Jenny and I aren’t big on Valentine’s Day. We don’t buy each other gifts, and we don’t usually go out for dinner (although we’re making an exception this year for a cool Valentine’s Day-themed event). That said, the days leading up to February 14 do tend to get us thinking about our relationship; we met on Feb. 10th, four years ago. And thinking about our relationship inevitably gets us thinking of all the things and places that we’ve discovered, experienced and loved over our time together. One of those is a little chocolate shop in Toronto called Ambiance Chocolat.
My obsession with good chocolate is pretty extreme. I feel compelled to walk into just about every chocolate shop that we walk by, wherever we are. This compulsion hit me one day about two years ago when we were walking through the Leslieville neighbourhood and walked by Ambiance. We were smack in the middle of planning our wedding, and were trying to keep our eating in check so we didn’t end up feeling like beached whales on the big day. So when I suggested we check out the shop, Jenny resisted, reasoning that since we’d never heard of the place, the chocolate must not be anything special.
How wrong she was (a fact she’s since admitted)…
We’ve found a lot of great chocolate shops in Toronto, but Ambiance stands out for us. The flavour combinations all sound intriguing, and more importantly, taste amazing. Belgian-born chocolatier Patrick Smets made chocolate at the Belgian Chocolate Shop in the Beaches for 15 years, but decided to open his own shop three years ago. Patrick says that the Belgian Chocolate Shop was focused on traditional truffles and chocolate, and his desire to experiment with flavours was a key reason in his decision to open Ambiance.
During our first visit, the jalapeno caramel and rose truffles caught our eye immediately. One bite and we knew these chocolates were something special. The flavours are so fresh and real tasting – the jalapeno strikes the right balance between sweet and heat, but what we love most about it is that you can actually also taste the pepper itself. And the rose (one of Jenny’s favorite flavours) has an interesting floral taste without any of the extreme sweetness that can make other rose-flavoured truffles taste artificial.
We fell in love with these two flavours so much that they actually ended up at our wedding. Each guest received one jalapeno caramel and one rose chocolate, along with a card that explained why we thought these were perfectly suited to represent our relationship: “Just like love, these unique rose and jalapeno chocolates are sweet and spicy, filled with surprise, strange yet enticing, and slightly unexpected, while still making so much sense,” we wrote.
Patrick says that he makes all the caramels, ganaches and other fillings from scratch using only natural ingredients as flavouring. Ideas for flavour combinations come to him from the notes he tastes in the various chocolate varieties he uses: if a particular chocolate has citrus notes, he knows it would make an ideal partner for lemon; chocolate with smokey notes might be paired with scotch and smoked salt. He says that experimentation and being able to identify notes in different chocolate varieties are important to making great chocolate, as the wrong combination or ratio of chocolate to flavouring will result in one overpowering the other in the final product.
Ambiance has several truffle flavours available year-round, and also features special ones for holidays. For Valentines Day, there’s a red wine caramel-filled chocolate, as well as a “light rose” flavour, which combines white chocolate ganache with grand marnier and orange.
Aside from the jalapeno and rose, some of our favorite Ambiance chocolates are the lemon-mint (mint-infused white chocolate ganache with a tart lemon caramel), pistachio (filled with a white chocolate pistachio cream) and the mousse, made with 72% dark chocolate.
They also sell that classic winter warmer, hot chocolate. We haven’t tried it yet, but listening to Patrick talk about how Ambiance’s hot chocolate starts with a house-made ganache and then gets mixed with hot milk (a technique that ensures a rich and intense chocolate taste) convinced us that we need to have a cup on our next visit… and to visit again soon.