The sweetest thing 

If only life were like a box of William Dean Chocolates.

What’s in a star? Or five stars to be precise? In his valedictory column after seven years tasting his way around every corner of the Bay, Brian Ries, my famished predecessor at CL, wrote that he and the Times’ Laura Reiley agreed that the Bay area boasts lots of good food.

He lamented we lack five-star establishments — those world-class places that “strive for greatness, for pushing every aspect of their restaurant from food to design to its full potential.” And I can’t disagree. Perhaps this reflects economics and the vibe around the Bay. Too many of us are underwater — both in our mortgages and at the beach. While New York tends toward the driven and sophisticated, the Bay area is more relaxed and casual.

But guess what? There’s at least one culinary supernova that matches anything you can find in New York, Paris or other foodie capitals. William Dean Chocolates is a five star sensation. Before I blow what little street cred I may have earned after only six weeks on the job, I know from whence I speak. I’ve been following the candy avant-garde since I first discovered the kind of disorienting chocolates that William Dean conjures on a gastronomic trip to the south of France. I wandered into Joel Durand, a pioneer chocolatier in St. Remy just down the Rue from the asylum that housed an earless Van Gogh. There they were … free samples of heaven: handmade confections of infused cream combined with melted chocolate to create ganache squares. The firm squares were then imprinted with a number that denotes the flavor through a process that applied cocoa butter numerals from a thin acetate sheet that’s laid upon newly enrobed centers glistening with warm couverture chocolate. After the candies cool, the acetate is removed, ever so carefully, leaving behind the impression.

But the technology has evolved and today's designs are only curbed by lack of imagination. Now, every color of the rainbow may be airbrushed or hand-painted onto these sweet confections.

So it is with the chocolate alchemist from Belleair Bluffs. The anticipation builds as you meticulously unfold the quadruple-tiered royal blue and gold stamped box-cum-Chinese puzzle that cradles William Dean’s sublime creations. Just a fleeting glance enchants with color even before you settle on your flavor from a cornucopia of 36 knockout choices in shapes and shades that delight. Lavender butterflies, PB Krunch golden crowns, shimmering silver ridges masking a whole perfect hazelnut in a soft chocolate embrace.

As I said in my introduction column on June 21, great food brings an element of surprise. Dean’s container is a box of shocks, much like tasting a fine wine. You pluck a gem-like chocolate from the tray, nibble a luscious bit, or if you get too eager, plop an entire jewel into your mouth. Pause. The sense of creaminess makes an initial impression on the tip of your tongue; the white chocolate ganache is unexpected. You may swoon as the heady mix of lemongrass and coconut develops in layer after layer of flavor across the mid-palate. Then, just like great Bordeaux, the taste lingers and the texture is seared into your memory. This is a WOW! moment. And it’s repeated again and again. Flavor after exotic flavor, building on a base of oozing caramel and white, milk, or dark Valrhona chocolate ganache. Imagine a layer of cinnamon apple pate de fruit on top of a graham cracker crust with apple pie spices. Mint that tastes of the garden and not the candy cane. Is that the woodiness of rosemary in the silky, soft caramel?

These sweetmeats don’t use extracts or concentrates. Every amazing flavor comes directly from its source — herbs fresh from the earth, sweet liqueurs, brewed espresso, ripe fruit purees, freshly squeezed juice reductions and zest of oranges or tangy limes. You can be sure as you linger over your choices that the flavors are pure and as described. Which unusual flavor are you? Grapefruit & Tarragon or Pear & Ginger? Passion Fruit or Port & Plum? Perhaps you’re a PB&J bar, as featured on the big screen in The Hunger Games as an example of the best of everything?

Handmade perfection comes at a price. Chocolates are $1.75 each or available in seven different sizes of the beautiful, iconic refillable boxes from two ($5) to 36 ($70). But hey, it’s cheaper than a flight to Europe. And while you wait, as they delicately transfer your sweets from the beautiful display, treat yourself to the perfect mini lemon tart … the luscious citrusy curd topped with ideally piped and lightly golden meringue is one for your dreams.

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