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Does Chocolate Go with Everything? America's Haute Cuisine Crowd Seems to Think So

We have reached a point where chefs and chocolatiers will stick almost anything into or onto chocolate and stand back smilingly awaiting our applause.

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Dried-cherry and chipotle bars made with organic cacao beans from Bali and Venezuela, smoked in-house over native applewood, were displayed at the  Snake & Butterfly booth, as were organic maple-bacon chocolate caramels.

"Instead of butter, we use bacon fat," explained S&B's Mara Privitt. "So it's very bacon-forward."

It is! Both bacon and chocolate are assertive and march playfully and lastingly around the tongue. S&B also sells jalapeño dulce de leche caramels.

Habanero raised its hot head at the  Sixth Course booth, where samples of white chocolate-habanero-passion fruit caramels were being offered by a chocolatier who advised me to steer clear "if you're afraid of spice," which I am. "The passion fruit cuts some of that heat, and the white chocolate cuts it too," she said, "but not all that much." I steered clear.

Are the classic chocolate pairings -- caramel, coffee, nuts -- classic for some biochemical reason, and this new stuff is somewhere on the spectrum between "acquired taste" and "I'm so fierce"? My husband loves hot stuff. His favorite food is kimchi, yet he hates chili-spiked chocolate. He says its popularity is less about any actual lovability than about a kind of competitiveness, about being able to brag that one has eaten something alarming and outré. Hence the rising popularity in restaurants these days of dare-you dishes involving bone marrow and jowls.

Sixth Course also makes dark-chocolate caramels infused with rosemary -- an herb that is popping up everywhere these days. History will show that rosemary's presence in candy and cocktails is just wrong.

Fresh outta Montana, La Chatelaine Chocolat attracted long lines for its beer truffles (as seen above), the latest addition to an adventurous line that also includes lavender, jasmine, geranium, olive oil and black peppercorn truffles. Chocolate and alcoholic beverages make perfect counterpoints: sweet/bitter, soothing/startling, creamy/sharp.

"I searched and searched for the right beer and finally chose a California oatmeal stout because it has an almost-sweet flavor," explained co-owner Shannon Hughes Grochowski. "The nibs just complete it."

As its name implies, the  Tea Room specializes in GMO-free chocolate bars infused with many types of tea: mint tea, Mayan chai, chamomile tea, caramel honeybush tea, Earl Grey, raspberry rooibos, maté and more. Green teas are harder to work with than black teas, TTR's Ethan Ash told me, because green-tea flavors are more elusive and fleeting on the tongue. Black chai is the exact opposite, he said.

Ash offered some handy advice: In order to truly savor infusions, whatever they are, let the chocolate melt slowly in your mouth.

"If you just bite and swallow, you won't get it," he said.

Coco Tutti's Elyce Zahn proffered her latest venture: lovely melt-in-the-mouth peanut-butter cups. (Reese was right.) Zahn grinds the peanuts herself, and the result is magnificent.

The folks at  Toffee Talk drive that chocolate-nut train to Tasty Town by using rare red walnuts: Hearty and naturally dazzlingly ruby-red, they're harvested at a family-owned orchard in tiny Gustine, CA.

While sampling these, I met fellow salon-goer Mary Vincent, an anti-greenhouse-gases pioneer whose line of sustainable, certified green  Gratitude Gourmet chocolates includes vegan peanut-butter-and-jelly truffles made with 65 percent dark Fair Trade chocolate and gourmet strawberry jam.

Low culture meets high culture. Little-kid lunchbox meets Lush Life.

That's true too at Hawaii-based  Plumeria Flours, whose Wrath of Pele chocolates are packed with Pop Rocks and cayenne. On the tongue, they tingle first. Then  bang.

Further hotness seethed at  Socola Chocolatier, whose collection includes truffles flavored with guava, lychee, durian, black sesame, bacon, pumpkin, PB&J, tea, Vietnamese coffee and Sriracha Flying Rooster sauce.

 
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