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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.

We have reached a point in history at which chefs and chocolatiers will stick almost any damn thing into or onto chocolate and stand back smilingly awaiting our applause. Not just nuts or caramel anymore but -- you know. Durian, beer and meat.

Sometimes I wonder how many of these pairings are earnest and how many are dares or jokes or sociopolitical experiments, devised by scientists or oddsmakers. Is this postmodern, eve-of-destruction decadence? Is there in tabasco-sauce truffles an element of the emperor's new clothes? Or am I just a rube?

Recently coaxed to taste chocolate ice cream doused with olive oil, I laughed. Ha ha, no way! Then I tried it at home, where no one would see me if I gagged. It was kind of silky and... okay.

This spurred me to sneak a dark Dagoba bar into San Francisco's  Pescatore, a seafood-centered restaurant-bar that celebrated its lush new look with a party last week. Longtime chef Rafael "Rafa" Mayoral's Ameri-Tuscan comfort food is among the city's best, so I thought: What better way to test the Omnicacaoviability Hypothesis (e.g., that chocolate goes with amazingly unlikely stuff, so just open your mind) than by pairing high-quality chocolate with some of his hearty creations? Who has to know? Well, you. But still.

Taking the easiest option first, I put chocolate on Pescatore pizza. I mean, what hasn't been put on pizza in the last 50 years? Flavorwise, the earthiness of herbs and crust and the fruitiness of fresh mushrooms stood up well to the strong fruity earthiness of dark Dagoba. Texturewise, we win: Crisp crust, slowly velvetizing chocolate. Is melting chocolate all that different from melted cheese.

Next up was Chef Mayoral's resplendantly retro, stratospherically satisfying Spaghetti Bolognese -- à la Cioccolata. Again, a surprisingly sumptuous earthiness times two. To keep the sweet-savory contrast poetic rather than crazy-making, it helped that the chocolate I used was super-dark. An extra plus: Parmesan-cheese crumbles and (again) melting chocolate do an exciting diametric-opposite texture dance.

Chocolate-topped prawns pack together the plaintive, primitive purity of two primal favorites.

In 1928, when H.B. Reese premiered his Peanut Butter Cups, it was considered astounding to pair peanut butter with chocolate.  Hershey's still sells the cups, occasionally zapping the flavor quotient with limited-edition versions sporting fudge, hazelnut creme, banana creme, marshmallow, white chocolate and mixed nuts. But, hey, how mainstream. The artisanal-chocolate world has so exploded in the last few years that habanero truffles are passé.

At last week's San Francisco  International Chocolate Salon, I interviewed chocolatiers about their adventurous pairings.

Mindy Fong, the owner of SF-based  Jade Chocolates, was premiering a new product: green mango with a chili-lime spice rub atop dark chocolate tiles.

"People who like spiciness are getting very excited about this," Fong said, offering me a sample. Fruit and chocolate are natural pals. But I was excited in the wrong way. Because I don't like spiciness. Because I'm a rube.

The durian truffles offered by L.A.-based Marti shattered all expectations in a smooth, sweet, sumptuous cascade of satiny texture and intensely tropical flavor. Durian is renowned for its putrid stink -- many airlines forbid passengers from flying with this fruit -- but Marti's truffles breathed only a soft whiff of endless summer.

"Whenever I find a really fresh durian, that's when I make these," said chocolatier Tonet Tibay, who honed her skills at l'Ecole Lenotre in Paris. Having grown up in the Philippines, "I realized that a San Francisco crowd could like durian. I wanted to take the goodness of durian, its custardy creaminess, and separate it from that fermented-fish smell that is really an acquired taste, to create some heavenly thing that you have to savor."

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