Sunday, November 05, 2006

Koko Black: One of My Favorite Chocolate Shops

Writing about my favorite chocolate shop (and choosing a shop to call my favorite) has been an incredibly difficult task. Although I was the one who dreamed up the My Favorite Chocolate Shop blogging competition, I approached my own entry with great anxiety. Not only was I delayed by standard procrastination, but I was plagued with worry over how I could single out one chocolate seller as my favorite and maintain my integrity as a "chocolate journalist." I simply don't have an ultimate favorite--I have a great many affinities (and just as many frustrations) with chocolatiers the world over.

I chose Melbourne's Koko Black in the end, focusing on my immediate surroundings. The refined boutique seems a perfect symbol for the entire Melbourne chocolate scene--elegant, expanding, garnering attention, a lively part of the local food culture, but decidedly Belgian. Founded in 2003 by an Australian candymaker with a Belgian chocolate expert and now under the charge of a German chocolatier named Arno Backes, Koko Black is a bastion of solid European chocolate-making technique in Australia. In the lovely two-story shop in Melbourne's Central Business District, extra-large panes of glass separating the shop from the work area allow curious customers to look in on the head chocolatier and his assistants melting, tempering, and molding their couverture.

On my most recent trip to Koko Black, I picked out eight different filled chocolates, which an attendant arranged into two layers in a sleek white box. The litmus test of a chocolate shop is the plain ganache, and the dark chocolate ganache that I sampled here was perfect in terms of both smoothness and weight. The flavored ganaches are artfully made as well, ranging from subtle tea infusions to hard-hitting spice blends. My sole criticism of Koko Black is that the chocolatiers rely exclusively on the mass-market Belgian brand of couverture, Callebaut. But unlike other chocolate professionals in Melbourne (all of whom are limited to Callebaut with the exception of a lone Frenchman called Monsieur Truffle), Backes is not content to simply put a "Belgian chocolate" stamp on his creations and allow the marketing team to do the rest of the work. Instead, the Koko Black team stretches Callebaut to the outer reaches of taste, matching the characteristics of that particular couverture with the ingredients that suit them best.

Koko Black has seen enormous success over the three years since the boutique opened its doors. Both the chocolates and the original upstairs cafe (reminiscent of the Jean-Paul Hevin tea room in Paris) have received enduring positive attention from the press. Commercial success has also allowed the business to expand, and there are two new locations, one on the outskirts of the city in Carlton and one in the suburban Chadstone mall. And Backes has recently formed a Chocolate Society with colleagues in Melbourne.

Koko Black
Shop 4, Royal Arcade
335 Bourke Street
Melbourne, Australia
Hours: Monday-Thursday 9am-6pm, Friday 9am-8:30pm, Saturday 9:30am-6pm, Sunday 10am-5:30pm
additional locations in Carlton and Chadstone

This is the last of the late entries in the My Favorite Chocolate Shop competition, part of the Food Destinations series which is based at the I Was Just Really Hungry blog. Entries for "Food Destinations #3: My Favorite Chocolate Shop" have already come in from more than a dozen bloggers on several continents. I'll post a round-up of all of the entries--and announce the winners--here on Chocolate in Context within a week.


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