It was really only a matter of time before hot chocolate got its star turn in Philadelphia. And with all the attention we’ve paid to esoteric dishes and ingredients that tend to give the uninitiated a case of the food-willies—pig ears, bone marrow, all those ooey-gooey parts populating local menus these past few years—cocoa is absolutely due for its time to shine. Because something as historically wonderful as real hot chocolate had, by the time the food-industry whizzes got hold of it, been transmogrified into an object rather more frightening: the powdery packet of instant beverage. To me, that’s scarier than a bowlful of undercooked tripe.
What started off as a product of perceived divine powers, and until just a couple of centuries ago was limited to the social and financial elite, has suffered its fair share of slings and arrows. As Smithsonian Magazine’s Amanda Bensen notes in an excellent article: “Both the Mayans and Aztecs believed the cacao bean had magical, or even divine, properties, suitable for use in the most sacred rituals of birth, marriage, and death… it remained largely a privilege of the rich until the invention of the steam engine made mass production possible in the late 1700s.” It’s hard to imagine the chasm that chocolate had to cross to go from such lofty heights to the depressing packets that most of us grew up on. I still remember the skin-like clumps that formed on top of the microwaved mug of water and Swiss Miss that my mother used to treat me to after a hard day of elementary school—the rubbery nubs of faux marshmallows like pale pencil erasers bobbing up and down in the evil brew.
We’ve come a long way, indeed. These days, serious hot chocolate, and clever riffs on the concept, are popping up all over the city. And with winter seemingly settled in for the long haul, this is the time to explore how the resurgent beverage is faring in our fair city.
Start with a classic at Talula’s Garden, like the Steamed Chocolate Milk from Bailey’s Farm. As perhaps should be expected, it’s all about the supremely high quality of the ingredients here—just that gorgeous chocolate and milk, either on its own or with Black Maple Hill Bourbon or espresso. Simple and delicious—as is M Restaurant’s version, made with 70-percent cocoa chocolate infused with rosemary and accompanied by homemade gingersnap cookies.
Barclay Prime offers a more intricate option with their Christina’s Spiced Hot Chocolate, a gathering of 48-, 52- and 75-percent chocolates, milk, cinnamon, star anise, cloves and cayenne that can either be served as is or with Fernet Branca and Cognac if you really want to be warmed up.
On the dessert end of the spectrum, Franklin Fountain offers a selection of “hot milkshakes.” And while their Toasted Marshmallow Malted isn’t technically hot chocolate, I cannot imagine that many people would turn down their “fluffy marshmallow-enriched vanilla ice cream spun with malted milk powder and melted bittersweet chocolate over one of Reverend Sylvester Graham’s crackers.” Anyone who turns away from a menu description like that, or from the reality of the beautiful beast once served, should just give up on sweets completely and relegate themselves to a lifetime of irreversible sadness.
Not far from there, on North Third Street, Bistro 7 offers its always-stellar pot de creme. What sets Chef Michael O’Halloran’s version apart is the fact that he controls the texture a bit better by cooking it up on the stove-top. He also derives most of its sweetness from malt powder, which lends it an unexpected twist. It’s a standout, and worth every last calorie. Also in the neighborhood, Fork is whipping up Adult Chocolate, a combo of steamed milk with Sailor Jerry Rum, Bailey’s and an Éclat chocolate stick. If that doesn’t keep you warm this winter, nothing likely will. Above Broad Street, Vernick Food & Drink’s deceptively named Hot Chocolate is also made with fleur de sel, dried chili and either Cognac or green Chartreuse.
Magpie on South Street is focusing their energies on the classic accompaniment, and is amping up their hot chocolate with a homemade vanilla-bean marshmallow. At Noir, on East Passyunk, shaved German chocolate is melted into whole milk and reinforced with cherry Grey Goose (infused in-house) and Godiva Chocolate Liquor.
Of course, you can always stop at the grocery store for a tin of Nesquik. But with all these options, why would you? In Philly these days, it’s possible to drink like Mesoamerican royalty or 18th century nobility without hemorrhaging all your funds. We’ll raise a mug to that.