Valentine's Day means you may be on the hunt for some good chocolate. How about chocolate that not only tastes good but is also high art?
The Dancing Lion in Manchester is a tiny, hole-in-the-wall shop with room for only a few tables out front. The real magic happens in the back kitchen.
“So you’re back in our lair right now. So you can see our chocolate space where we’re doing things. These are our Zen brownie-to-go packages being put together.”
Shop-owner Richard Tango-Lowy does all of this by hand. Later in the day, he’ll meticulously glue single espresso beans to white bonbons by applying liquid chocolate with a paint-brush.
“So I made these, cool little espresso flying saucers. That’s actually a cranberry espresso ganache. The little disc underneath to keep it upright. Hazelnut and it’s getting just like this…”
It may be a small, unassuming shop, but its renown is growing rapidly. Even internationally.
“We’re unique in the world. We actually have a really good international reputation because we work with these chocolate makers who are the most respected.”
Tango-Lowy is highly selective when it comes to the chocolate he works with. For him, flavor is king. He studied the art of making chocolate confections in Vancouver, France and Italy. And if you thought all chocolate was made equal, Tango-Lowy will set you straight. He imports high-end batches of cacao from small farms in South America and beyond. And with each shipment come different flavors.
“We don’t even look for continuity or consistency in the cacao. We love the fact that it changes. So the fact that I’ll do ten of a bonbon, we will do that, and we’ll sell them and they will be gone. Then we’ll do something else. That’s pretty unique.”
Sourcing the Best Cacao
Tango-Lowy gets his chocolate from a broad range of farmers and makers. The largest-sized supplier is the French company Valrhona. They use beans from Venezuela and Ghana. But he also has relationships with Danta in Guatemala, Grand-Place in Vietnam, Patric in Missouri (beans from Madagascar). Some of his best stuff comes from Pacari in Ecuador. Pacari won the Gold and Silver awards for its chocolate in the International Chocolate Awards in London for the past two years. Did I mention, it's also organic and fair trade? It supplies three pastry chefs in Paris, and Dancing Lion in Manchester. That’s it! He convinced its chocolate maker Santiago Peralta to work with him after Peralta tasted Tango-Lowy's experimental batch of 10 barbecue-flavored ganaches made from fire-roasted chocolate (provided by Dandilion in California) with Thai Kitchen chili paste and toasted sesame oil.
The smallest farm he works with is a home in Puerto Rico that has ten cacao trees. And because those trees are surrounded by banana and plantain trees, the banana flavor seeps into the chocolate.
“And for me, the great challenge is everyone one of these chocolates has its own personality and I’ve got to be able to not mess it up. Our job is to bring out flavors even beyond and bring out what we see in the beauty of that piece of chocolate without messing it up.”
Each of his chocolate creations tells a story. Different flavors unfold from start to finish. Some spicy, some fruity and citrusy. He’ll use alcoholic concoctions, obscure South Asian grains, even bacon. And he makes it work. Even though chocolate is a difficult substance to work with.
“You can’t just melt chocolate and use it. It’s a very complex chemical beastie and you have to crystalize it in a particular way. So we melt it. A lot of places use equipment to do that. We temper everything very small batch by hand on a New Hampshire granite slab.”
While flavor is king, presentation is, well, queen. The temporary nature of the offerings and the experience itself makes the tiny café seem almost like a gallery. Gold dust, swirling purples and crimsons create a marbled, ancient effect, as though each bonbon was excavated from the treasure-laden tombs of lost dynasties. Eating one seems almost criminal, but in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, that’s not stopping customers from buying bars for around $15 each.
Not only is the chocolate retailing like crazy, each Valentine’s Day weekend, the Dancing Lion also hosts an intimate dinner experience that sells out as soon as tickets become available. This is a major production, with ornately arranged and artfully designed food creations. Often the dishware itself is made of chocolate. Tango-Lowy has a series of hand-drawn diagrams for each course of the meal. He’s like a mad scientist with diabolical plans for your taste buds.