Pinch me, I'm on my way to a chocolate-tasting dinner with Cacao Barry.
That was my tweet, mid-makeup application, this past Monday night as I was getting ready to head out for what I knew would be a truly memorable dining experience. Can you blame me? I was on my way to Colette Grand Cafe, a venue known for creating luxurious French culinary experiences, to experience one the notorious flavour dinners by conceptualized by legendary French chocolate company Cacao Barry. Now, if I had you at "Cacao Barry", hold on a moment longer while I explain: this is no ordinary chocolate tasting dinner. These #FlavourDinners are a series of dinners where chefs cook primarily for other chefs and create menus inspired by Cacao Barry chocolate. Each menu item incorporates Cacao Barry into it, along with one additional particular ingredient as a through line for the entire menu. This scenario creates a particular challenge, because not only are the host chefs cooking for their peers, but also bound by the intricate dance of two flavours that must be included in each menu item. No easy task for the host team of chefs, sommeliers and mixologists, but a total no-brainer for me when I was asked if I would like to have a seat at the table.
There is a lot of history behind Cacao Barry. With over 170 years of of tradition behind the name, it has become a name that chefs trust to create memorable dishes for their guests. But they are also a brand that continually strives to innovate, by collaborating with chefs to push boundaries when it comes to flavour combinations and to ensure the sustainability of cocoa for future generations. Given that, and the nature of the Flavour Dinner challenge, it is no wonder that Colette's Executive Chef Jennifer Dewasha and Pastry Chef Annegret Henninger were inspired to create a bold menu to showcase not only the versatility of the chocolate, but also of the modern French fare that they do so well.
Dining at Colette always feels like a special experience, but as this was an evening in early December, things felt extra sparkly. (The very tempting display of Cacao Barry Couverture certainly made the atmosphere extra special as well. Chocolate everywhere always helps. Note to self.) It turned out that while the guest list was indeed mostly chefs including Nadege Nourian, Mark Thuet, Louis Lim and Atul Palghadmal. There were also other food writers and personalities in the mix as well such as Bonnie Stern and Amy Rosen. Suffice it to say, I was in very good company.
Obviously we were all wondering what the mystery ingredient that would be pairing with all that delicious chocolate was. Our welcome cocktail held the key: a potent mix featuring Absinthe, chocolate-infused vodka, Luxardo liquer, chocolate shavings and more. In case you missed it....the Absinthe was the tell. Our second feature ingredient (or flavour) for the night's dinner would be liquorice. Or licorice. Potato, potato. (For the sake of continuity, I'll use licorice in this article as that's how it was spelled on the menu). However you spell it, it's a vivid, unapologetic and rather polarizing flavour. I'm a fan, but I know many people find me strange for liking that deep, dark Dutch salted stuff, but I do. (Red "licorice" is just weird, sugary wax in my opinion). It is also a flavour that appears in a number of ingredients: including tarragon, star anise, fennel, licorice root and licorice mint. But is it versatile enough? Any way I looked at it, I knew this meal was going to be an adventure.
Here is a look at the beautiful dishes that Chefs Dewasha and Henninger created for us, and that Sommelier Brian Davies chose the most perfect pairings for.
TARRAGON: Venison Tartare, Cocoa Nibs, Puffed Grains, Pumpernickel, Tanzanie Origin Chocolate, paired with sweet vermouth.
FENNEL: Clay Baked Salmon, Parsnip & Zeyphr White Chocolate Puree, Braised Fennel, Sauce Meurette. (I wish I had written down the name of this wine, because it was incredible.)
STAR ANISE: Wild Hare Civet, Cavatelli, Wild Mushrooms, Extra Brute Cacao Powder
SWEET ROOT: Apples, Licorice Cake Alunga Milk Chocolate, Apple Cremeux
LICORICE MINT: Cassettes, Haiti Origin Chocolate Cream, Cucumber Aloe Vera Jel
Pastry Chef Annegret Henninger offered some great insight about working with Cacao Barry chocolate. Like any true icon, it stays true to itself rather than playing to the crowd.
It was an adventurous meal, full of flavour, beautifully plated, and as I mentioned, perfectly paired by our host sommelier. It was a testament to the skill and imagination of the team at Colette Grand Cafe, and to the range and quality of the chocolate used.
Oh - and should anyone really want to push the limits of their chocolate skills while making me dessert, head on over to the Cacao Barry website and check out this number for Anarchy. I'll be waiting.
All photos by Jeffrey Chan for Cacao Barry.