Philly Restaurants Serve Up Fancypants Hot Chocolate this Season

By Brian Freedman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 12 | Posted Jan. 15, 2013

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Do it right: This winter, bounce around the city sampling real hot chocolate.

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.

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Comments 1 - 12 of 12
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1. Chef Judy said... on Jan 16, 2013 at 09:27PM

“Obviously Brian is either completely clueless or just has bad taste. None of the places mentioned above can even come close to the Hot Chocolates served by The Chocolate Alchemist at Sazon Restaurant located at 941 Spring Garden St. The Hot Chocolate Tour should start and finish with the only place worth Shit on the Entire East Coast,Sazon. I don't understand why Sazon wasn't mentioned here, I guess the people in this city don't deserve to know where to get Truly Real Gourmet Drinking Chocolates made from roasted cacao. Did I mention the Alchemist makes 27 different varieties. Home made creams, and all. Wake up So called reviewers and smell the Chocolate. Mr. Freedman PLEASE QUIT YOUR DAY JOB!”

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2. Gregory prestegord said... on Jan 16, 2013 at 09:50PM

“Listen all this hype for the wrong chocolate !! Sazon hands down is the best !!! On 10th and spring garden street .Its Not only the best in city but the world . Take it from me this guy knows more than all these people combined.”

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3. Joe Richardson said... on Jan 17, 2013 at 10:18AM

“At its essence, hot chocolate is ground cacao, mixed with various other ingredients. This is how the Aztecs, Mayans and early Europeans drank it. Modern hot chocolate is pressed cacao (to remove the cocoa butter) to make chocolate (and the various ways companies then "dope" the chocolate) and then use that medium for the masses to drink. So every drink you described, at its base, is already diluted. I challenge you to go to Sazon Restaurant, and try their cacao drinks (hot chocolate). The cacao bean is the ingredient, not modern chocolate. There are over 20 different drinks that the Alchemist has created. I assure you, once you try them, you will be forced to retract this article or write a new one. Trust me.”

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4. Tmasala said... on Jan 18, 2013 at 11:34PM

“Have to agree that the best hot chocolate I have tasted is at Sazon---where it is all about the chocolate and not the sugar.”

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5. podunko said... on Jan 19, 2013 at 07:51AM

“Of course, Renee at Cafe Rim has been creating his "Chocolate Volcano" at Cafe Rim on 9th, in the shadow of Pat's and Geno's for years. Heaven in a mug...”

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6. ARG said... on Jan 20, 2013 at 04:52PM

“Was this a paid advertisement for these restaurants that serve chocolate in the winter because it is cold outside and are PW clients? If you are tasked with writing an article comparing the best video game consoles, you can't simply waste paper, ink and our time writing about the different Atari versions. Or you could disclose to your readers you only play Atari or work for them. I would recommend you try places where chocolate is their business and not a winter tradition.”

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7. Chocolate Alchemist said... on Jan 20, 2013 at 05:09PM

“Podunko, try and follow the point here. The Rim is part of the same shit problem. He serves whipped cream in a glass with some warm chocolate cocoa milk crap on top. THERE YOU GO! Keep celebrating mediocrity.”

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8. Luis Salazar said... on Jan 21, 2013 at 01:06AM

“Wow, was I disappointed after reading this. I really thought I was going to learn of other REAL chocolatiers in Philly. Sadly, it's a list of where I can go and get a melted Hershey's bar in a cup, a fancy one anyway (otherwise why pay for it). Cacao is a remarkably complex and wonderful bean that deserves to be savored, and unfortunately we have become accustomed to mask the wonders of the bean with the sweetness and the high produced by sugar. If anyone is really interested in trying cacao as it should be, Sazon (already mentioned in a few other posts above) is the place to go. No one else will dare to challenge your palate by offering you cacao in a variety of manners and with a variety of companion ingredients that actually complement, rather than mask, the flavors of the bean.”

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9. V said... on Jan 21, 2013 at 10:34AM

“"mr. freedman, please quit your day job" ?
"i know more than all these other people combined" ?
"was this a paid advertisement for the restaurants mentioned" ?
"keep celebrating mediocrity" ?

its hot chocolate!
true, Sazon may go above and beyond (i have never been), but cacao is an acquired taste, no? some palates aren't ready for that rawness.

please calm down, foodies.”

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10. ARG said... on Jan 23, 2013 at 05:35PM

“Let's say you read an article titled: "Philly Restaurants Serve Up Fancypants Burgers this Season" and proceed to waste, I am a slow reader, so let's say 10 minutes, reading the virtues of McDonald's, Wendy's, Arby's and Burger King. You wouldn't be calm and you would be equally moved to comment.

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11. Rollingmyeyes said... on Jan 24, 2013 at 05:22PM

“Living in new York and having tasted most of the hot chocolate IN NYC, I can attest that Sazon restaurant- The chocolate Alchemist makes the best hot chocolate i have ever drank this side of the Mississippi. I happen to go there for their famous Arrepas and was intrigued by the elaborate cup being used to serve hot chocolate. i ordered one,. then another.. The only chocolatier (native of Phillie?), who was honored as the Top 10 pastry chef in the USA two years ago by Pastry art and design Magazine?... definitely worth mentioning. Whoever write for the food section in your Paper knows nothing about chocolate. please hire someone competent to write and blog about Food in Phillie. Your readers deserve better.”

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12. Girish said... on Feb 15, 2013 at 11:12AM

“Either Mr. Freedman never heard of Sazon or it was not in the radius he drew around City Hall for hot chocolate places to review. I will give him the benefit of doubt and assume he did not want to drive to Sazon or could not find parking when he did.
After seeing this article and vitriolic feedback, I decided to visit Sazon last night. I must agree with the people who commented that Sazon is the place for authentic hot chocolate. No dilution with milk, just thick cacao and spices. Before Cortez introduced the cow in S. America there was no milk in their hot chocolate. Just plain cacao mixed with spices, beaten in a pestle by an Aztec cook, and served to luminaries such as H.M. Moctezuma. That is how I felt after trying their spicy chocolate drink last night.”


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