THERE'S a lot you can tell about a chocolate before you even taste it. When you open the box, you should smell chocolate, and the chocolates should look like they're going to taste good.
The chocolate coating should have a smooth sheen and no imperfections. And when you bite into one, the coating should snap when it breaks. These qualities indicate that the chocolate surrounding the filling has been tempered properly.
Once the chocolate and filling start to warm and soften on the tongue, the flavor of the chocolate comes through. Any other flavors or textures should complement the chocolate, not overpower it.
The Times tasting panel met last week to taste California artisan chocolates. On the panel were restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, columnist Russ Parsons, assistant food editor Susan La Tempa, editor at large Thomas Curwen and food editor Leslie Brenner.
Woodhouse Chocolate was the hands-down favorite of the panelists, followed by Donnelly Chocolates and Boule. The others appear in order of the panel's preference.
Many of these chocolatiers ship overnight or second-day delivery, sometimes depending on the season. Some won't ship on Fridays. Their rates vary widely.
-- Betty Hallock
Woodhouse Chocolate: Molded chocolates tend to look old-fashioned and commercial, but these are beautiful -- perfectly formed with clean lines and no imperfections; they look absolutely fresh and smooth. They struck the panel as classic -- with well-balanced flavors and luscious, fairly traditional fillings. Their whipped ganaches and fresh creams are a nice change from heavier fillings. A chocolate with toasted coconut was a hit, and one panelist called the candied walnut "amazingly good."
1367 Main St., St. Helena. Also available by phone, (800) 966-3468, or online at www.woodhousechocolate.com. A box of 24 assorted chocolates, $30.
Donnelly Chocolates: Richard Donnelly is even-handed with his flavors and textures -- the couverture doesn't overpower the filling; his infusions don't overpower the chocolate. A cardamom-infused chocolate was attention-grabbing, in a silky-but-not-too-creamy ganache. The cardamom was just interesting enough, not at all overwhelming, and it blended well with the chocolate. They're great chocolates, with "nice ganache" and "assertive" flavors, though not particularly striking visually.
1509 Mission St., Santa Cruz. Also available by phone, (888) 685-1871, or online at www.donnellychocolates.com. A box of 20 to 24 assorted chocolates, $50.
Boule: These bonbons, predominantly enrobed chocolates, are at the other end of the spectrum from Woodhouse, with a lot of dark ganache with intense, untraditional flavors. The ganache is dark and firm, not too creamy, not too buttery, with lots of chocolate flavor. The infusion of Scotch bonnet pepper came as a shock to some panelists, but one called it "intellectual." The dark couverture holds up to many of the other flavors and it's the chocolate flavor that lingers. One piece might be enough to satisfy a craving, which is good because they're really expensive.
420 N. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. Also available by phone, (310) 289-9977, or online at www.boulela.com. A box of 25 assorted chocolates, $55.
Michael Mischer Chocolates: Mischer's thick couverture is intense and complex, a really dark, dark, deep chocolate with fruity, almost tobacco-like flavor that's delicious. On the thicker side, it is so compelling that the filling has a hard time living up to it. Panelists commented that the chocolates weren't too sweet and the "chocolate flavor superb." A coffee-infused chocolate was a favorite.
3352 Grand Ave., Oakland. Also available by phone, (510) 986-1822. A box of 12 assorted chocolates, $19.
Jin Patisserie: So much attention to detail is applied to such tiny squares of chocolates. They're beautiful and refined, with thin, delicate couverture. Extremely soft ganaches weren't dark enough for most panelists' tastes. Kristy Choo's flavors such as mango-basil, chrysanthemum and black sesame are great, though -- clean, bright and original.
1202 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. Also available by phone, (310) 399-8801, or online at www.jinpatisserie.com. A box of 12 assorted chocolates, $25.
Recchiuti Confections: It's easy to see why some of Michael Recchiuti's signature chocolates are so well liked. The combination of tarragon and grapefruit -- "awesome." The candied grapefruit peel provides a chewy contrast to the silky chocolate. His burnt caramel with ganache is far more interesting than just a straight caramel filling. But most panelists found his thick, creamy, dark ganache too sweet.
One Ferry Building, Shop #30, San Francisco. Also available by phone, (800) 500-3396, or online at www.recchiuti.com. A box of 32 assorted chocolates, $75.
XOX Truffles: Small, delicious, hand-rolled truffles with clear flavors such as lemon or Cognac. The ganache is dense and dark and melts quickly in your mouth.