When we last checked in with our intrepid hot-beverage explorers, they were tracking down the most sublime hot chocolate in Paris. Spurred on by popular demand, they're continuing their quest on the side of the pond where the brown brew was invented.
Chapter 2: We scour the hamlet of Manhattan.
With the offerings of more than 15 top Parisian hot chocolatiers under our belts, we felt enough snooty confidence to let it out that we were now moving our quest to the American town of New York, which has a few restaurants of its own. With readers reeling from our previous comment about "America's watery brews," we received a healthy supply of tips on where to go to disprove that notion. (Admission: Most of these places are merely American transplants of European specialists.)
First stop, Marie Belle in Soho, just south of Greenwich Village. Since we arrived close to closing, our waiter had no compunction about bringing out a tray of samples: Aztec, Mocha, Spicy, and Dark Chocolate were his recommendations. We were scoring our favorites – all fabulously thick, aromatic, and superchocolatey – when he demonstrated the Marie Belle secret by bringing us a bone china cup three-quarters full of chocolate shavings, to which they add steaming water or milk. Aztec original is 63 percent cacao, and Aztec dark is 73 percent. He also explained how they can be made into pudding by chilling them for an hour.
They now have 27 flavors, including Earl Grey Tea, Saffron, Spices, Cardamom, Lemon, and Hazelnut. We sipped until we couldn't take any more – about 10 – and left saying to ourselves: This is the place to beat. Price: $5 per cup.
Next up was Maison du Chocolat, just a short slide away from Rockefeller Plaza's ice rink. Our waitress explained that their brews arrive frozen from Paris and all they do is thaw them. One of us thought they were fabulous. The other winced from what she called the slight "watery, thawed" flavor. Even though the crew at Maison du Chocolat clearly feel their hot chocolate is the best, our waitress explained that they regularly scope out the competition. We scribbled down the competitors' names, paid our check – $16 for two – and headed off into the blustery New York winter to check out the others.
First on the list: City Bakery on West 18th, which serves a nice large cup of thick brew for $5 – and might be the only place we found that is not overtly foreign. So now to the heart of the matter: Did it measure up? It takes a lot of sipping to satisfactorily answer that query. Ummm, supersweet is the first answer and, gosh, suspiciously frothy. Checking with the brewmeister, we found out that it was made with steamed milk – a decidedly American contribution to the confection if it is whipped to this bubbly texture.
So is there really a Yankee/Euro divide when it comes to the fine art of hot chocolateering? We heard an interesting story from our waiter at the Italian Via Quadronno, around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue. We asked him to bring the thickest, most delectably chocolatey brew possible. When he put it down in front of us he explained, "This is the way they make them in Italy, but we don't do it here because Americans don't want it this thick."
As we shared the bracingly bittersweet brew, one that veered charmingly toward the chewable, we decided that, indeed, there is, in fact, a bit of a hot chocolate chasm between the two sides of the pond.
Just to go one step further, we dropped into a local (Greek) diner down in Greenwich Village. We asked for the best American hot chocolate on the menu. It arrived: milky, grayish color, definitely on the watery side with the most definitive flourish of all – several mini-marshmallows bobbing on the top. This may be what most Americans expect from hot chocolate these days, but we're pretty sure that Moctezuma would never have stood still for a marshmallow.