As a child, Savina Darzes would wander down to the San Francisco wharf near the Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory. The scent of chocolate wafted over the piers, mixing with sea salt and the noise of the docks. Little wonder that when Ms. Darzes grew up and moved to Portland, she organized a gourmet twist on the old-fashioned sightseeing tour with the Portland Chocolate Walking and Tasting Tours.
One of Ms. Darzes’s tours covers Portland’s Pearl District. Formerly an industrial neighborhood, the Pearl now boasts fashionable condominiums, high-end shopping, and some of Portland’s best bars and restaurants.
Begin your day in Powell’s City of Books. This immense, iconic bookstore encompasses an entire city block, and existed long before the revitalization of the Pearl. For a literature lover, wandering through the maze of shelves is a great way to spend a morning. Powell’s boasts an extensive food and wine section, so you can brush up on your chocolate trivia. Grab a favorite title and retire to the Reading Room, where you can have morning coffee from World Cup Coffee, a local roaster, and browse at your leisure.
When your stomach starts to rumble, take the trolley a few blocks north to find il pranzo. With soccer on the television, waiters calling out in Italian, and an espresso machine hissing steam, restaurant Piazza Italia buzzes with lively Mediterranean energy. The food is simple, traditional, and rich. Prepare your stomach for your afternoon of chocolate exploration, with the pasta al pesto, an authentic take on the creamy, fragrant basil sauce.[img_assist|nid=1148|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=188]
Chocolate Tours begin at 1pm (usually on a Saturday) at the Armory, a symbol of the Pearl District’s urban renewal. The LEED-platinum building now houses Portland Center Stage, one of Portland’s premiere theater companies. To begin, each tour participant receives a raw cacao bean. Ms. Darzes explains it is from this unassuming nut come our hedonistic desserts.
Ms. Darzes will first take you to Sweet Masterpiece, a chocolate bar and café that caters to the late-night theater crowds. With its checkered tile floor and case of tempting truffles, Sweet Masterpiece has a charming, European flavor. Owner Crystal Pyatt says that her goal is "to connect people to artisan-quality food."
For Ms. Pyatt, this means seeking out homemade, seasonal ingredients, such as Oregon hazelnuts, and creating small batches of chocolates without preservatives or additives.
Here you will sample three small-batch artisan chocolates: a blended chocolate, which uses beans from a variety of sources; a dark, bitter single-origin chocolate from northern Venezuela; and one infused with the Asian ylang-ylang flower. By infusing this exotic aphrodisiac, Ms. Pyatt combats the intensity of the cacao with a delicate, rose-like fragrance and cherry notes.
The café also serves a menu of savory foods that incorporate chocolate. Highlights include a pulled-pork sandwich with molè sauce and spinach salad with pumpkin seeds, chocolate nibs, and orange vinaigrette.
Your next stop is Nuvrei, a wholesale bakery. Try an orange scone with chocolate chips, and thick, brownie-like Chocolate Chewy cookies. Baker, Marius Pop distributes his pastries throughout the city; they can be found at Stumptown Coffee, Portland’s iconic coffee roaster, among other places.
Across the street from Nuvrei sits Verdun. Named after a fashionable district of Beirut, Verdun is the U.S. satellite of a family-run Lebanese company. The Pearl District store imports its chocolates from the original chocolate-makers in Lebanon, and uses traditional Middle Eastern flavors, such as Jordan almonds and pistachios, to give the chocolates a unique flavor. Sparkling glass cases display rows of colorful candies, each individually wrapped in foil. Try the pistachio and gianduja (hazelnut butter) for a smooth, nutty sweetness.
Ms. Darzes leads the tour through some restored buildings, providing a history of the neighborhood, before finally reaching Cacao. Chocolate-colored wood floors give the shop a warm, organic atmosphere. Unlike the other shops on the tour, Cacao does not make its own chocolate.
Instead, owners Jesse Manis and Aubrey Lindley seek out the best small-batch chocolate makers, bringing a wide variety of flavors and styles under one roof. Like wines, chocolates have terroir: based on the climate in which it grows, the bean will exhibit citrus, banana, or other notes. Cacao tries to find unique chocolates from around the globe, and to promote awareness of the agricultural processes involved in chocolate production.
Do not leave Cacao without sampling the drinking chocolate. Thicker and richer than regular hot chocolate, drinking chocolate is more akin to sipping a melted truffle. A shot goes down silky-smooth, while a cinnamon infusion adds texture.
Chocolate and coffee are an incomparable pair. The tour winds down at Caffè Umbria, a spacious, slick Italian café. Pair a bitter espresso with a scoop of sweet gelato to completely saturate your tongue.
After four hours of walking and tasting, you might want to sit down with something other than chocolate. Stop by the chic Bluehour, where the Pearl District’s young and beautiful gather after work. With a Bluehour Martini (ketel one and roasted plum liquor) in hand, sit on the stoop to watch the crowds saunter past.
Just down the street, echoes of piano and bass seep onto the sidewalk. Follow them to Jimmy Mak’s, a renowned jazz club. This bar has been a Portland staple for good music for many years. They also have a fine Mediterranean menu, including a rich eggplant and lamb moussaka. No sweeter way to finish the day than with a glass of local pinot noir and a live jazz quartet.
What & Where:
Powell’s City of Books (1005 W Burnside; 503-228-4651)
Piazza Italia (1129 NW Johnson St; 503-478-0619)
Chocolate Walking and Tasting Tours (www.chocolatetastingandmore.com)
Sweet Masterpiece Chocolates (922 NW Davis St; 503-221-0055)
Nuvrei Pastries (Suite LL2 404 NW 10th Ave; 503-546-3032)
Verdun Fine Chocolate (421 NW 10th Ave; 503-525-9400)
Cacao (414 SW 13th Ave; 503-241-0656)
Caffe Umbria (303 NW 12th Ave; 503-241-5300)
Blue Hour (250 NW 13th Ave; 503-226-3394)
Jimmy Mak’s (221 NW 10th Ave; 503-295-6542)
Caitlin Dwyer is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Poet, screenwriter, journalist, and teacher, she loves placing words in skillful combinations. Born with a travel itch, she has recently traveled in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Thailand, and plans to circumnavigate the globe in 2010. Her travel blog can be found at