What is it about Japan and chocolate and Feb. 14? For the past two weeks and climaxing today, the entire nation — or at least the female half of it — has been engulfed in the annual chocomania. And, if anything, this year the Valentine’s Day frenzy has reached new heights.
Department-store food floors are awash with pralines and truffles and ganaches. Lines are stretching down the block outside exclusive Ginza confectioners. Even the humblest rural convenience stores have bought into the idea that, on this day of days, Japanese women must buy chocolate, not just for their beaus but for all menfolk, related or not.
It’s all a marketing ploy, the cynics cry. And undoubtedly it is — but there’s more to it than that. All the evidence suggests that Japan is just now, under the guise of ritual gift-giving, discovering a deep, unbridled passion for real chocolate.
We are not talking about common-or-garden 100 yen bars of Ghana or Meiji, of course, but the soft, melting textures of the gourmet product. As any chocoholic will aver, that deep, dark flavor is the taste of romance — sensuous and stimulating, languorous but elevating, short-lasting but memorable.
For many people, the ultimate way to appreciate this supreme confection is in liquid form. It is our good fortune that, finally, the civilized practice of sipping hot chocolate is now being introduced to connoisseurs in Tokyo. Here are three places that have opened in the past year, where you can indulge.
Decadence du Chocolat
First stop, the wonderful and aptly-named Decadence du Chocolat, which opened in June. Housed in a long, free-standing building in brick and elegant dark green, its primary role is as a workshop and retail store. But walk in beneath the bright red awning, and you will find half-a-dozen small, round tables where you can revive yourself from the exertions of your hike through the tranquil residential back streets of Daikanyama.
The look is refined and elegant, almost medieval in style, with Gothic wooden pillars and beams, and Andalucian tiles underfoot. The walls and ceiling are a rich hue of red, studded with gold heraldic motifs. It feels like sitting down inside a deluxe and rather expensive chocolate box.
It smells that way, too. A heady perfume, sweet but not sickly, wafts across from the other side of that counter, with its array of tantalizing cakes and candies. As you watch the bevy of white-clad pastry chefs laboring over their whisks and baking tins in the large, open kitchen, sit back and sip on the specialty of the house — hot Creole chocolate drink (900 yen for a single-serving pot).
Made with prime cacao beans from Venezuela — 65 percent of the total mixture — it is thick in texture, sweet (of course) but with a fine balance of bitter counter-notes, leaving your palate buzzing with lingering hints of vanilla and cinnamon. You will find it comforting and warming, but also richly elevating. This is not the kind of hot, milky cocoa you prepare as a nightcap. You will find your eyes are opened and your senses heightened.
The menu also offers a selection of teas and coffees, and the best argument for ordering these is that they make a better contrast with the various chocolate treats that you will be tempted to order and nibble on as you relax.
You will find it hard to leave without a purchase of pralines or bonbons under your arm (try resisting the wicked Hennessy brandy-flavored ones or, at the very least, the candied, half-dipped Valencia orange slices). Simplest of all, treat yourself to a chunk of solid nut chocolate (almond, macadamia or hazelnut) broken with a hammer into large, irregular blocks. Now, that’s what we call chocolate.
Decadence du Chocolat is part of the Global Dining group, which includes not only La Boheme, Zest and Gonpachi, but also the upmarket Tableaux and Stellato restaurants. That means inevitably, as you arrive and leave, the whole kitchen acknowledges you with a loud sushi-shop chorus.
Decadence du Chocolat, 10-13 Hachiyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5489-0170; open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Chocolates can be ordered through their Web site (www.globaldining.co.jp) for delivery throughout Japan.
Another noteworthy arrival that is equally devoted to spreading the gospel of genuine chocolate is Theobroma, in Tomigaya, not far from Yoyogi-Koen Station. Although it styles itself as a “Musee du Chocolat,” that doesn’t mean you can’t sample and buy all the delicacies in this elegant retail shop-cum-salon de the.
Chef Koji Tsuchiya spent six years in Paris, finessing his art alongside some of the world’s top chocolatiers. He produces an excellent gateau (from 2,500 yen) that lives up to its Classique Chocolat name. And his rich chocolate bars are remarkable — especially the lip-tingling Ocumare 66 (800 yen for 75 grams), made from the finest Venezuelan cacao beans.
Besides his huge range of confections based on the fruit of the cacao tree, he also sells croissants and authentic French brioches, which are all available in the small cafe area, as are light snacks and drinks. Choose from four kinds of hot chocolate — bitter, milk, herbal (with lemongrass and mint) and spicy, with an intriguing, prickly chili afterburn. Each is 700 yen, served in a special silver chocolate pot; or 500 yen per take-out pack.
Despite a rococo exterior and the flowers and frilly ornaments inside, Theobroma has a solid jazz soundtrack and the clientele is far from being all female. In fact, the seats are as likely to be occupied by men as by women, many of them from the nearby NHK center.
In ancient Greek, Theobroma means “food of the gods.” In modern science, theobromide is an alkaloid isolated from cacao (and also found in tea) used for treating headaches and circulatory problems. Whichever excuse you need, this is a place worth knowing about.
Musee du Chocolat Theobroma; 1-14-9 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5798-2946; www.theo broma.co.jp; open 9.30 a.m.-8 p.m. (cafe last order 7 p.m.). Theobroma also has a substantial shop-cum-cafe in Hiroo, just opposite Enoteca: 5-16-13 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5798-2947.
But the high temple to the cult of gourmet chocolate in the city has to be Jean-Paul Hevin’s small shop in Shinjuku Isetan. Currently one of the most brilliant stars in the firmament of chocolate artisans in France, Hevin is now attracting a growing number of acolytes here in Tokyo.
It feels like a cross between an exclusive jewelry boutique, a wine cellar and a walk-in humidor. The number of customers in the shop at any one time is restricted. The temperature of the chocolate is kept at 15-18 degrees, and light and humidity are controlled rigorously. With its darkened glass and solemn atmosphere, this is one of the growing number of foreign food outlets that have put the “chic” back in depachika food basements.
Besides the retail counters, with their perfect display cases of exquisite creations, there are chairs for a dozen or so at dark marble tables, where you can sit and savor the finest molten chocolate in the city. So powerful but subtle is the flavor, so complex the interplay of bitter and sweet, so lingering the reverberations on your palate, this will make anyone a true believer.
Demand for Hevin’s chocolates has been massive over the past week. People have been lining up for more than two hours for the chance to acquire some of his spicy ganaches — the Brasilia (coffee flavor), Criollos (cinnamon) or Gemme (lapsang souchong smoked Chinese tea) are all wonders of creation — or gift packs of 250 grams of mixed chocolates for 6,500 yen.
Is this true love, or mere infatuation? Sometimes, the line between the two is hard to discern. Once all the Valentine Day’s brouhaha has died down, go along and decide for yourself.