754 Columbus Avenue, 415 421-484; http://xoxtruffles.com/
‘#1 Chocolate in the Country by Chocolatier Magazine’ The sign cast an imaginary, but very real, line, hooked me on the shoulder and reeled me across the street through the door of XOX Truffles.
“I got my big break when Chocolatier Magazine selected me as number one of the top 10 Best Artisan Chocolatiers in the United States the first month I was open,” begins Jean-Marc Gorce, chef, entrepreneur, and owner of XOX Truffles. He looks the part in his chocolate colored chef’s jacket.
There is a cramped feeling to the shop with the coffee counter just inside the front door. The glass front pastry case filled with brown, one-inch nuggets in navy colored, glazed, ceramic bowls stands to the right. There is only a small window seat inside, but two tables sit outside under a blue scalloped awning. Hand-drawn signs, menus and laminated reviews from The Bottom Line, Trip Advisor and the New York Times add to the shop’s bohemian atmosphere. It’s a throwback to hand written menus of old, North Beach, Italian restaurants. The combination of chocolate and coffee forms a caffeine-fueled aroma.
Jean-Marc started his career in Provence, then moved to San Francisco for more opportunities. He worked at a French restaurant on Nob Hill then experienced a stress-induced heart attack. “I thought maybe working for a hotel would be less stressful.” He said. Six years as the head chef at the Saint Frances Hotel did nothing to ease his pressure.
He always wanted his own enterprise, then, his wife, Casimira, found the space on Columbus Street 18 years ago. She worked in the store and on sales while Jean-Marc continued to work at the Saint Frances. Al Roper, The Bottom Line and USA Today created a lot of interest early on. Now reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor brings out of town customers into the store. With the initial notoriety, he quit his job at the Saint Frances and started working at XOX Truffles full time. People in San Francisco found it and fell in love with his chocolates.
Most of his new flavors are a direct result of customer‘s requests. One of his best-selling flavors is peanut butter, an ingredient he resisted using. For years, people would ask for it but it wasn’t until a customer brought in a jar of peanut butter and told him to use it, that he broke down.
He began the process of creating a new truffle by blending cream, butter, and flavoring into the consistency and tastiness his customers expect. Two unusual ingredients are Earl Gray Tea, always in the refrigerated case, and lavender.
It requires several months to perfect the new creation. Every morning, during development, regular customers, who serve as guinea pigs, evaluate and help to refine each new flavor before final approval. Fresh lavender is hard to get making it a seasonal delicacy.
Customers can order individual batches for special occasions.
Eighty percent of his customers are women and 70% of what he sells is dark chocolate. “Milk is for wimps,” he says as he introduces other flavors such as Carmel, Spicy Cayenne Tequila, two of my personal favorites and Casimira’s Favorite, a White Chocolate-Coated treat.
Out- of-towners also find the shop when they sign up for one of the many food tours offered for visitors to San Francisco. Jean-Marc takes them into the back room, shows them how he creates the luscious confections and lets them try samples. Often they order more, from the website, when they return home. One of his best food tour operator/client‘s is Chris Milano, who runs Foodie Adventures. Full disclosure: I received no compensation from either company for this review.
Stop in and get a free truffle with coffee or buy more for the road. A cup of strong coffee and a French Roast Truffle will blast you into your day. It’s a cult but in a good way.
For those of you who don’t make it to the shop in North Beach, you can pick up XOX Truffles at San Francisco Airport before you leave.