Belletini⁄Cacao carries on fine European traditions

Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2006

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Photos by Dan Gross⁄The Gazette
Eric Krempp (above) arranges pastries in the case at Belletini⁄Cacao, which sells (below) 117 flavors of chocolates.

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‘‘I never work. I make chocolate for fun,” declares Jacques Poulain, owner of Belletini⁄Cacao. ‘‘I play with chocolate. It is [my] passion. If my chocolates give a smile to customers when they come in, that’s something good.”

Poulain grew up in the business; his father’s pastry and chocolate shop was in Lille, France, close to the Belgian border. At 16, he left France, subsequently polishing his talents in England, Belgium, Spain, Canada and the United States. He worked at the Ritz Carlton in Maui and taught the art of chocolate-making for DGF, a large European company. From 1999 to 2001, he was pastry chef at Kinkead’s, the respected Washington, D.C., restaurant.

His shop goes under the combined name Belletini⁄Cacao. ‘‘Everyone knows us as Cacao,” he explains, referring to the fine European chocolate company he founded in 2003. When the opportunity presented itself two years ago, he bought Belletini and moved his business to Olney, where he supervises a staff of seven. His partner, chef de cuisine Eric Krempp, was a chef at Les Halles in D.C. and a private chef before joining Poulain in January 2005. The Cannes native oversees the retail operation and sales of chocolates, cakes and pastries to restaurants and hotels.

Poulain has 117 flavors of chocolates, some seasonal, in his repertoire. He insists on the finest ingredients — top-quality French and Belgian chocolate (12 to 15 tons a year, he estimates), pure cocoa butter, hazelnuts from Italy’s Piedmont and almonds from California.

‘‘Fine chocolates are what we sell. Once [customers] try us, they see the difference,” he asserts.

His creations are lined up in pristine glass and chrome cases. Spherical truffles — amaretto, banana, chocolate coffee, white raspberry, tiramisu, hazelnut praline (just a sampling) — nudge up against chocolate marshmallow fudge, nut barks and candied fruit peel.

‘‘You don’t have any orange peel, just lemon,” a customer remarks. She scoops up these last bits nonetheless and leaves happy.

18137 Town Center Drive, Olney
301-774-5300, fax 301-249-9577 Hours: Monday-Friday 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Friday-Saturday 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Prices: chocolates $.85-$1.15⁄piece, $15-$18⁄pound
Credit cards: All major cards
Trays of melt-in-the-mouth fine chocolates hold subtle surprises and familiar revelations. White chocolate enrobes roasted Hawaiian macadamia nut cream, cinnamon, hazelnut and vanilla caramel. Milk chocolate covers hazelnut praline, nougat and chocolate caramel. Dark chocolate envelops blackberry caramel, almond peanut butter, pistachio and passion apricot. Dark chocolate with green and Earl Grey tea or infused with green tea, and mint and basil white chocolate number among the more unusual confections.

Some, like hazelnut praline coffee, have silk-screened designs on top. Poulain uses this technique to fabricate chocolates for the Canadian Embassy with the Canadian maple leaf on top and chocolates for holiday gifts with corporate logos.

On Fridays and Saturdays, the display case dazzles with two-dozen kinds of French pastries. Fresh fruit tarts are alive with color. Gossamer flourless chocolate pave cakes are just the thing for dark chocolate lovers, he says. His personal favorites are the Bourdaloue, a tart with almond cream and caramelized pear, and a mango ginger caramel confection. For simpler pleasures, baskets hold cinnamon, walnut and chocolate croissants.

A handsome bright red and chrome Cimpely espresso machine provides ‘‘the real thing,” starting with freshly ground beans.

Poulain also serves Italian gelato — a flavor of the day like pineapple or peach in summer, plus ‘‘chocolate every day, otherwise some customers are going to shoot me.”

Sometimes he lets children observe how the chocolates are made.

‘‘People don’t realize the amount of work, especially when we do the coloring,” he observes.

Recently back from a chocolate-finding trip to Costa Rica, Poulain plans to showcase single origin chocolates of the world. He already has a 75 percent Tanzania and 70 percent San Domingo in his case.

Starting this month, Balducci’s will feature his chocolates, and by the end of the year, he hopes to open a second store in downtown D.C.

A tiny calendar next to the cash register has the last word. It proclaims: ‘‘A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, but a hunk of chocolate will eliminate the need for medicine entirely.”

Bernice August, writing as M.J. Pleasure, reviewed restaurants for the Gazette for 22 years before retiring the byline and Table Talk to enjoy time with her family, traveling and dining for pleasure. She will contribute to this new format periodically.