating the filling.
After inspecting the workmanship, I ate them, of course, taking notes. Below are my overall impressions.
I often find new and delicious things at Steve’s Cheese. His space in his current Square Deal Wine digs is so limited, he doesn’t have room for anything that’s not delicious. And that’s where I first encountered Cocoa Velvet’s chocolates.
As you can see, their designs are elegant with interesting molds often accented with cocoa butter colorings. Shells could be more consistently thin, especially on the base, but theirs were among the better tempered shells, brilliant and crisp. Interiors were consistently creamy, a pleasure on the palate.
Their best chocolates tended to have non-flavored ganaches. They use a variety of couvertures, though some, such as from Guittard, were a bit flat and begged for an infusion. Flavored ganaches were almost uniformly too strong. The chocolate was almost entirely lost in both the mint- and satsuma-infused truffles, for example. With a more restrained hand, I think they show a lot of potential. For now, though, I think their best truffles are the madagascar milk and the caribbean nights, each of which I’d be happy to eat in the future. I found the caramels a little bland and overly chewy for my taste.
Sometimes a person is obviously putting so much energy into their endeavors, trying so hard and caring so much, that in reviewing their work, you really want them to be living up to their efforts. That’s the case here. But great effort without equally great skill doesn’t necessarily produce great results.
This shop in a new retail strip next to Slappy Cakes looks like a lovely boutique. Everything is presented beautifully. You feel like you’re buying something special and whatever you do purchase is packaged to go as if it were from Neiman Marcus. Pam, the owner, is generous with her time and eager to please.
However, the chocolates are not as good as they should be. The shells are not tempered properly. They begin melting in your hands almost instantly. The exterior is almost indistinct from the interior, seemingly dissolving into it. There’s no snap as you bite into a truffle. And the truffles are over-large, so you do need to bite into them, rather than put a whole one in your mouth.
The interiors are inconsistent. Some are almost fudgy, while others are too soft for their size and soft shell. On the one hand it’s a bit unfair to picture them as I do above, in their natural, mishapen state, because they make them much more attractive by placing each one in a colorful foil skirt. But the use of the skirt is also misdirection and showing them naked makes clear some of the problems in their manufacture. Hand-made, round truffles are classic and easy to produce. That these are so malformed is one piece of evidence that the skills of the chocolatier still need improvement.
They use Callebaut for their chocolate, a standard in baking. If you’ve had a Chocolove bar, you’ve had Callebaut. It’s a very nutty, classic tasting chocolate, but perhaps a bit boring for a truffle. It definitely has a hard time holding up to infusions. It’s by no means bad chocolate, however. I wish them the best, but I hope they quickly improve their skills to match their earnestness and attention to the more superficial details.
4246 SE Belmont St, Suite 2
Portland, OR 97215
In some ways, we’re very blessed in the Northwest. If Ladybug Chocolates were in Vermont, based on a recent trip there, it might be among the favored sweets shops. In many parts of the country and Canada, shops similar to See’s Candies dominate. Chocolate ganache filled truffles only exist where you can find a Godiva. Most “truffles” have creme centers that are candy-sweet, making the back of your throat feel raw, like after a night of Halloween binging when you were a kid. While I would choose Ladybug’s truffles over those of See’s or Jaciva’s or Lake Champlain Chocolates, I could never enjoy myself because I know what else is out there.
The matte finishes and amateurish designs of the thick-shelled truffles in the photo above suggest more of an old school candy truffle than a modern European-style truffle. And the flavors live up to the presentations. The gooey interiors are overly sweet without depth or nuance. Infusions are straight-forward, a bit strong, and candy-like. The flavors didn’t suggest someone steeping mint in cream before blending it with the chocolate. My guess is they use a lot of flavorings and extracts from a jar.
The people are nice and it’s a fun shop for kids with items like chocolate-covered Oreos, Twinkies, and Rice Crispies Treats. But it’s not a serious chocolate shop. It’s a candy store with an emphasis on chocolate.
266 NW 1st Ave, Suite A
Canby, OR 97013
I started with Ladybug’s chocolates and thought, well, if this is the worst is gets, it’ll still be better than the first round of surveys I did. I almost made it. However, my last tasting was Missionary’s truffles, and Ladybug’s spot as worst truffles of the survey got replaced by some of the worst truffles I’ve ever had.
The pictures on their website made them look okay. But what I got was some genetically altered version of that, like something went wrong in the lab and gamma rays turned a perfecly average truffle into a mutant monster ready to wreak havoc on unsuspecting mouths around the Portland area. This may seem cruel to say about something produced in the home kitchen of some local ladies just trying to make a buck doing something they love. I’m sure they’re perfectly nice. They went out of their way to let me buy a box of these. I’d much rather be beating up on some soulless corporate beheamoth with a marketing budget that could feed all of Ethiopia for eternity. But these truffles were really, really bad.
If you read the little primer on how I tasted the chocolates in this survey, you may have guessed that if the top-left was the good, the upper-right was the bad, then these were the ugly chocolates in the lower-left. (And the lower-right.) They’re huge. Nearly an inch tall and even wider than they are tall. The shells are really thick, over twice as thick as any others in this survey. In the cross-section photo above they only look like they might be as thin as the others because they’re proportionally the same size. But that’s like saying that Andre the Giant’s head is normal size just because it’s in proportion to his body. He was still a giant. His head would have to be shrunken to be normal size.
I’m going on too much because it’s hard to truly describe how bad these truffles were. But look at the picture. There are bubbles showing in the shell. There’s no glossiness, and you can see streaks in several pieces where they’ve bloomed. There are cracks forming along the bottoms of some pieces.
And those are just the superficial issues. They tasted bad, too. Interiors were fudgy and sometimes grainy, not smooth and creamy. Flavorings were awful, tasting like commercial candy. The cinnamon truffle tasted as if you had taken a bite of Hershey’s and a bite of Red Hots. The mint tasted like an Andes chocolate — you know those little inexpensive chocolates in the green foil that are best straight out of the freezer so you can’t taste them too carefully. Worst was the lemon. I had to spit it out. It was literally like biting into a lemon. No subtlety, no restraint, no palate.
Perhaps I got a bad batch, but I’m amazed that Whole Foods, Food Front, and other stores are selling these. Yes, they’re vegan, but vegan chocolates don’t have to be bad. Wingnut’s chocolates are vegan and they’re very good, definitely among the better chocolates in town. If I bought these at a retail store, I would ask for my money back.
1914 SE Oak Street, Suite 3
Portland, OR 97214
The first time I tried to go to Northwest Sweets, they were closed. But my wife and I peered in through the windows to see if it would be worth coming back. My wife was skeptical. With retro candy on the shelves, brittles and nougats on the main display table, it didn’t seem like it was going to have the type of sophisticated chocolates I was looking for. But I called and unlike a few of the other places in this survey, the owner, Steve, knew what I meant when I asked what couverture they use. I ask the question on purpose to gauge the level of knowledge and professional experience of the chocolatier. If they say “couvawhat?” then it raises a red flag. But Steve has a professional pastry background and it shows in the simple, elegant designs of his chocolates, despite the heavy emphasis on candies in the shop.
Truffles had a nice pop in the mouth from the well-tempered shells. While some of the bases were a little thick, the shells overall were about right. Ganaches were soft, easily melting in the mouth, without much graininess. Centers tended to be a little sweet and bland, even on darker pieces. And flavorings tended to overpower the chocolate. But in general, flavor combinations were interesting and enjoyable. However, they have a much smaller selection of truffles than most chocolatiers in this survey. They only had five different flavors the day I went, only four of which I tried. Of those, the passsionfruit and the sesame-ginger were my favorites.
He seems to be trying to emphasize the candy, perhaps because truffles are so labor intensive by comparison, but I thought his truffles were much better than, for example, his turtles or meltaways. Still, it’s a promising little shop and a great destination for families in Nob Hill.
740 NW 23rd Ave
Portland, OR 97210
Xocolatl de David
David Briggs, chocolatier and proprietor of Xocolatl, is making the best truffles in this survey. Without a doubt. It’s not just that they’re clever or unusual. Sure, David arguably started the bacon in sweets craze with his caramels and chocolates here in Portland. He popularized them while working at Park Kitchen. That’s where I first had them, as an option during dinner service. He incorporated other savory ingredients into his truffles, such as goat cheese, balsamic vinegar, and, my personal favorite, olive oil, bringing a very different sensibility than people expected from a candy. Really, what he was making walked the line between sweet and savory and for a lot of people it was enough to make his chocolates a hit. But that’s not why he’s the best chocolatier in this survey.
When he first started out, his chocolates were clumsy. The ganaches were uneven, often grainy and dense, sometimes even chalky. His shells tended to be a bit thick and even out of temper. It’s been five years since he first started, though, and he’s now a true professional chocolatier with skillfully-made pieces that rival many of the better national truffle makers. So it’s not just that his semi-savory concoctions are fun and unique. That’s a bonus. Instead, it’s that he is a damn fine chocolatier and should be a role model for others in this survey or others still learning. He’s a true craftsman, always learning and improving.
If you need proof, compare his bacon chocolate or bacon caramel to Vosges’s version. Vosges made the flavor combination famous, even if they weren’t the first to come up with it. But their version is ham-fisted. There’s no restraint, balance, or nuance. Xocolatl’s version, on the other hand, matches the smokiness with just the right amount of sweetness with just enough meatiness to let you know this treat would do just as well on the plate next to your main course as it would as part of your dessert. The crunchy little bits are in perfect contrast to the creamy center, too. And that’s not one of my favorite truffles of his.
As I said, his olive oil truffle is my favorite. The liquid fat lends a wonderful smooth body to the ganache and a unique fruitiness that’s not at all sweet. His orange cardamom truffle makes me reminisce about Asia. His caramels have a nice gooiness and good depth of flavor. And then he has items like the foietella — think gianduja with foie gras instead of hazelnut blended with the chocolate. This, again, could so easily be oafishly slapped together, more about the gimmick than creating something delicious. But it’s adroitly composed. If I wasn’t already the size of long haul trucker with a gland problem, I’d be slathering this on something at every meal.
Xocolatl de David
If you’re a chocolate-lover that lives anywhere near Portland, you’ve probably been to Cacao, the chocolate shop just off Burnside on SW 13th. (If not, grab your coat and leave now.) You may have met the slender, quiet Ecuadorian clerk named Sebastian. He is Cocanu.
While not a truffle maker, I felt that his product was so good that it had to be included. He has a line of bars in wonderfully chic packaging, some meant to imitate the drinking chocolates Cacao sells. Others merely take quality, interesting chocolates from couverture makers, such as Felchlin, normally not available in bars and turn them into retail items that anyone can enjoy. Some blend couvertures to create a new chocolate flavor. And some of the bars are a bit more unexpected. I’ve tried them all, and everyone was excellent.
My favorite, surprisingly, since I normally prefer dark chocolates, is his milk bar, the Sindy, which emulates Cacao’s cinnamon-infused drinking chocolate. It’s pictured immediately above. Look at those sharp corners and slick finish. It has a great snap when you break it in two. As you chew, it coats your mouth wonderfully, like warm cream. He’s using Felchlin’s maracaibo 49% to make the bar. If you haven’t had a gourmet milk chocolate like this, you don’t know how good milk chocolate can be. There are layers of flavor you just won’t find in large-scale commercial milk chocolate. It’s as if the chocolate has been imbued with dulce de leche. Another favorite is the Fauno, which blends a rare Amazonian cacao couverture with a more subdued Ecuadorian cacao couverture to create a really balanced bar of dark chocolate.
The bar that started this section is the Moonwalk, one of Cocanu’s more creative and fun efforts. The little specks are Pop Rocks and they do indeed pop in your mouth as you eat the bar. I think he could have chosen a more appropriate chocolate to match the flavor of the candy, perhaps a tart Madagascar-origin chocolate rather than the floral Venezuelan chocolate he chose, but it’s a tasty bit of nostalgia for a Gen-Xer like myself. His Picasso bar is a little less gimmicky with spices and shredded coconut mixed into the bar. It’s also tasty, but the slivers of coconut are so small that they almost suggest a mistaken graininess rather than an enjoyable textural contrast. But I really enjoyed the flavor the coconut added. As should be clear, the complaints about these two bars are quibbles at most.
Besides his packaging being chic, I love, love, love that he includes so much information on the back. Everyone expects to be thinking about what region their wine comes from, what kind of grapes were used, in what percentage the grapes were blended, etc, etc. Similar concerns for cheese, coffee, and salumi. Chocolate is every bit as complex and varied as other ancient processed foods. Information about the country and region of origin, the types of beans used, who processed it, and so on should be transparent on every bar sold in order to improve awareness and build sophisticated palates. I love that Cocanu has embraces that idea.