Hot chocolate is the city's latest trendsetter By [Regan Hofmann] Take a simple, slightly special childhood food. Something you might get after acing a particularly hard spelling test, or to celebrate the first snow day of the year. Nothing fancy, mind you?just outside the norm enough to feel like a treat. It's no secret that chefs all over the city have been coming back to exactly these comforting memories for the past few years, spurred by the conflicting desires to meet consumers on their economic level and continue to push the creative envelope Some add unusual ingredients. Some up the refinement level. And some just go over the top, letting their inner 8-year-olds go screaming through the pantry. Hot dogs? Yep. Cupcakes? We all know that one. Hot chocolate? You're up. Here's how this latest immature indulgence has evolved, just in time for the season of splurging. Exotic/Traditional: Jacques Torres (350 Hudson St., betw. Charlton & King Sts.), www.mrchocolate.com By now, of course, haute chocolatiers like Vosges and Mast Brothers have made spice-infused chocolate positively pedestrian. But back when the idea of adding chiles to chocolate was just a glimmer in an Aztec's eye, Jacques Torres' wicked hot chocolate was the first to blow New Yorkers' minds and tastebuds. Mexican hot chocolate is, of course, the grandaddy of them all. But when the idea of making a cacao-based beverage first hit, sugar was not common on the continent and the brew was spiceheavy and bitter. Fast-forward some 1,500 years and Mexico has found the sugar and lost most of the spice, save for cinnamon, which adds a piquant edge. In his take, Torres combines his dark chocolate with cinnamon, allspice and a blend of chile peppers to create a thick, fragrant brew that warms the palate in more ways than one. Traditional/Indulgent: Otto (1 5th Ave. at 8th Street), www.ottopizzeria.com Mario Batali's Otto doesn't do anything that isn't straight from the Italian playbook, from its extensive salumi list down to the gelato that wins converts faster than you can say "really? olive oil?" Gianduja is that winning creation that pairs rich, roasty hazelnut paste with sweetened chocolate, originated in Turin, Italy, in the 1850s and ubiquitized by Nutella. Yes, the Europeans beat us to the "you got chocolate in my peanut butter" moment by about 75 years?but hey, at least we get that snappy orange wrapper. Otto's gianduja calda can be found on the restaurant's dessert menu, which means you can rest assured this treat's going to be more meal than beverage. Milk and hazelnut chocolates are melted into hazelnut-flavored milk and topped with whipped cream, and the cup comes with a dainty quaresimale, shortbread-like biscotti, perched on the saucer. Dip the cookie in your cup to marvel at how thickly the drink coats it, but save it for nibbling on separately? its crisp nuttiness is a perfect foil for the intense chocolate. Indulgent/Childish: Coolhaus (check @CoolhausNY on Twitter for the day's locations) A food truck venture that began in California and has since branched out to Miami and two trucks?and a cart?in New York, Coolhaus' main business is build-it-yourself ice cream sandwiches. The name is a cute play on the architect Rem Koolhaas, but not to worry. Though the concept is light as air, their offerings are serious business: inventive, delicious homemade ice creams and cookies in flavors from horchata and eggnog to red velvet and pumpkin spice. In the wintertime, the truck, which roams the city but can currently be reliably found at the Union Square Holiday Market, offers similarly playful, creative hot chocolates. Flavors include dirty mint, nutella (take that, Italians!) and salted caramel. You know that kid's urge to take all of your favorite things and combine them into one great Frankenstein's monster? That's how these drinks taste, in the best possible way. Start to look for it, and you'll see that almost any food trend can be parsed in the same way. What'll be the next big kid's treat to proliferate in 2012? My money's on Rice Krispies squares?hey, stranger things have happened.
PHOTO courtesy of Jacques Torres chocolate.