Michigan Avenue Chocolate Crawl
By Andrew Peerless in Food on Aug 1, 2005 1:01PM
Say what you want about Chicagoist, but we pride ourselves on always being ready to take that extra step to help out you, our loyal readers. Because we recently noticed a glut of chocolate shops cropping up along Michigan Avenue - and simply hate to think of you wandering aimlessly from shop to shop, unsure where to best sate your chocolaty cravings – we felt it was our moral duty to help you weed through their services, environments and wares. On a recent Saturday, a triumvirate of brave Chicagoists trekked the Magnificent Mile from north to south, armed with only our stomachs, and sampled the nine chocolate shops that call this strip home.
What follows are the fruits of Chicagoist’s research, based on our own methodology and experiences: For starters, we sampled only locations that consider chocolate their primary business… so, though we love Marshall Field’s fabulous Frangos, they didn’t make the cut. In addition, we selected our chocolate delights (or, um, catastrophes) based on employees’ recommendations, always beginning by asking for the store’s signature treat or most popular item. Shockingly, in most cases, this didn’t help us narrow the field…
Anyway, enjoy… and take these recommendations with a grain of salt. Just don’t say we never did anything for you.
1) teuscher Chocolates of Switzerland (900 North Michigan Avenue)
Nestled on the quiet fifth floor of the busy 900 North Michigan mall, this adorable shop is so snugly hidden from popular view that Chicagoist almost passed it up… but, wow, are we glad we didn’t! Serving delicious, preservative-free Swiss chocolates in a variety of flavors, shapes and sizes – as well as precious little flower- and animal-shaped gift boxes – this place hits the bull's-eye with a friendly atmosphere and no-nonsense treats that really deliver. The shop’s friendly employee immediately recommended the signature Champagne Truffle, a tremendously rich treat containing crème chocolate, butter and a dollop of Dom Perignon… and Chicagoist was impressed.
This is strictly a chocolate shop, and while lovely, teuscher offers no seating or tables for the weary. It was at higher end of the day’s price range, with three Champagne Truffles running us around $6.75, but was worth every penny for its high-quality products.
2) Godiva (845 North Michigan Avenue (Water Tower))
Chicagoist didn’t expect much from a mall stalwart that caters to chocolate lovers in Chicago as well as Des Moines, but was pleasantly surprised with uncommonly friendly staff and pretty tasty chocolate. The gal behind the counter responded to our queries by asking if we preferred dark chocolate or milk, and when we specified the former, she immediately recommended the 72% Dark Chocolate Ganache. The treat was tasty, a rich chocolate filling surrounded by a snappy dark chocolate shell, and a bang for the buck at just over a dollar a piece (three cost $3.12).
The shop is strictly about retail, and offers chocolate-infused beverages, coffee treats and ice creams along with its truffles. In the end, Godiva is Godiva… we’ve all been there before, and while it doesn’t scream “Chicago!” it’s a solid place to get a good piece of chocolate at a fair price.
3) Ghirardelli (118 East Pearson)
Our asses steadily widening, Chicagoist waddled across Michigan Avenue to our hometown location of this San Francisco favorite. More an ice cream parlor and soda fountain than chocolate shop, Ghirardelli offers a full range of sundaes, milk shakes and floats, and an “old-time” environment in which to enjoy them. Noting an absence of simple chocolates on the menu, Chicagoist settled for one of their legendary chocolate chip cookies ($2.95), a sinfully-rich behemoth of unnerving, buttery weight… and, well, we sort of liked it. The thing was so massive that the nicely finished outside seemed to crumble at the mercy of barely-cooked innards and completely un-melted chocolate chips. We only managed to down a few chunks before pronouncing it “kind of gross.”
Ghirardelli is a nice place to sit and indulge (with clean marble-appointed bathrooms, to boot), but not our first choice for high-quality goodies. They do dish out samples of their famous chocolate squares (and offer them for sale in numerous combinations, of course), but – since you can buy those just about anywhere – we’re thinking we should leave this one to the tourists.
4) The Hershey Company (822 North Michigan Avenue)
The opening of a new Hershey store sounded innocent enough, so Chicagoist was wholly unprepared for the orgasm of chocolate obnoxiousness that waited within its walls. A tourist trap of epic proportions, The Hershey Company features a full range of merchandise, candy and merchandise to tempt the pockets of hordes (and we mean hordes… we had trouble getting in the door) of hungry tourists. Plug your ears as a man in a Hershey cap belts out a song about Hershey chocolates, or duck and hide as the “Magnificent Chocolate Works Machine” dumps assorted mini chocolates into the buckets of stupefied child visitors.
The Hershey Company is alleged to have delicious chocolate chip cookies, and also offers brownies, cocoa and a make-your-own cupcake extravaganza. Chicagoist would have sampled any one of these had we been able to reach the bakery counter without unreasonable difficulty, but since we couldn’t (and since we’ve tried all the other Hershey chocolates before), we left without eating. This one is NOT for the impatient or faint at heart!
5) Ethel’s Chocolate Lounge (520 North Michigan Avenue)
The epicenter of the Mag Mile Chocolate War has to be Northbridge, where three heavyweights (no pun intended) duke it out for the chocolate love of Nordstrom’s loyal throngs. The newest to the fold is Ethel’s, a purportedly high-end café that is targeted toward females and bills itself as “A Place to Chocolate and Chit-Chat.” Chic purple sofas and metal bistro tables surround rows upon rows upon rows of stylishly-displayed goodies that represent the shop’s five chocolate categories: American Pop, Fruits, Nuts and Caramel, Truffles and Cocktails. Clueless (male) employees could hardly steer us in the right direction, and in the end, Chicagoist opted for a four-pack sampler (around $6) but wished we’d stuck to the chit-chat.
PB&J got things off to a pretty good start, while the Honey Truffle was nothing special and the Coconut Samba boasted a frightening metallic shell and seemed a bit too… salty? The cream of the crap was the Perfecto Mojito: an unholy marriage of lime, rum, mint and chocolate that left us wishing its creator would come by with a spatula and scrape the residue from our tongues. Seriously, the nastiness of this confection cannot possibly be described. Between the pretentious context—which falls flat, what with so many chintzy touches that are passed off as upscale but come off cheap—and grody choices, Chicagoist suggests you skip this one and head upstairs to try your luck elsewhere.
6) Vosges Haut Chocolate (520 North Michigan Avenue)
Vosges has made a name for itself over the past few years as Chicago’s premier destination for chic, refined, high-end chocolates, incorporating unusual ingredients (wasabi, curry, saffron, anyone?) and achieving spectacular, beautiful results. Chicagoist munched on samples of wasabi-infused Black Pearl chips and heavenly toffee, while store employees pointed us toward the Naga (curry) as their most popular choice. We selected the Poivre (black pepper) and one with olive oil, as well, and were not disappointed. These chocolates are stunning and delightful, with just enough exotic flair to rouse the tastebuds and thrill your sense of the unexpected.
What was genuinely unexpected about Vosges, and not really appreciated, was the nasty attitude of the ladies behind the counter. They seemed flustered by any sign of customer indecision, at one point handing us a condescending card instructing us how to eat a truffle. We sat at the store’s tiny tables and genuinely regretted that something as light-hearted as chocolate had to be spoiled by such a snobbish environment. Food should be fun and inviting, especially chocolate. Chicagoist appreciates the craft of these chocolates but we’ve been to Alinea and felt more comfortable. Bring plenty of cash (four small truffles cost $8.50) and get these puppies to go.
7) Andersson’s Chocolates/Patisserie (520 North Michigan Avenue)
Just upstairs, the pastoral vibe of Andersson’s seemed a welcome respite from the gaze of the Vosges coven. Offering a bounty of baked goods (amazing-looking pies and cookies and fresh fruit), beverages and even high-end housewares, Andersson’s chocolates are tucked into a back corner display case and seem almost deemphasized… which is too bad, since they’re damn tasty. The gal behind the counter didn’t have any recommendations, so we selected the sugar-crusted Astrid (yum), coffee-flavored Othello and self-explanatory Truffe Tiramisu. All were tasty and satisfying, not the worst we sampled (obviously) and probably not the best. They cost $2.25 to $2.75 each.
The highlight of Andersson’s is the shop itself, as cozy and comfortable an environment as you could probably find in a mall. Chicagoist would rank it as the place we’d most like to curl up with a book or engage a friend in a long, drawn-out conversation… oh, and eat chocolate.
8) Moonstruck (320 North Michigan Avenue)
Mich Ave clearly changes south of the river, but quality chocolate can still be found. Moonstruck has stuck around for years, despite a difficult location and competitive market, with a menu that goes beyond plain chocolate to include coffee, milkshakes and fancy-looking baked goods. Chicagoist stuck to the truffles: a cinnamon-infused Mayan, a solid Vanilla Pyramid and a clever Peanut Butter Cream Cone (shaped like a miniature ice cream cone and filled with… you guessed it… peanut butter). All were solid, and we couldn’t help but notice the generous proportions: these truffles were by far the biggest of the day, a good return on an average dessert investment (three truffles cost $6).
Moonstruck has a decidedly Starbucks-esque vibe, with jazzy music in the background and plenty of seating for conversation, studying or conspicuous consumption. All in all, a good place for good chocolate, and a bright spot on an otherwise drab strip of the Magnificent Mile.
9) Fannie May (343 North Michigan Avenue)
If Vosges represents one end of the chocolate spectrum, consider Fannie May the other: a no-nonsense chocolate shop that offers consistent, quality products and certainly doesn’t put on airs. Our stomachs near explosion at this point, Chicagoist managed to shovel in the recommended Trinidad (a yellow pastel coating over coconut and crème chocolate) and a Peanut Butter Button... and they were just what you’d expect from Fannie May: yummy, uncomplicated and satisfying in a simple way. They were also exceptionally cheap, costing roughly $0.52 each and clearly winning the “Bargain Basement” award of the day.
Fannie May is a place to buy chocolate and do nothing more, a stark store with a few display cases and plenty of free samples. Stop in to show them you’re glad they’re in business once again.
Chicago may be known for its dogs and its pizza, but we know this is a chocolate town at heart. Why not take a stroll down the magnificent mile and see what you think.
See the rest of Chicagoist's chocolate crawl photos here.