Mountain View Voice

Eating Out - July 9, 2010

Sweet science

Crafting the perfect chocolate a passion for Palo Alto boutique owner

by Dale F. Bentson

Mark West bounds with energy. He's a tinkerer by nature, a man who loves to experiment, bend convention, reformulate odds and come up with something new.

His entrepreneurial predilections have led to several successful business startups, primarily in the cargo business, both air and oceanic. Opening a tiny, hands-on chocolate store might seem out of character. It's not.

"It really began as a hobby when I started making chocolate for my daughter Monique and her preschool class," West said in a recent interview. "I made batches for events, fundraisers, as teacher's gifts and for family parties. Eventually, I wanted to take everything I learned from classes and my business experience and create something: Monique's Chocolates."

West opened Monique's in downtown Palo Alto in January, setting up shop at 539 Bryant St.

Like any astute entrepreneur, he had prepared himself for the venture by learning from experts. He took classes from Alice Medrich, the cookbook author and founder of the long-gone, but never forgotten, Cocolat stores. West read extensively about the science of food and everything about chocolate he could get his hands on. Then, he began testing in his home kitchen.

The idea, he said, was "to recreate an Old World, Parisian chocolate shop, using just great chocolate and organic cream, with no additives or preservatives. A place where confections are made right in the place where they are sold — you can see them being made. Most importantly, I can interact with customers and friends to create new concoctions."

At the core of the product line are "single-origin" chocolates. Most chocolate makers blend cocoa beans from a variety of plantations and countries to achieve a uniform product with consistent taste. In contrast, single-origin chocolates come from just one country, often a singular plantation or micro-growing region. The exquisite and pricey Tuscan Amedei is the premier example of the genre, although Valrhona, Cluizel and other large producers market some single-origin products.

The taste can vary year to year, depending on growing conditions. While the word "terroir" is used by wine aficionados to define rainfall, soil, average temperature days, etc., the word also translates well for cocoa-bean production.

Single-origin chocolates offer subtle taste variations as well as differences in color, snap, finish, olfaction and sheen. Some chocolates taste smoky or woody, or like black coffee, berries, tropical fruits, molasses or pipe tobacco. It is the subjective side of chocolate that is debated as much as any fine glass of aged Pinot Noir.

Cocoa beans grow near the equator on plantations that are often mountainous or in rainforests with difficult accessibility. After being harvested and fermented, the beans are dried, packed and shipped.

The chocolate maker roasts, husks and grinds the cacao into a fine paste. Finally the mixture is churned in open tanks, which smoothes the texture while building nuances of taste, aroma and texture. It's complicated, demanding work, and few small companies ever attempted it. Now, trendy food is all about hand-made products by dedicated artisans with an eye towards fair trade and sustainability.

For West's part, he says he avoids buying cocoa beans "from politically troubled places like the Ivory Coast," he said. "The beans in my chocolate come from South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii and Madagascar."

West said he buys the highest quality single-origin chocolates, adds organic cream from Palo Alto's Michal the Milkman, and processes the ingredients into truffles. "I also make my own caramels and marshmallows and a non-dairy vegan truffle using hazelnut milk."

There are none of the typically filled candies at Monique's: no chocolate-covered cherries, no liqueur-flavored butter creams. "Taste is the key," West said. "When you are using the best chocolates in the world, let the flavor shine."

That is not to say there isn't a bit of whimsy in West. He has a line dubbed "x otics and x_perimentals." Ash's chai truffle with milk chocolate, tea and chai spices was inspired by a favorite customer. There's an M-Cube with milk chocolate and marshmallow, and Galaxy with chocolate, caramel and marshmallow — and even a peanut butter and jelly mishmash. "Requests lead to discovery lead to product," West said.

For customers not content to buy a box of truffles to eat later, the store has tables and chairs along with bar seating that overlooks the kitchen for instant gratification. West also offers in-store "Naked Truffles," a build-your-own truffle sundae, with this advisory: "Caution: More than four truffles at one time is not recommended. This is an incredible amount of rich chocolate."

In addition, hot chocolate ($3.50) is available with the single-origin ingredients changing daily. Thomas Keller's French Laundry coffee blend is served. Marshmallows cost $1 and caramels $1.50.

Overall, Monique's chocolate truffles ($2-$3) are rich, not pop-in-the-mouth-while-watching-a-movie confections. This is serious chocolate for the educated palate, or the palate that needs to be educated.

In the shop, Mark or his wife, Cathy West, are on hand seven days a week. He is working on a website, while daughter Monique, now an eighth grader, is planning the Facebook page for the business.

"What's most fun is someone loving the product," Mark West said. "(When) they just stop and say, 'Oh, that's really good,' well, that's the moment, the reward.

"It's not a hobby anymore. I'm building something from ideas ... planning and flexibility are key. It's a customer-driven custom business."

Just as I was finishing writing this piece, Mark West emailed me with a dozen new ideas he is considering trying. The experimentation, happily for our palates, might never end.

Monique's Chocolates

539 Bryant St.

Palo Alto, CA 94301

650-323-9669

Hours: Sun.-Thurs. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

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