Jacques Torres, chocolatier and owner of
the eponymous chocolate factory on Water Street, brings an unexpected
touch of France to DUMBO, the funky, rapidly expanding neighborhood
between the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.
On a narrow street predominated by warehouses and graffiti, the facade of the Jacques Torres Chocolate Factory stands out as clean, elegant and indisputably French. A newly installed sign that marks the shop incorporates Torres’ signature in distinctly up-and-down French handwriting. Like his chocolates, it is of the highest quality.
"I am, first and foremost, a craftsman," Torres proudly told GO Brooklyn, adding his delight at having found an equally serious craftsperson to make a sign to his exacting standards. "In France, there is much more emphasis on learning a profession and attaining a quality of life than on earning money, as there is here in the United States."
Torres studied pastry in France, starting at age 15 and working his way up through the rigorous system of apprenticeships and competitions. He came to New York and became the head pastry chef for the renowned Manhattan restaurant, Le Cirque. Two years ago, Torres said, he decided to get into chocolate "because it has always been a passion of mine."
If Torres can be serious about his passion, he can also be playful. "I love chocolate because it makes people smile," he said in his thick French accent, a twinkle in his eye. "When I go to a dinner party and someone asks me what I do, I love hearing them say, ’What fun!’ when I tell them I’m a chocolate maker. It always makes me feel sorry for dentists, who must get the opposite reaction."
Torres’ most recent products illustrate this same sense of fun. In his Valentine’s baskets (small: $25, large: $40) he includes his caramel-butterscotch "body butter." (The label says something to the effect of ’you figure out what to do with it!’)
The basket also includes a tin of his Wicked Hot Chocolate mix, made from powdered chocolate, not cocoa. Chili peppers in the mix give the hot chocolate its "wicked" but subtle kick. The difference between the usually insipidly sweet drink we call "hot chocolate" and this absolutely fabulous, dark, full-bodied libation may make you want to skip lunch - and dinner - if you drink it for breakfast.
A box of JT chocolates (6 pieces in the small basket, a half-pound in the large basket) finishes off the collection. The Valentine’s baskets are the perfect gift for that extra special someone.
For a more personalized Valentine’s gift, Torres suggests his $35 chocolate heart-shaped box filled with a half-pound of chocolates, the top of which can be inscribed with sweet words (limited to about 6) of your choice. (Orders can be taken no later than Feb. 11.) The passion fruit-filled milk chocolate hearts make a perfect valentine stuffer.
And, of course, Torres offers the traditional box of assorted chocolates ($40 per pound) in flavors like Earl Grey, gold-flecked espresso and Lemon Squeeze, that will go to the heart (and waistline!) of any chocoholic, especially if he or she is unfamiliar with the Jacques Torres line.
One of the things that makes Jacques Torres chocolates special is that the flavors are so pure and simple. All of the fruit fillings and chocolate - milk, dark and the occasional white - are made on site with the freshest high-quality ingredients and no preservatives. While Torres loves to toy with new ideas (he has just come out with chocolate covered corn flakes), he sticks with simple flavor combinations, not attempting to layer too many flavors. Probably the most complex combination I sampled was the almond paste-apricot chocolate which managed to be subtle and to marry all the flavors successfully.
Whether or not you are shopping for Valentine’s Day, it’s worth your while to visit Jacques Torres. On Saturday mornings, he bakes croissants and brownies ("whatever strikes his fancy," one of his co-workers said) and a growing clientele visits for pastries and coffee, tea or hot chocolate.
Fit for a czar
Alexandra and Nicolay Mazhirov also use their own names for their chocolate shop in Bensonhurst - though they are known only as Alexandra and Nicolay. Having the same names as the last czar and czarina of the Romanov dynasty, they have successfully used that as a gimmick for selling their chocolates.
Alexandra, who says she earned her degree in "chocolatology" from the Institute of Chocolate Technology in Odessa, claims to have stumbled upon the lost chocolate recipes of the Romanovs. She says she decided to perfect them and sell them in the land of opportunity: Brooklyn, New York.
Unlike Torres, the Mazhirov’s store is one of many small shops in a busy neighborhood. At first, when they came to New York from Russia in 1992, the Mazhirovs were attempting to sell high-priced chocolates to fellow Russian immigrants from a little storefront.
"It was a dead end," said Nicolay. "We couldn’t establish this market in a community of new immigrants, so we decided to expand." And expand they have. With a Web site, www.alexan
Alexandra uses the French Callebaut chocolate, where Torres uses only the subtler Belgian (feeling that the American palate prefers a gentler taste). The Mazhirovs also focus more on the appearance of their products, using molds of swans, baskets, champagne bottles and babushkas.
Their chocolates are beautiful, with a selection ranging from chocolate swans filled with bonbons to individually wrapped chocolate cigars in an elegant tin sealed with a gold ribbon and accented with a gold seal. The Mazhirovs’ creations can also be wildly intricate - one can order a hand-sculpted chocolate wedding carriage led by a team of black and white chocolate stallions, or a chocolate moon box filled with gold leaf clusters.
Prices are slightly lower than Torres, at $33 for a one-pound tin. They also guarantee the freshest of ingredients and assure freshness of product upon delivery.
Jacques Torres Chocolate, 66 Water St.
between Main and Dock streets in DUMBO, is open 10 am to 7 pm,
Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays. For more information,
call (718) 875-9772 or visit www.mrchocolate.com
on the Web.
Alexandra and Nicolay, 6502 20th Ave. at 65th Street in Bensonhurst, is open Monday through Friday, noon to 8 pm and Saturdays, 10 am to 6 pm. Closed Sundays. For more information, call (718) 331-4985 or visit www.alexan