Monday, July 29, 2013

Rick Bayless's Xoco. I have never had hot chocolate before now.

{ Xoco looks good on Suzanne }
A couple weeks ago, my most excellent and lovely wife packed up the kids and bundled them off to my brother's house, and then arranged for us to drive into the City. The City, for those not in the know, is Chicago. I used to live there for quite a number of years, but now I'm out at the bleeding-edge of the suburbs, making it quite time-consuming and expensive to get there regularly. I work from home, don't commute to work, and thus miss out on Chicago's lively culinary scene. More's the pity.

So the wonderful Suzanne got us set up in a couple of nice hotels, and we went to town. And one notable moment: Xoco, which is Rick Bayless's street-food restaurant.  I'll get back to that in a moment.

{ Rembrandt's drawings are remarkable }
When I was about eight years old, I had my first culinary experience. That is, I remember eating at the local Ponderosa Steakhouse, an inexpensive place, and I had . . . Teriyaki Chicken. Hoo, boy. For a kid from the 'burbs, this was an entirely new flavor experience, and I can still remember it as if it were yesterday. I'd never tasted anything like that before! It was much more complex than the food I was used to eating-- nay, demanding, from my mother. The chicken was there, but then the sauce, made with real soy (for which I was just growing out of a severe allergy), and rice wine, sesame oil, ginger, garlic, red pepper-- I had no idea what I was tasting, but it was perfectly in accord with my tastes. I always have loved subtle and complex things and ideas: sunsets in New Mexico, where every cloud explodes with a different shade of pink; Degas pastel drawings; Bach chord changes; the amazing broth in a bowl of Vietnamese pho soup; Mark Helprin novels; Rembrandt pen-and-ink or Conté crayon drawings.

Ever since that moment at Ponderosa, whenever I'd enter a restaurant, I'd make sure to order whatever seemed to be the most exotic or unfamiliar item on the menu. And every once in a while, I still have one of those eye-opening moments, where I taste something I had never previously encountered, and a new palate opens before me like Dorothy's doorway when she entered Oz. I treasure these moments. The first time eating Thai. Cambodian chicken soup. Good dim sum. Chicken Pojarsky at Russian Tea Time. Cinnamon Basil ice cream from Out of a Flower (sadly, out of business). My first cup of true Darjeeling. Dan Cong oolong. West Lake Dragonwell. A perfect bleu cheese salad. And now hot chocolate, courtesy of Chef Bayless.

Rick Bayless, for those not familiar with his work, recently won the hearts of fans of Top Chef Masters with a rendition of a mole dish that he said he took 20 years to learn how to make, and which had been an inspiration for him to become a chef. His story was genuine and touching as he explained his passion for the food of Mexico, and particularly the cuisine of Oaxaca province. I won't go into detail about his several restaurants nor his commercial success with his Frontera-brand salsas or TV shows and appearances. Instead, I want to focus on one single cup of hot chocolate.

{ XOCO by Rick Bayless }

Now, like you, I grew up with Swiss Miss Instant Cocoa, with mini-marshmallows floating on top of the cup, to warm me on many a winter's day, spent outdoors in the snow. (It seemed to snow more when I was a kid than it does now, for some reason.) Snow angels, snow in my boots and collar and mittens, then Mom making hot chocolate and plopping us in front of the crackling fireplace to get toasty. We would stir our hot cocoa with candy canes, giving them a peppermint flavor and turning our canes into deadly, eye-puncturing daggers of doom. I've had Giardelli's hot chocolate at their shop in San Francisco.  I thought I knew everything there was to know about hot cocoa. As it turns out, I knew nothing.

{ Liquid chocolate }
Hot chocolate. It's not tea, is it. But chocolate is easily as complex a substance as tea is, with so much chemistry involved, it boggles the mind. Now, most of the chocolate we taste-- particularly the good German and Swiss chocolates, which are entirely smooth and creamy-- are highly processed. And in the processing, much flavor is lost. As it turns out, a less sophisticated way of processing the chocolate is more conducive to making a cup that will contain multitudes of flavors. (And, like tea, there are a host of chocolate varietals just now coming to the attention of buyers in the West, as our palates develop.)

Xoco. My wife and I entered, and there was a line out the door, as we had expected. Service moved fairly quickly, though; and I asked the server what was her favorite item on the menu, and I ordered that. My wife had her own ideas, of course. Anyway, along with our meal, I ordered the Hot Chocolate, Mexico City Style, which the menu indicated was thick. I ordered several churros to go with this for dipping. (I'd seen this on TV! I was going to taste something authentic, darn it!)

We sat at a charming, winding counter facing a tiled wall in a room with lots of window light. Surprisingly, this was quite an intimate setting as my wife and I sat huddled close together, rather than staring across a table at one another. And we dug in. She took pictures with her iPad plaything, carefully arranging the dishes to her satisfaction before snapping. And then I had my cup of chocolate.

Describing it now, a bit too late afterward, I struggle to remember the flavors. But I hasten to say: flavors, not flavor. Like a good puerh or a complicated 2nd-flush Darjeeling, this stuff was to be experienced in layers. High notes, low notes, sharp notes, smooth notes. Fruity, woodsy, heartbreakingly delicious. I only had one cup. I wanted one cup only, because this experience with Suzanne, sharing this bit of delight, was something I wanted to savor in memory rather than overindulge in all at once. The entire weekend with my Suzanne was like that: heartbreakingly delicious.

{ XOCO has food, too }
Bayless buys his cocoa beans raw and whole, and his team roasts and grinds them on the premises. This is why they retain that complexity I'd never imagined before. Chocolate, in its pure state, is remarkably wide and deep in its taste impressions. Like an excellent tea, flavoring it with strawberries, or hazelnuts, or passionfruit glace would be both unnecessary and a shame, because those flavors-- while melding perfectly with the chocolate-- would cover up its own complexities. Why put fruit in it, when the chocolate has fruit notes of its own? Why combine it with anything at all? Like Lady Godiva, it's much better naked.

So, here on this tea blog, I rant about a cup of chocolate. If you're in Chicago, hasten over to Xoco and allow yourself to be stoped in your tracks as you experience something extraordinary.

Thank you, Chef Bayless, for letting this tea drinker have such a nuanced, complex, delightful cup of chocolate. This goes into my permanent memory bank of Culinary Moments I'll Remember Forever.

And you've ruined me for Swiss Miss, I'm afraid.

(This is a repost to remind Chicago tea drinkers that they have an affordable treasure right in the neighborhood.)


Marlena said...

Dear Management. It is so good to have you back - I love your blog. I just discovered that all this appreciation of tea has also heightened my appreciation of coffee. As to hot chocolate, I am in love with the Mexican brand Abuela - grandmother in Spanish. Or I make my own - I never had Swiss Miss until I was an adult -ick! It does help out really bad coffe at meetings where that is your only option.

Alex Zorach said...

I know most "normal" people think chocolate when they see xoco (xocolotl, which technically didn't mean chocolate at all, it referred to a corn-based drink), but when I see xoco, I think xoconostle.

See a picture of xoconostle. I have yet to try one. Esoteric, I know.


And when I went back to that market later, I saw no fewer than THREE different types of cactus pears...