Willy Wonka in DUMBO

Does chocolate taste better in Brooklyn?

jt chocolateOn Jacques Torres’ first walk through DUMBO he fell in love with the graffiti. Searching for 5,000 square feet to manufacture and sell chocolates, Torres had looked in Queens and in other parts of Brooklyn. But, walking through the warehouse district of DUMBO five years ago, he was struck, “I felt the history, the trueness of the neighborhood. It’s busy, industrial—where people sweat, work, live.”

In this corner of Brooklyn, waves lap up against the dock behind the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. Light falls in patches through the steel lattice of the overpass, creating a cool industrial shade in the street, echoing the look of the broken pavement, where Belgian block juts through potholes. Along Water Street, the view of the water is obstructed by a series of high chain-link fences, fortress-like public works buildings and low industrial buildings. Yellow graffiti sprawls across the rusty face of one building. “I feel so. . . sensual,” it reads.

Follow the dots of that ellipsis—it will lead you straight to Jacques Torres Chocolates, this neighborhood’s sensuality fixture. The scent of chocolate is somehow richer, deeper, when inhaled in this canyon of concrete; it is luxury and industry, in one breath. Every bon-bon made in DUMBO—as all of those sold at Torres’ shop are—is a mouthful of history. Torres believes, “My product reflects the historical nature of this place—and making chocolate passes from generation to generation.”

Torres, who grew up in France and spent decades learning pastry and confectionary arts in fine restaurants in Europe and the United States, knows well that the labor of the chocolatier is a centuries-old craft. Setting up shop in DUMBO taps into the tradition of Brooklyn food manufacturing; beginning in the mid-1800s, the neighborhood’s industrial base has included vinegar and sugar plants and bread bakeries—as well as steam works, and iron and brass foundries. Though Torres designed the interior of his shop to echo the industrial feel of Water Street using slabs of metal, stone, glass, and wood to channel some of DUMBO’s industrial soul, it’s unlikely that many of the folks who crowd the small shop appreciate the connection. Gastro tourists and locals alike, they come for pure chocolate pleasure.

They come to peer through a picture window, watching neat employees piping and hustling, watching bon-bons being tumbled into boxes and tied up with signature orange ribbons. They ogle the front-window display stacked with little houses or “Love Shacks” made entirely of chocolate or the “Jacques in the Box”—striped hatboxes spilling over with assorted chocolates. They heft a $43 box of Champagne truffles aloft and say, “This is the serious size!” They’ll delight in the fact that you can find all manner of stuff covered in chocolate here: orange peels, pretzels, pretzels filled with peanut butter, Cheerios, apricots, marshmallows, graham crackers, fortune cookies. There’s even the “A.M. Quickie” for $3: Cornflakes, Raisin Bran and Rice Krispies covered in dark chocolate. It seems there’s something for everyone—everyone who likes chocolate, that is.

Unlike some of the church-like chocolate shops in Midtown, with their marble floors and whispering staff, at Jacques Torres there is loud pop music, and the mostly-young-and-female sales staff wear fun newsboy caps. They holler out hot chocolate drinks like baristas: “Classic!” “Wicked!” (spiked with cinnamon and chili peppers), “Mocha!” (with a shot of Illy espresso). When asked, they’ll tell you what their favorite truffle flavors are, or which variety men have been buying the most of that week.

There’s a short bar to lean against while sipping the ultra-rich hot chocolate, which forms a delightful skin as it cools. If you can score a stool—there are only two, given the tiny size of the shop—you have a good vantage point from which to check out everything on the shelves. Or you can swivel around, put your back against the bar, and watch the bon-bons being assembled in the gleaming adjacent production room.

The chocolates are made using materials produced at Chocolate Haven, Torres’ new factory in SoHo, where Torres supplies his own crucial ingredient. In that larger factory space, cacao beans are roasted, ground, refined, tempered, and molded into bars. Haven Bars, which are sold in the DUMBO shop but not made there, are produced at Chocolate Haven. These simple bars come flavored with additions such as ginger, almonds, espresso or apricot, and use single-origin beans, from, depending on the time of your visit, different chocolate-producing countries such as Ecuador, Ghana or Peru.

The bon-bons or truffles—made on-site in DUMBO—come in more fanciful flavors: fresh lemon, port, passionfruit, tea-scented ganache, rose champagne, coconut, peanut brittle. There are usually 20 to 30 different flavors to choose from, and they change often.Jacques Torres Chocolates may be your reason for poking around DUMBO, but there is also a small business district with clothing shops and restaurants. Torres likes to eat at One Main, and at the bar next door to his shop, the Water Street Bar. He has a special fondness for the famous pizza shop on Front, Grimaldi’s, which, he says, “has been there forever. It’s very real and true Brooklyn.”

Torres produces playful flavors robed in chocolate, and he hopes his customer wants to be part of the playfulness, to taste and to discover. This hope, for his own business, extends to the neighborhood.” DUMBO resists the antiseptic,” Torres says. “It’s a place with a past and a culture; in DUMBO you’re surrounded with that. It puts you in the state of discovery, of looking behind you.” And of looking all the way to the bottom of your Wicked Hot Chocolate, to catch those last few drops with your tongue.

Editor’s note: Water Street Bar has closed.

The bustling entrance to chocoholism.

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