Cuckoo for Cocoa: Do We Really Want Chocolate in Every Course? Yes.

The New York Times Magazine, Food, February 29, 2004

“Oh, isn’t it good to be back!” Red says almost breathlessly as we zip out of our midwinter New York lamentations and swan smoothly into a different class, almost a different era: the lobby of Wheatleigh . . . . We looked forward to staying indoors, safe and cuddly, and there are few indoors as serene as Wheatleigh’s . . . . Also, the new executive chef, J. Bryce Whittlesey, had concocted a six-course all-chocolate tasting menu that intrigued — and invited skepticism.

Even after a tense drive up from the city fighting ice slicks, snow flurries and those without E-ZPasses who nevertheless get into E-ZPass lanes, the Wheatleigh interior almost immediately pacified. The hotel’s charm doesn’t hit you in the eyes with a brilliant chandelier or stroke of bold architecture. Its building and grounds are magnifico to be sure . . . its 21st-century incarnation radiates luxury through understatement . . . .

Some consider Wheatleigh the best hotel in America. I can’t say for sure, since I haven’t stayed in them all. I can say that it has the best pain au chocolat, blackout curtains and shoehorn of any I’ve stayed in. And by virtue of its ingenious training program for young Conrad Hiltons, the sort of service where someone darts out to catch your falling handkerchief before it hits the floor.

And the food? . . . . Whittlesey took over the kitchen two years ago, and the quality and imagination shot up directly. ”I spent the first 10 years of my life in Latin America, where my father was in charge of international trade for the Caterpillar Company,” the chef says. ”My parents threw parties all the time. I loved watching my mother cook.” Tall, square-jawed and fashionably unshaven now, Whittlesey at 15 biked to work in Miami pastry shops and restaurants after school. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and later spent five years at various two-star restaurants in France. His tales of bullying by sadistic French Uber-chefs could resurrect freedom fries. ”At first,” he says, ”I was assigned to wash the pots, and they would toss their white-hot pans into my sink, scalding my hands, and then laugh about it. But I knew they were just having fun with the American.” He left when the French government instituted the 35-hour work week, ”degrading the restaurant business and closing many smaller places.”

. . . Was Whittlesey’s chocolate menu a gimmick, or could chocolate enliven unsweetened dishes without contrivance? . . .

If food is fuel to you, turn the page and get on with your life. But if it’s an adventure, or something more than an incidental pleasure, you’ll dive into these dense and provocative creations. After two or three, Whittlesey’s design, like Wheatleigh’s, becomes apparent. The cocoa flavors intensify, from the barely noticeable striped-bass tartare with white chocolate through a delectable chestnut cappuccino to the volcanic head removal (yours) of the ”Velvet Manjari” dessert.

”When the idea of a chocolate menu came up, I wondered if it could be done without imitating the Mexicans, who use it in a very pronounced way,” Whittlesey says. ”The Aztecs considered it a sort of ancient Viagra. Supposedly, Montezuma drank 20 to 30 cups a day. But he had several wives to satisfy.”

Whittlesey finds Valrhona best because of its flavor — and because it came up with Araguani chocolate, which contains 72 percent cocoa mass. (Most milk chocolate has less than half that.) ”With the striped-bass tartare, I use their white chocolate, which isn’t really chocolate, for its high cocoa-butter content. It balances the lean fish texturally.”

The choices do indeed complement each dish: cocoa nibs — the center of the roasted beans with the shells removed — add a dark dimension to scallops and foie gras; because of its slight chestnuttiness, the Araguani emboldens a chestnut cappuccino; milk chocolate with orange zest gives lobster a citrusy, floral aroma gentler than lemon; Cafe Noir jus enhances venison because its accompanying seckle pear is poached in espresso, its liquid added to the sauce.

Are these dishes improved by the use of chocolate? Certainly scallops, foie gras, lobster and venison can be brilliant on their own, particularly if they’re as superbly prepared as they are here. Better? Not necessarily. Different? Definitely. Worth doing? Absolutely! . . .

Comments are closed.