Avant Chocolate 

Sweet Spots

Coco Rouge

1940 W. Division

773-772-2626

At about 11 o'clock on a recent Monday morning, an employee at the Wicker Park confectionery Coco Rouge starts taping pieces of paper to the front of the glass vitrine that holds the day's selection of exotic truffles and chocolates. He's protecting them from the winter sun that's begun to pour through the tall windows. "It only went up to the middle of the floor when we opened," explains Coco Rouge co-owner Jeremy Brutzkus.

Brutzkus and his partner, Erika Panther, may still be adapting to the quirks of their three-month-old retail space on Division near Damen. But after culinary school and almost seven years selling artisanal candies out of a friend's catering kitchen, they're experts on chocolate.

The two met and coupled up as students at Le Cordon Bleu in London. They both graduated with honors in 1999 and moved together to Chicago, Brutzkus's hometown. When they launched Coco Rouge in 2000, they offered via wholesale and mail order a selection of truffles and chocolates from original recipes that twist classic methods and pairings with unexpected ingredients such as saffron, quince, and bacon fat.

Original combinations remain their signature. The Val de Loire, for example, is a milk chocolate truffle flavored with raspberry and Turkish rose oil--Brutzkus says he was intrigued by the similarity between the scents of raspberries and roses. Powdered raspberry and rose petals coat the outside, adding a pleasant, subtle crunch. Another current creation, a disk of buttery chocolate-covered toffee, has four sections, each sprinkled with a different spice: Himalayan pink salt, roasted sesame, candied tangerine, and charnuska, a tiny black seed also known as kalonji. The distinct flavors make it four treats in one.

Coco Rouge's wholesale business was successful--upscale restaurants like Seasons and Le Francais offered their products. But from the start, Brutzkus says, he and Panther had an eye toward opening their own shop. In fall 2005 they got lucky when a former garage space opened up right in their neighborhood--"It was perfect, both in terms of location and the structure itself," Brutzkus says. Raising capital from family and friends, they bought the building, and over the next year they did much of the rehab work themselves.

Brutzkus and Panther plan on applying for a liquor license and hope to offer drinks and plated desserts by spring. Ultimately they'd like to offer a menu of savory small plates as well. "It all depends on finding the right staff," says Brutzkus. For now he mans the kitchen, while Panther floats between the front and back of the shop. He likes to immerse himself in confectionery books for weeks at a time, but he's not just in it for the science: the final product has to taste good. The flavor pairings in their special truffles, some of which end up in what they call their "Evolved" line, involve "a lot of trial and error," he says. "But they usually work out." The chocolate bar that incorporates applewood-smoked bacon is a best seller.

Be it bacon, pepper, or vanilla beans, Brutzkus and Panther are persnickety about the quality of their ingredients--they use about 20 to 30 different types of chocolate made from only the the highest-quality cacao. The kitchen is surprisingly bare--just some jars and a few blocks of organic Sicilian marzipan on a marble tempering table were visible when I visited--because they prefer to keep everything fresh. The difference this makes is obvious upon biting into the Cassius, a bonbon with a liquid interior made of caramel, a rare vanilla, and 18-year-old single-malt Scotch. There was no harsh alcohol burn, no cloying aftertaste, just a nice warm glow.

Coco Rouge has more-traditional truffles and bars for sale, along with coffee, tea, and a menu of hot chocolates, from Madagascan single-origin bittersweet to pistachio and white chocolate (made with milk or, traditionally, with water, which Brutzkus says opens up the flavors more). The selection of special truffles changes daily, something he and Panther initially worried would frustrate repeat customers. That hasn't been the case.

"People trust us," Brutzkus says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Rob Warner.

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