Cacao’s Kristen Hard

Chocolatier Kristen Hard pours her passion into Inman Park’s Cacao.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like the fierce, bitter taste of dark chocolate. Like all French children, I grew up on chocolate croissants, peeling off the buttery dough to access the vein of pure delight. Later on, I pressed my face against the windows of Paris’s most renowned chocolate artisans, anticipating the one truffle or glossy bonbon I would buy with hoarded money.

When I moved to America, I didn’t even understand why Hershey’s called its product “chocolate.” I subsisted on care packages from my family and the occasional box of Belgian truffles. In 1977, the opening of Maison Robert by Robert Reeb, a third-generation confiseur who set local standards for old-school chocolate work, rescued me from the doldrums.

Compared to Reeb, Kristen Hard, the young owner of Atlanta’s newest and most unique chocolate boutique, is a maverick: an obsessive, self-taught micro-entrepreneur with New Age concerns for the health benefits of carefully sourced cocoa beans. Her early passion for making lollipops in her mother’s Dunwoody kitchen haunted her as she went back and forth between academic studies and cooking on sailboats owned by rich Europeans. Hard’s awakening as a chocolatier took place in Martinique, where she badgered local women to share their secrets for transforming rough batons of cacao sold at open-air markets into an arousing beverage.

Almost two years ago, I ran across Hard’s name and that of her company, K Chocolat, in restaurant circles and became a fan of her distinctive truffles sold in various venues. The recent opening of her exquisite little factory shop in Inman Park (she calls it “a laboratoire du chocolat”) has me sinning left and right in an attempt to dig deeper into her all-encompassing magic.

Cacao doesn’t even have a proper sign (the first time, I had to look for the word “Chocolate” on a row of former warehouses), and its entrance off a garden path ending in silvery steps is part of the romance of a small tasting room designed with an artful blend of modernism and femininity. I am no longer intimidated by the glass shelves, the white display drawers, and the gleaming counter in a place that looks more like a jewelry shop than a specialty food store. I hop onto a stool and run my eyes over fragile edible arrangements of cocoa nibs in test tubes, marshmallows dipped in chocolate, miniature cupcakes topped with silver dragées, toffees in twists of waxed paper, and improbably pretty chocolates.

What interests the owner—single-origin chocolate, a precise artisanal process, the use of medicinal herbs and beneficial spices—is reflected in the intense, austere taste of her creations. Like all customers, it is with barely contained excitement that I receive my props (a stretchy white cotton glove and a small silver tray) to pick out my own truffles. The shapes are relatively familiar, but I know that combined notes of Caribbean rum, Saint-John’s-wort, and peppermint; green tea with ginger; or pink peppercorns and rosewater are about to create mysterious harmonies on my tongue. I am mesmerized by the smooth, shapely treats bearing names such as Italian Cowboy and Aztec Aphrodisiac.

Since I have watched Hard—a pretty, blue-eyed blonde who wears a lab coat to temper and hand-mold her product—dust pure gold onto her Chocolate Diamonds filled with Veuve champagne ganache encapsulating an elderflower liquor gelée, I no longer agonize over the prices she charges ($2.25 for single bonbons; boxes priced accordingly by piece). Cups of hot Mexican cocoa perfumed with chili powder, handmade chocolate ice cream, and crystallized ginger dipped into chocolate complete the seduction of a meticulously crafted substance whose journey from a plantation in Ecuador to Atlanta makes my heart beat faster.

312 North Highland Avenue, 404-221-2626

This review originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Atlanta magazine.