In March, an old friend came to visit me. I picked him up at the airport at nine thirty p.m. By ten ten, we were at Denny’s, recapping time lost over seasoned fries and the Meat Lover’s breakfast special. My friend – a man whom I have known for ten years, my former boss and one-time culinary mentor – is the pastry chef at 40 Sardines* in Overlook Park, Kansas (which is very close to Kansas City, Missouri). Though Bump and I have known each other for the better part of my adult life – and seen each other through surgeries, break-ups, fashion disasters, workplace dramas, weevils and more – the prospect of seeing him after having been physically apart for almost three years made me nervous. What’s worse than having someone travel 1,493 miles, approximately, and then discover than you can’t so much stand to be in the same room together? Or that there’s nothing to talk about?
Fortunately for the two of us – and we got along just famously, thank you very much – we have one very important shared passion: food, particularly sweet food. Unlike other past house guests, Bump was mostly interested in lounging and eating. Lounging and eating are two of my most favorite activities, so we were ahead before we even began. To exhaustively detail the full three-and-a-half-day FoodFest would be overkill, I feel. So I shall give you only the highlight, and suggest that you treat yourself to an hour or an afternoon there as well.
On SW 13th Avenue in Downtown Portland, between Burnside and Washington, in the vicinity of Powell’s, Masu, and Whole Foods Market, there is a small shop called Cacao. When they are open, there is a chocolate-colored sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of their modest entrance.
Cacao, I am sure you can guess, is all about chocolate. The shop – less a “store” or “café,” though it is also both of these things – is so beautifully decorated; it looks and feels exactly like the Chocolate Shop in your head. They have nailed the paradigm without slipping into cliché or dry predictability. It is gorgeous, and everything about it is rich and sweet and bold. Time passes more slowly inside Cacao than it does on the sidewalk just outside. When you get there, you can either walk right up to the counter and order yourself some chocolate, liquid or solid, with or without spices, nuts, or coffee, and sit down at one of the small tables or stools to enjoy your purchase (I do not recommend getting your chocolate to go, unless you are taking it back home to bed or breakfast nook); or you can make slow laps around the rest of the shop, admiring the gorgeously packaged, simply and effectively displayed chocolate bars for sale. They are arranged clustered by producer. I particularly liked the Michel Cluizel, Theo – single origin (especially the 75% Ivory Coast) and the 3400 Phinney product line (you must try the Bread and Chocolate bar. Must.) – and Dolfin Chocolat. There are “serious” chocolates – like the single origin bars that are marketed by production region and percent cocoa (like 75% Ivory Coast, get it?) – and frou-frou chocolates – like Dolfin’s Chai bar (very good) and 3400′s Coconut Curry bar (very bad). There are chocolate sauces and books and posters. There are confections – truffles, mostly – elegantly displayed in the glass case at the counter.
I was very impressed by the owners and employees at Cacao. They were unobtrusively friendly, very, very eager to answer our questions and – miracle of miracles – provide samples of any chocolate bar in the store. If you are going to pay six or eight or twelve dollars for a not-too-huge bar of chocolate, wouldn’t you like to be sure it is just exactly the one you want? I would have purchased the Szechwan pepper bar, not the pink pepper bar. I thought it would be a no-brainer (because aren’t pink peppercorns kind of silly?), until I tasted them. The Szechwan bar was too gritty, too assertive. But the noir au poivre rose maintained that lovely smoothness we so love in good chocolate. The pepper was bright and flavorful without being too overwhelming. I never would would have chosen it over the other, based on my feelings of Szechwan versus Pink pepper, so I was particularly grateful for the taste.
Not only were the staff friendly, but unexpectedly, delightfully knowledgeable as well. This makes perfect sense in retrospect: one who owns or works at a specialty shop should know everything about the three types of items one sells. I was initially surprised, however, at the ease with which one fellow (he must have been Aubrey or Jesse, who are the owners, as far as I can tell) rattled off tidbits about cacao-growing regions and related bean acidity. This may sound very pretentious and overdone, but I assure you, the atmosphere is palatable. There is no snobbery, at least not on the day Bump and I were there reveling in our shared food-geekiness, only informed passion, an uncommon generosity, and a clear desire to share both with the customer.
By the time we left the shop, I was more than sated. We sampled all three varieties of drinking chocolate (order the 2 oz., for heaven’s sake, not the 4 oz. size), and half a dozen of the bars available for sale. Bump got the name and contact information of a supplier who might be able to ship his favorite El Rey couverture to Kansas City for use in 40 Sardines. I tasted two chai-flavored bars, two pepper-flavored bars, and three, I think, single origin varieties. On my way out, all I wanted was a glass of water. A whole beautiful chocolate shop at my very fingertips and all I wanted to was water. That’s success for Aubrey and Jesse, I’d say.
*If you happen to go to the website, and then download the dessert menu, I want you to know that inspiration for the Cajeta Torte occurred in the just down the street from my house. So I’m kind of famous, just so you know.