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 describe 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.
Mini Chocolate Mousse, South Street Under, 203 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg, 703-771-9610. This individual serving of chocolate mousse, darker than milk chocolate, creamy and luscious, is in an edible cup of slightly darker chocolate. This whole presentation makes a perfect dessert. South Street Under, in business for four years, is owned by the Tuscarora Mill Restaurant and is in the same complex below the restaurant. The mini chocolate mousse is $2.25.
Chocolate Chocolate Cake, Victoria's Cakery, 10430 Main St., Fairfax, 703-273-0800. Devil's food cake, that '50s favorite, could only wish to taste as rich as this confection. The cake is dark chocolate, and so is the icing, but it's neither too sweet nor too rich. Victoria Eustice, who started the shop in 1984 and recently sold it to her son Michael Hensley, started out by selling muffins at a farmers market. The shop's most popular cake is called Heaven and is white chocolate cake with a raspberry filling and white chocolate cream-cheese icing. This is one of the smaller shops, which specializes in cakes. A six-inch cake is $12.25; the nine-inch is $28. Place orders three to five days in advance. No credit cards.
Chocolate Mousse Cake and Malibu, Pastries by Randolph, 4500 Lee Highway, Arlington, 703-243-0070. This shop also has an almost limitless variety of individual and larger cakes. The chocolate mousse cake is rich and creamy, with alternating layers of cake and filling. The Malibu is an individual portion only, a chocolate dome encasing a light chocolate mousse atop a dark chocolate base. The individual chocolate mousse cake slices are $3.40; a cake is $30. The Malibu is $3.75.
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 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.
Triple Chocolate Bavarian Cake and German Chocolate Cake, Alexandria Pastry Shop, 3690 H King St., Alexandria, 703-578-4144. Tom Lally started this pastry shop 14 years ago in a tiny space in the same Bradley Shopping Center. It has expanded into a huge patisserie and cafe and now includes an offshoot, Perk Up, at 829 S. Washington St. in Old Town Alexandria. The variety of cakes and pastries is almost overwhelming. The triple chocolate Bavarian includes layers of dark, white and milk chocolate Bavarian (a light mousse) atop a layer of dark flourless chocolate cake. It's creamy and not at all heavy. The German chocolate layers are light and flavorful, and the coconut-pecan filling is heavenly. Both cakes are $3.50 a slice. A small triple chocolate Bavarian cake is $23.45; the 7-inch German chocolate cake is $16.45. Cakes can be picked up at the Old Town location but must be ordered through the main shop.