Chocolate. Just the word brings a smile to my face.
I'm the one who always orders whatever chocolate is on a dessert menu, ever in search of the perfect molten chocolate cake or the ultimate flourless chocolate cake. I even had a dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate icing for my wedding.
I also believe, like the Europeans, that baking is an art best left to professionals. Yet sometimes those desserts look pretty but don't taste good. That should never happen, especially on Valentine's Day, the quintessential chocolate dessert day.
The desserts I've described here taste at least as good as they look. I know, because I've taste-tested every one, and several colleagues who also tasted them agree with my opinions. All were purchased anonymously, selected primarily on how good they looked. And, yes, there were some chocolate confections that didn't pass muster.
Order these at least 48 hours in advance to make certain your choice is available.
* Marble Chocolate Mousse Cake and Sacher Torte, Watergate Pastry Shop, 2534 Virginia Ave. NW, 202-342-1777. This grand dame of pastry shops in the Washington area opened in 1966 in the small shopping arcade of the Watergate. Anton Obernberger worked at the shop for 10 years before buying it last year. The marble chocolate mousse cake combines delicate white chocolate and dark chocolate mousses. The Sacher torte is an excellent rendition of this Viennese confection, with milk chocolate layers, a filling of apricot jam and a rich chocolate glaze. I think this version is much better than the original, which is often dry. A slice of the marble chocolate mousse cake is $2.95; an eight-inch cake is $28.60. A slice of the Sacher torte is also $2.95; and a 10-inch inch cake is $39.
* My Downfall, Cakelove, 1506 U St. NW, 202-588-7100. The bakery is the creation of a former government lawyer who decided that baking cakes was better than practicing law. The place is tiny, housed in a storefront near the Reeves Center on 14th Street, but busy as its hip location might indicate. This cake has dark chocolate layers filled with vanilla butter cream, then covered in chocolate butter cream. The six-inch cake is $30; a nine-inch version is $45.
* Chocolate Decadence Cake, Cakes and Confections, 1841 St. Margaret Rd., Annapolis. 410-757-7100. A dense, dark, flourless chocolate cake, this was the richest of about three dozen desserts tasted and is the same dessert that appears on the menu of several Annapolis restaurants. The bakery, formerly on West Street, was moved to the site of an old general store just outside downtown, after it was purchased in July 2001 by Michael and Julianne Brown. Michael Brown, the baker, worked at B&B Caterers in the District and for Hilton hotels before he joined the bakery in 1999. Brown said the chocolate decadence is the most popular item in the store. An individual serving is $3.50; the eight-inch cake is $25; the 10-inch is $35. The shop is offering many Valentine's specials and also makes its own truffles ($10 for a box of eight; $1 each, unboxed). Closed Mondays.
* Chocolate Fudge Cake, Charles Street Bakery, 507 E. Charles St., La Plata, 301-392-6344. This looks like the old-fashioned chocolate bundt cake your mother might have made, but it is oh-so-much richer. The cake is almost gooey-moist, and the icing is pure chocolate. But it's not so rich that you can't eat a whole slice (or perhaps two). The bakery, opened in October, is one of several new establishments to locate in town since the tornado. The owner, Deborah Jones, formerly worked for Susan Gage caterers in the District and for the Colony South hotel in Clinton. The cake is $22.50.
* All American Chocolate Cake, Kirsten's Cafe, 9326 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-495-9686. This dense, dark chocolate cake is thick and rich like a brownie, and the icing is almost like fudge. This is a neighborhood place that serves breakfast, lunch, dinner and takeout and also makes great desserts. Kirsten Shippey, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, is the owner. The cake is $2.50 a slice; an eight-inch cake is $19.95.
* Chocolate Brownie Tart, Desserts by Gerard, 6341 Livingston Rd., Oxon Hill, 301-839-2185. This is a giant iced brownie -- actually two thick brownie layers, iced with a delicious dark chocolate and then decorated with large pieces of chocolate. A brownie lover's dream. It is only one of a host of chocolate desserts made by French-born Gerard Huet, who came to this country from his home in the Pyrenees region of France to work for Jean-Louis Palladin at his Watergate restaurant. Huet also makes chocolate truffles. The eight-inch chocolate brownie tart is $23.95.
* Double-Fudge Brownies, Raulin's Bakery, 10476 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, 301-937-9595. Double fudge only begins to describe the rich flavors of these chewy brownies, without addressing the intensely chocolate icing. Located in Chestnut Hills Shopping Center along Route 1, Raulin's has been a favorite for more than six decades. These brownies are adult fare but are also child-friendly. $5.99 per pound. They also have a chocolate raspberry bundt cake for $15.99.
* Chocolate Gugelhopf, Rolling Pin Bakery, 4918 Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg, 301-699-9119. A gugelhopf in shape only (kind of a fancy precursor to the ubiquitous bundt pan), this chocolate cake with chocolate icing is everyday good but also holiday fancy. $11.95.
* Chocolate Truffle Cake, The Cakery, 6776 Race Track Rd. (on the back side of Hilltop Shopping Center), Bowie, 301-262-6061. Dense chocolate layers are filled with raspberry jam and topped with equally dense chocolate icing. The raspberry decoration and the height of the cake made it one of the most striking in appearance. This cake needed to be at room temperature to bring out the taste and texture. $26.95.