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The Mark Hotel in Manhattan (no longer a part of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, located on E 77th St.) has regularly hosted wine classes directed by Master Sommelier Richard Dean.

In 2004, the program was expanded to showcase the pairing of wine and chocolate and to do so it enlisted the support of Valrhona and the winemaker Louis Jadot. Representing Valrhona were Mr. Bernard Duclos, the director of US operations for Valrhona, Kim O'Flaherty, their US Corporate Pastry Chef, and Frederic Bau, Executive Pastry Chef for Valrhona worldwide and the Director of l'Ecole du Grand Chocolat Valrhona. Maitre Sommelier de France Olivier Masmondet represented Maison Louis Jadot.

The evening was divided into two parts. A four-course pairing of various Louis Jadot and other wines distributed by Kobrand (a major importer), with four different Valrhona chocolates was followed by dinner downstairs in Mark's Restaurant.

The Wine Tasting

After receiving instructions on how to taste wine together with chocolate (gather the melted mass of chocolate on the tongue, take a small sip of the wine and mix the wine and chocolate together on the tongue to marry the flavors) we got down to the wine and chocolate (all "grand cru") pairings. They were:

Bouvey Ladubuy Brut (NV) with Jivara 40% milk. We were given glasses of the chilled Bouvey, a sparkling wine as an aperitif. For the tasting, the wine had been allowed to sit in the glass for a while and warm up. Rather than being sparkling it was more effervescent with tiny, not too energetic bubbles. When mixed into the mass of Jivara in the mouth, the tiny bubbles were really delightful and the flavors of the wine - grassy and slightly citrusy - worked well with the strong malty and molasses flavors of the Jivara. An auspicious start.

Cotes-du-Rhone Chateau Mont-Redon 2002 with Manjari 64% dark. Although the tasting notes for the chocolate mention strong tastes of red fruit, the strongest flavors we got from the chocolate were faint spicy hints reminiscent of nutmeg and cinnamon. The wine, which is a blend of 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache, and 20% other grapes, had a spicy aroma and peppery notes but tasted a little young and with a slight astringency. The wine and the chocolate, with it spice notes complemented each other well.

Saint-Emillion Jean-Pierre Mouiex 2002 with pur Caraibe 66% dark. Mr. Mouiex is the winemaker for Chateau Petrus, and this Saint-Emillion was made with 100% Merlot grapes in what has been called on the best years for Saint-Emillion in recent memory. The wine was a deep ruby color with a slightly musty bouquet with floral high notes but seemed thin and light. The addition of the chocolate - with a mild sweetness, nutty notes with a hint of coffee/mocha - seemed to "open up" the wine. The earthiness of the chocolate complemented the bouquet of the wine.

Oporto Ruby Taylor with Araguani 72% dark. Port is the oldest wine appellation in the world, created in 1729. Ruby ports (typically the youngest of the ports) were developed as light, fruity aperitif wines to be drunk before dinner. This ruby had notes of raisins, pepper, and spice that complemented the Araguani with its licorice and raisin notes with aromas of warm bread and honey.

The tasting was tag-teamed by Messrs. Bau and Masmondet. Frederic would describe, in his imperfect English, the chocolate and Olivier would describe the wine and his logic in making each particular wine choice. Both acknowledged the difficulty of doing this, repeating that each of us was free to agree or disagree with each choice. The consensus at our table was the the Ruby Port/Araguani pairing was the most successful, with the long finish of each among its most salient and appealing characteristics.

Halfway through the wine pairings.

Interestingly, the feelings about the other pairings seemed to revolve around people's perceptions of the wines, not the chocolates. If a person did not like the wine, they did not like the pairing, irrespective of their feelings about the chocolate by itself. Most unusual was the pairing of the Bouvey with the milk chocolate, but that is in accord with my experience in the matter (milk chocolates can go quite well with white wines). The pairing would not have worked with the cold Bouvey, which would have been much crisper with stronger, "tighter" bubbles. By letting it warm up, the bubbles "relaxed" making it possible to taste them togeter. I often pair milk chocolates with the Italian sparkling wine Prosecco which is generally lighter (less alcoholic and therefore less sharp) with smaller, less energetic bubbles.

The Dinner

Mark's Restaurant in the Mark Hotel is an elegant place to eat. I had dinner with my wife there in the past six months and enjoyed not only the fare produced by Andrew Chase, the Executive Chef, but also the desserts produced by Chris Broberg. (ex- of Petrossian and now at Cafe Gray in the new Time Warner Center; the current pastry chef at the Mark is Erwin Schroettner.)

The dinner, conceived of Mr. Bau and executed with the assistance of Mr. Chase and his staff as well as two assistants Mr. Bau coaxed down from Montreal, was truly an indulgent chocolate experience composed of eight courses not including petits-fours! (I learned later that this was reduced by five courses from a similar set menu prepared recently in Montreal by Mr. Bau, Olivier de Montigny, and Cyril Jamet. I cannot imagine what five more courses, even with smaller portions, would have been like.)

During the wine tasting, Frederic explained that it was his intent to showcase the chocolate in each of the courses. In most instances, the chocolate would be used in a classic French style -- with the chocolate replacing some or all of the butter used to finish a sauce, giving it its final silky texture. But the taste of chocolate would be front and center. Frederic also told us to expect some surprises, and indeed the menu that was circulated in the invitation was different in many respects from the menu that was printed and placed at table. And even that menu was subject to last-minute changes.

Spoiler: The menu was both audacious and ambitious with touches of brilliance. However, even though these dishes had been made and served several times (five I was told afterwards), the consensus among our group was that each probably had to be made many additional times to take out the rough edges, specifically the balance between the amount of chocolate and the other elements of each dish -- the chocolate unnecessarily dominated rather than supported most dishes.

The Amuse Bouche -- foie gras gelee with Jivara (milk) chocolate sauce -- immediately demonstrated Frederic's intention not only to surprise us but to make sure the chocolate was front and center. It was not described on the menu, but was at the table as it was served. Although I am not a big fan of foie gras (or other organ meats and offal in general), the gelee turned out to be a great vehicle for conveying the flavor of the foie gras with a new texture - when you could fish it out from under the chocolate sauce, which was also excellent, though too abundant.

The Amuse was followed by a "Duo of Jumbo Prawn and Red Mullet; Polenta Sticks; Red Pepper Confit Tapenade; Sauce Americaine flavored with Pur Caraibe (66%); and Crisp Leeks." Separately every one of the elements of this dish was extremely well prepared and tasty, with the red pepper confit tapenade tying things together very nicely. However, the chocolate sauce (a true sauce not a jus or reduction) was too heavy and cloying for the rest of the flavors -- especially given the quantity served. Lightening up the sauce with some fish stock and serving less of it would, in my opinion, have tightened the dish up considerably. This was paired with a 2002 Saint Veran "Domaine de la Chapelle aux Loups."

Next was "Pan Seared Sea Scallops marinated with Passion Fruit; Bombay Curry Sauce with Manjari (64%) Coconut Emulsion; Caramel Mango Confit." Of the entree dishes, this was the most successful, in my opinion. The scallops were cooked perfectly and the herbal tang of passion fruit adding a nice side note. The Bombay Curry sauce was not hot at all, and the balance of the chocolate and the coconut was just right. When applied sparingly to the scallops, the combination would have made me ask for seconds had I not known what was left to come. However, it was the caramel mango confit that was the real stand out in this dish (we did ask for an additional side dish of this one). The sweetness of the caramelized mango treated like a chutney with raisins and cracked coriander seeds was addictive. If you're one of those people who like traditional mango chutney with cheese you should insist that they bottle this stuff. The reason we asked for seconds was to see if we could improve it by adding some of the cocoa nibs that were scattered on the table. These made the chutney transcendental by adding an interesting texture and providing a long lingering - and understated - aftertaste of cocoa. We were also given a side of the sauce which we decided would be great on deep fried ice cream after dinner at an Indian restaurant. This course was paired with a 2001 Chassagne Montrachet.

This was followed by "Risotto Beijing Style; Smoked Pork Belly perfumed with Shallots and Star Anise; Emulsion of Parmesan and Jivara (milk) Chocolate; Araguani (72%) and Parmesan shavings." Of the entree courses this was the least successful because the overpowering presence of the chocolate in the risotto made it seem a lot like a chocolate rice pudding. The saltiness of the pork belly (as a garnish as well as diced in the risotto) and the parmesan helped act as a foil to the sweetness and heavyhandedness of the chocolate. A smaller portion size would also have helped. This course was paired with the Saint-Emillion used in the tasting.

The Cheese Course was a giant roquefort truffle, described: "Roque and Roll; Araguani (72%) Ganache; shaved Roquefort; grilled Country Bread; and roasted Bananas." The truffle was huge -- somewhere between a golf ball and a pool ball. More than any other course, this one took the theme of chocolate and pushed it right to the limit and maybe a little past. Notwithstanding that criticism, it was actually very, very good. There was just too much of it and the only change I would make (apart from making it smaller than a golf ball) would be to increase the ratio of bread and cheese to the ganache. Interestingly, half of our table thought that this would work better with a milder chevre while the other half argued going in the other direction and using a much stinkier more pungent stilton. This course was paired with a 2000 Barbera "La Court" by Michele Chiarlo.

The sweet Mise en Bouche was a "Chuao Chocolate Nectar with Cocoa Nib Foam." This was a light and refreshing intermezzo served in a tall shot glass that made reference to the fact that in pre-Conquest Aztec times, the foam on top of the drink is what was prized. Small, not too sweet, cool, and refreshing. Oh, and the use of a different chocolate provided much needed variety.

The first(!) dessert course was "The Milky Way; Jivara Yogurt Cream; Black Cherries and Cranberries sauteed with Lemon Thyme; Crisp Chocolate Tuile." This course proved that Mr. Bau is an accomplished pastry chef who not only know what he is doing, but has done it hundreds if not thousands of times. The chocolate yogurt cream is what every cup of "lite" non-fat yogurt in the dairy case dreams that it will grow up to be - all the sugar, all the fat -- and sublimely perfect. The sourness and chewy texture of the cherries and blackberries was a great foil for the sweet/sour creaminess of the milk chocolate yogurt and the tuile added the necessary height as well as a crunchy texture. This course was paired with the Taylor Ruby Port served during the tasting.

The Milky Way

The second dessert (and penultimate) course was "Trio of Valrhona Grand Crus Gelee; Apple and Quince Lasagna and Apple Jus flavored with Tonka Beans; Apple Lace." Gelee has its place and it is quite the rage among pastry chefs of a particular stripe - much as foam is/was. In this case, at this point in the meal, asking us to appreciate the texture of the gelee was just too much - the only word for them is bad. I think most everyone politely tasted each of the three gelees, but I did not see anyone finish all of them. The same cannot be said for the Apple Quince Lasagna, which was rich and buttery with the richness cut by the apple jus. This course was paired with a Joseph Phelps 2002 Eisrebe.

Notes on the Wine Pairings

Overall the wines worked well on their own as well as with the dishes they were served with. We thought that the Saint Veran was an excellent wine on its own, much better than the more expensive Chassagne Montrachet which we thought was too young and didn't give much. The Saint-Emillion was still a little lightweight even after sitting in the glass, but it paired well with the salty elements of the risotto. The Barbera was the standout wine of the evening, a perfect foil for the pungency of the roquefort. The Port was the same one served during the tasting, here being used less successfully in a dessert context than as an aperitif with the chocolate during the tasting. Finally, the Eisrebe, made in Calfornia with a reisling hybrid, was a simple wine without any of the complexity you'd get from a true late-harvest or ice wine.

Conclusion

This dinner asked and answered, for me, the question, "Is it possible to have too much chocolate?" The answer is, "Yes."

It is very clear that Mr. Bau is a top pastry chef and very much in command of his oeuvre. However, ultimately, I think the thing that made the dinner less successful for me than it might have been (even considering its overwhelming nature) was the limited vocabulary of chocolate flavors that Frederic used. Apart from the Chuao in the Mise en Bouche, the only chocolates used were the four presented in the wine tasting. A much lighter touch in ladling sauces, smaller portion sizes, coupled with time to refine the recipes and incorporate different chocolate flavors would make the dinner a delight; but that night we were guinea pigs paying heavily for the privilege.

The tasting portion of the evening highlighted for me the challenges of explaining chocolate to a wine audience that is not familiar with how chocolate is made. This is something I struggle with every time I make a presentation on the subject. The challenge was made greater because of the language barrier. I am sure that Mr Bau would have done a better job in his native French, but only a very small percentage of the audience would have undertood what he was saying. Because of Mr Bau's lack of fluency in English many important concepts (at least they are important to me) were incompletely or inaccurately described. This comment is made against the fact that only a few days ago I teamed up with someone else at Kobrand (importer of Maison Louis Jadot) to give a chocolate and port pairing. We worked together beforehand to produce a tight outline of what we were going to say, and were both able to see where the other was making assumptions about that the audience might know and make sure they were explained clearly.

There were more misses than hits and they did not completely detract from the point of the evening, which was to look at chocolate in new ways and to think about chocolate as a savory element in conjunction with wine. Many others obviously thought so too: also in attendance were Rose Levy-Berenbaum, the cookbook author and chocolate expert; Florian Bellanger, Executive Pastry Chef of Fauchon; and Jean-Francois Bonnet, the Executive Pastry Chef at Restaurant Daniel.

On the DiscoverChocolate rating scale:

Outcome: Good
Effort and Imagination: Superior
Value: Superior - the entire experience, including the chocolate tasting, dinner, companionship and conversation, and all wine was only $85 (not including tax and tip). I just wish the food was better.

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