By Joanna O’Leary
As the holidays approach and it has finally cooled down, a sweet, warm libation can be a wonderful reward for braving the crowded shopping centers playing The Nutcracker Suite on department-store Muzak for the nth time.
Options abound in H-town, and thanks to Houston’s diverse restaurant scene, an otherwise plain old hot-chocolate crawl can easily turn into an international experience. Here are our picks for a delicious cocoa itinerary with Indian, Italian, Greek, Mexican, as well as American inflections.
Your first stop is The Chocolate Bar for a steaming cup of their signature hot chocolate made with whole milk and European chocolate shavings. As an homage to Serendipity’s famous oxymoronic creation, The Chocolate Bar also offers their own version of frozen hot chocolate blended with ice and topped with chocolate sprinkles. Even with all this liquid decadence, it’s hard to resist their plethora of solid chocolate goodies that are also available. So go ahead and treat yourself by using your cup of cocoa to wash down a slice of Aunt Etta’s chocolate cake or Bayou City Mud Pie.
A nice complement to The Chocolate Bar’s milder, milky hot chocolate is their neighbor Fellini’s darker, slightly bitter brew whose thick, sweet dregs creep up the side of your teacup. Pick up one of their biscotti to dip in your cocoa for a lovely, crunchy contrast to the silky chocolate.
Then continue in the Mediterranean swing of things in Montrose by checking out the coffee bar at Niko Niko’s Greek & American Café, where the regular hot chocolate is made with steamed milk and crowned with whipped cream. Even more enticing is the “Aphrodite’s Dream,” a hot-chocolate blend of white and dark chocolate laced with almond. Just around the corner at Blacksmith on Westheimer, a frothy mug of hot cocoa in the morning will (almost) distract you from the delectable breakfast and lunch specials such as the scratch biscuits with crème fraîche and marmalade, or the Vietnamese steak and eggs with pâté. (Almost being the key word—that croissant has your name on it.)
A beacon of relaxation in the oft-harried River Oaks Shopping Center, luxury chocolatier Araya sets up a hot-chocolate service in the colder months with tableside jars of cinnamon plus miniature marshmallows for garnishes. However, we suggest purchasing some of Araya’s house-made artisan marshmallows in flavors like pumpkin spice, cookies and cream, peppermint, and toasted coconut.
After escaping the retail jungle, head to the Heights. One of the more recent innovations at the ever-evolving Heights bistro Urban Eats is a South-Asian inspired spice hot chocolate made with Callebaut Dark Chocolate and Ghirardelli Cocoa, livened with a symphony of spices including cardamom, cinnamon, clove, star anise, black pepper, green fennel, and ginger.
Those not keen on navigating holiday shopping with a to-go cup of cocoa should go to Hugo’s for a more formal hot-chocolate experience. Their lengthy dessert menu includes the Churros Rellenos con Dulce de Leche—perhaps Spanish for “deep-fried chocolate goodness”? It should be, because Hugo’s flaky, sweet churros stuffed with dulce de leche and served with a cup of Mexican hot chocolate and a scoop of chocolate ice cream is the stuff I imagine they serve in heaven.
Finally, the Galleria area’s Cacao & Cardamom Chocolatier boasts perhaps the most sophisticated hot-chocolate options. Patrons are invited to first choose a serving style—sipping chocolate, dense “European,” traditional American, Mexican, Mochaccino, Cappuccino, frozen, or hot chocolate blended with ice and gelato. Then they select their favorite type of chocolate—Colombian (85 percent cocoa), Venezuelan (72 percent cocoa), or Madagascar Gianduja (64 percent cocoa), and finally a base (whole milk, macadamia milk, or water). We did the stats for you: that comes to more than 400 combinations. You’re welcome.
Joanna O’Leary is a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. Her exploits are chronicled on brideyoleary.com.