By Cuisine Bonne Femme and Joanna Miller
There are shops that sell chocolate and then there are Chocolate Shops. The latter, if they are first-rate, can inspire even the most hardened and cynical among us. Take this recent email for example:
To: Cuisine Bonne Femme
From: Food Dude
Drop everything! Are you into chocolate? I just went to Cacao over on SW 13th. It’s the chocolate shop Portland has been waiting for! These people are passionate about the 200 or so bars they carry and their drinking chocolates will astonish. I went in with a completely empty stomach today, had an eight pack of Fran’s smoked salt caramels (the salt is smoked over Welsh oak), and 8 ounces of the melted stuff. Now I’m giddy as a schoolgirl. Cuisine Bonne Femme, are you interested?
Food Dude, “giddy as a school girl”? Cacao clearly must be something worth our attention. Serious enough anyway, to warrant not one, but two reporters for further journalistic investigation. That’s when Joanna entered the scene. A chocolate lover and recipe tester for the Paris based cookbook author David Lebovitz and an enthusiastic food blogger herself, the woman knows good chocolate. After one quick phone call with the simple words “new chocolate shop, hurry,” we hauled our derrieres downtown, driven by a pre-Perestroikan fear that the shelves might be swept clean before our arrival.
The first sign that Cacao (pronounced Ka-Cow) is like no other chocolate shop in town is seen with one glimpse of the artful window display which is filled with large cacao pods. Pushing our way through the unassuming entrance, we were rendered momentarily breathless. Cacao looks more like a petite boutique in Paris than a store that is located just off of west Burnside Street. The space’s elegance lies in its simplicity and earthiness, allowing the exquisitely packaged products themselves to be showcased as the central design element. It is the chocolate, after all, that is the true star and raison d’etre of this establishment. Cacao is understated and comfortable, with high ceilings, a long curving marble topped counter, a pale Tiffany-blue and cocoa brown-themed decor, and a grouping of tiny cafe tables next to the window, beckoning customers to linger with a hot beverage and their new purchases before rushing out the door. Yes, this is chocolate that deserves some quality time.
Oh yes, and what about the chocolate?
The amount and variety of chocolate at Cacao is astounding and includes long walls of tall shelves filled with chocolates, two large display tables stacked high, and a museum-quality display case of carefully chosen individual mendiants, truffles, and other tasty chocolate-covered bites. While Cacao does stock a variety of brands that one may find in other stores around town, including Valrhona, Fran’s from Seattle, Chuao, and Vosges, we also saw names that have yet to show up in Portland en masse – you know, ones that our friends still fill their suitcases with upon return trips from Europe and New York. In other words, you will not find these chocolates in the candy aisle of your local Fred Meyer, or even any of Portland’s best neighborhood gourmet shops.
These are special and much coveted chocolates, such as Mariebelle, La Bonart, and Cafe Tasse. Off-beat items include an absinthe infused chocolate bar as well as Rabitos Royale fig and dark chocolate bon-bons from Spain.
By now, we were swooning with delight, and just when we think it can’t get any better, we turn around to here these seductive words:
“Would you like to try a sample of our drinking chocolate?”
Cacao draws a clear distinction between hot chocolates and drinking chocolate, as very well they should. For the uninitiated, drinking chocolate is an ancient, heady, and deliciously thick concoction generally served in small portion sizes; for a little bit goes a very long way. These are the drinking chocolates that are most typically served in Barcelona, Belgium and other parts of the old world and are an intense, deep, and very adult drink. Even if you are someone who does not usually get excited about chocolate beverages, do not skip this special treat. Joanna, for example, had convinced herself that she was a chocolate eater, not drinker, claiming, “I want the flavor to linger, and when it’s liquid, the experience is just too rushed!” But there is not one thing Nestle-Quick about this unearthly nectar. Linger this chocolate does, and in the best way possible. Long after the velvety-smooth richness finally and regrettably left our palates, the mere memory of the moment made us smile for days.
Cacao’s hot chocolates are also quite pleasing, and far above average. These are made with a 50% milk to chocolate ratio which is just the right amount of chocolate punch without being too heavy. They are lightly frothed, and come in either a dark 72%, or a lighter 65% cacao variety. These are the perfect reviving agents for a brisk autumn day.
As we drank from the tiny cups filled with the warm oozing liquid, elation washed over us, and we were in orbit. An extraordinary chocolate buzz had set in. Suddenly we were firing-off questions with a hyperactive, sugar and caffeine-induced fervor, oohing and ahhing over the glass-covered displays, and whispering and giggling to each other like we were teenagers on a class field trip.
The owner Jesse Mannis however, took it all in stride, placating us with more chocolate samples, and patiently answering all of our questions. Without a trace of condescension or l’ennui, he appeared delighted and amused at our enthusiasm; this is clearly a man who has followed one of his life’s greatest passions. We also suspect that he may be accustomed to this kind of light-headed and woozy effect that Cacao has on otherwise rational and calm adults.
Jesse (who cut his chops at Fran’s chocolates for over 10 years) and his business partner Aubrey Lindley (an interior design professional and native Oregonian), just recently moved from Seattle and opened Cacao in September. They are thrilled at their location, rave about wonderful people they have met in Portland, and possess a unique welcoming esprit that makes this a warm, comfortable and delightful atmosphere.
Cacao will soon become a regular food and gift destination for Portlanders, as though it’s been here for years. We think it is a fantastic spot for a rendezvous, platonic and romantic alike, and is a refreshing change from the typical routine for the office worker’s mid-morning or afternoon coffee break. Cacao is currently keeping only daytime hours, however expect to see these extended in the near future. They are also planning on adding additional offerings such as champagne, wine and other beverages. Rumor has it they working on a salted butter caramel hot chocolate, and perhaps one with a bit of chili to keep us hot-blooded and vital throughout the rapidly approaching winter months. We can’t wait to try them.
There are so many things that Cacao does right that it is hard to list them all. Despite the fact that these are expensive chocolates, anyone with a bit of extra pocket change can find something satisfying and delicious to buy. There are chocolate tablets of all kinds that are just the right size to satisfy a craving, fine chocolate covered and nut-sprinkled toffees for just over a dollar, and unsuspectingly superior Celtic salted butter caramels displayed next to the register for 50 cents apiece. In their subtle packaging, these could be easy to miss, but do yourself a favor and don’t pass them up. They are addictive.
Specialty chocolatiers seem to be popping up as fast as mushrooms in the wet autumn woods; even the local newsstand seems to suddenly be selling upscale confections. It may seem that newcomers such Cacao are encroaching on the past work of others who have pioneered chocolates in Portland. We don’t think so. Sahagun for example, is 4 blocks away, but we simply would not dream of substituting one of Elizabeth Montes’ other-worldly creations for anything else. Cacao compliments local artisans by providing additional products, helps educate the public about great chocolate, and provides a different kind of retail experience altogether. Besides, there is always room for more chocolate.
- Phone: 503-241-0656. Heathman: 403-274-9510
- Location: West End: 414 SW 13th Ave, Portland, 97205. Google Map, smaller shop at The Heathman – 712 SW Salmon St, Portland, 97205. Google Map
- Website: CacaoDrinkChocolate.com
- Hours: main shop: Monday -Thursday 9-8, Friday – Saturday 9 – 10, and 11-6 on Sundays. Heathman: Mon-Sat 8am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm