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If there is a guiding spirit at play at the new VanBuskirk Artisanal Chocolates, it would seem to be "why not?"
Why not pair chocolate with Scotch, coffee, wine, or cigars? Why not pair coffee with ice cream? Or cigars with Scotch? Why not pour deluxe European drinking chocolate directly into cocktails as a base?
And perhaps the biggest "why not" of all: why not open the most high-concept confectionary and coffee bar Cottleville has surely ever seen?
The experimenter offering his vision to this sleepy bedroom community is Conor VanBuskirk, who currently owns three Chocolate Chocolate Chocolate franchises (in Florissant, St. Charles, and St. Peters). Years of growing those businesses and making confections led him to a more personal sort of mission.
"Chocolate-covered strawberries, turtles, and clusters have been good for a hundred years," he said, "but if you throw a caramelized pear and goat cheese truffle in there, it throws people off. I decided to open a place where I could share all the new things I was excited about with people. After two years of experimenting in the kitchen, this is it."
The heart of the new shop is VanBuskirk's changing selection of European-style chocolates. Fans of this family of confections will recognize the darling shapes and outre "paint jobs" the candies boast. Truffles in flavors like Pumpkin Caramel are offered along with Pink Salt Himalayan Caramels (both below). A honey/black tea truffle was specifically made to be paired with coffee made from Ethiopian Yirgacheffe coffee beans, and one made from stout (see end of article), and the bright, complimentary flavors pop off one another in a perpetual pinballing of surprises.
VanBuskirk's is a chocolate shop, but also very much a cafe, a pub, and an ice-cream shop, too.
The coffee bar here is no joke. Barista Paul Nahrgang and staff are using the Chemex and the Beehouse to make intense, pour-over coffee drinks. They also employ an espresso maker and French presses. Their coffee selections, which will change weekly, are from boutique bean-sourcers including Intelligentsia, Kuma, and our own Kaldi's.
House-made ice cream comes in flavors like strawberry, chocolate, rum, pumpkin pie, cinnamon, coffee, chocolate banana, salted caramel, butter pecan, and dark chocolate. You can also order a float made with any of those scoops submerged in unusual bottled sodas, which come in flavors like caramel cream and coffee. VanBuskirk recommends the classic Italian affogato dessert, with espresso poured over sweet-cream ice cream.
European drinking chocolate comes in flavors like pumpkin spice (made with milk chocolate); "Aztec," made with cayenne, chipotle, and cinnamon (dark); "Winter Spice" made with nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon (milk); and a 72% dark-chocolate drink with a little fresh lime. The autumnal pumpkin spice variety was a velvety brew of endorphin-firing chocolate, cream, nutmeg, and pumpkin flavors that satisfied in every way.
If you're going to make a chocolate martini, you might as well start with the magnificent sludge of drinking chocolate. The pumpkin-chocolate martini on the drink menu, for instance, is a no-brainer -- and it couldn't be any richer.
The full bar keeps the joint humming late into the night (hours, below). Beers on tap include selections from Schlafly, 4 Hands, Perennial Artisan Ales, and Urban Chestnut. There are about 20 more chilled bottles available, including some of the exclusive beers aged in bourbon barrels so popular with beer fiends now. There is, VanBuskirk emphasized, no Bud Light on the menu. (Choose sides if you want. Like Switzerland, we're not taking one.)
There's a generous line-up of bourbons and Scotches. If you like, you can enjoy them with a cigar, which the cafe also sells, on the patio by the fire pit.
Savory options are, as of now, a single cheese plate featuring artisanal goat, sheep, and cow cheeses from Prairie Fruits Farm & Creamery in Champaign, Ill. VanBuskirk has plans to sell house-made jams, along with a chocolate-hazelnut spread he's been working on (an all-natural Nutella, if you will).
The owner's commitment to the local economy is manifest in items like the Caramelized Pear and Goat Cheese truffle (below feft), made with local pears, and roasted almonds panned in dark chocolate and rolled in ground Kaldi's 700 Espresso beans. This week's Huckleberry Caramel truffle (below right) is made with huckleberries furnished by the next door neighbor, SLM's 2010 Restaurant of the Year Stone Soup Cottage and its chef-owner Carl McConnell. VanBuskirk is infusing bottles of Cardinal Sin vodka, distilled just down the road, with ingredients like whole Madagascar vanilla beans, and using the resulting infusion in his chocolate martinis.
Celebrated architecture and design firm Space (responsible for the look of such area chow palaces as Franco, Bobo Noodle House, Prime 1000, the redo's of Milagro Modern Mexican and MEDIAnoche, as well as the new Pi Pizzeria and Robust Wine Bar downtown), designed the interior, from the light-table candy counters to the exposed beams in the pub. In a move that has become nearly de rigeur for every hip restaurateur, the tables and wooden fixtures are made from barn wood salvaged from one of the buildings that occupied the lot where the new eatery now stands.
Chocolate isn't exactly new to VanBuskirk, but cocktails, beer, cigars, coffee, and ice cream are all avocations he has freshly converted to vocations. "I'm passionate about all these things," he said. His careful research has resulted in an epicurean house of pleasures. His goals, he said, are to continue to make as much as possible from scratch, to source as many ingredients as possible from the local scene, and to keep developing pairings and flights of eats and drinks.
VanBuskirk Artisanal Chocolates is both an oasis for the St. Charles County denizen looking for sensational, labor-intensive confections, coffee, and cocktails, and a worthwhile destination for St. Louis County and City types. But for the former, especially, VanBuskirk's endeavor is just what the suburban doctor ordered. Just drive down Mid Rivers Drive from I-70 to Cottleville, and take in the endless strip of fast-food joints, sports bars, Asian buffets, grill-and-fryer franchises, and other cookie-cutter feedbags. This place is different.
VanBuskirk Artisanal Chocolates
5326 Hwy. N
Tues - Thu: 10 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Fri - Sat: 10 a.m. - 1 a.m.
Sun - Mon: Closed