Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Escape to New York: Sleuthing Mast Brothers Chocolate Bars

As I mentioned to my friend Emily Testa at an impromptu chocolate tasting last night, I have a couple of chocolate informants in New York. The first is Rob Valencia, who's weathering the financial crisis as Citigroup's official pastry chef. Rob pointed me toward the plebeian Treats Truck driven by Kim Ima, who took an eight-hour round-trip bus ride just to check out the compressed-natural-gas-fueled vehicle that she now uses to deliver sandwich cookies and five varieties of brownies to fans at various street corners in Manhattan and Brooklyn. My second informant is David Arnold, a free agent in the chocolate industry, who suggested that we meet at the Food Emporium Fine Chocolates shop on Third Avenue, which opened just after this year's New York Chocolate Show because the supermarket struck a deal to exclusively distribute the German Coppeneur line in the New York area. The shop now carries bars and confections from fourteen different countries, and David recommended that I pick up Swiss company Felchlin's Bolivian Cru Sauvage 68% 60h (which means that the sixty-eight-percent-cacao mixture is conched for sixty hours, an usually long time), something I likely wouldn't find elsewhere. I'm munching on some of this "savage" bar now--it's velvety, and to use language that's equal parts pretentious and goofy, orange creamsicle notes underscore the solid structure of the chocolate. Still, David and I agreed that the shop lacks all the romance of West Coast chocolate boutiques like Bittersweet and Cocoa Bella. And while the Food Emporium has found good customers on Manhattan's Upper Eastside despite the financial crisis, we worried that too many products on the shelves were stale or out of temper. According to my informant, if I went to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I might find a couple of guys who were doing something more inspiring: The Mast Brothers.

A former Jacques Torres employee and his amenable sibling, the Mast Brothers may be Brooklyn's first bean-to-bar producers. I started doing some research on the guys. According to their website, they sell their products at the Artists and Fleas market, which is open every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 8pm. I found that information on Sunday at around ten, so I decided depart the Upper Eastside and get on the L train to Williamsburg. Down the street from the insanely enticing Surf Bar on North 6th Street, I found the arty flea market. I made my way through a book dealer's impressive collection of contemporary fiction and a display of red velvet treats from the Kumquat Cupcakery, but I couldn't find the chocolate brothers. A jewelry maker pulled out a couple of Florentine paper posters advertising the Mast Brothers, but she told me the guys were only coming to the market on Saturdays because they're working on a new project. She referred me on to the Spuyten Duyvil Grocery in the Williamburg Mini Mall around the corner. I walked over, but the place didn't open until 1pm and I had to be back in Manhattan for brunch--it was Mother's Day. So I took the L back to Union Square, ordered an omelet, and then invited my mother to come back to Williamburg. She accepted, we returned to the grocery, met the proprietor, George, and picked up a Venezuelan 72%-cacao bar, a 60%-cacao milk chocolate bar, the toasted hazelnut and milk chocolate bar, and the punny "Wyeth and Berry" bar (named for two streets in the neighborhood, with dried cranberries mixed into white chocolate). A couple of days went by before I staged my impromptu tasting back in Pittsburgh. We liked the chocolate well enough, and the packaging--the same Florentine wrapping paper from posters without any official ingredient or nutrition info labels--were charming. But I can't claim any orange creamsicle notes. The stuff tasted like, well, the vaguely familiar result of an attempt to do something different with artisan chocolate. I keep turning back to the same story--when John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg brought their homemade chocolate to a Berkeley farmer's market, they were doing something new and inspiring. Now there's an entire micro-industry of micro-batch chocolate maker, and the Mast Brothers are competing with Amano, De Vries, Askinosie, Patric, and now Bittersweet Origins.

I hope they make it. Rumor has it the Masts are planning a shop on North 3rd street in Williamburgh.


Blogger Whoosh said...

Emily, I often head to the Food Emporium on Third to buy chocolate when I'm in the city. Which brands/bars did you and your friend think weren't fresh? I wouldn't be able to tell the difference (beside reading the label, of course). I'd like to know which ones to watch out for! :)

2:57 PM GMT-5  

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