Chocolaterian Cafe, the new Schenk's Corners patisserie, has two entrances. The one facing Winnebago Street has an enormous window that looks directly into the kitchen, where chocolatiers are busily making treats; it's like peeking into the Madison branch of Santa's workshop. A floor-to-ceiling glass wall affords the same view inside, and it smartly opens the space as well as connects customers to the inner workings of the business.
The other end of the shop is where the register (or iPad) sits, tucked in between counters piled with Christine's Toffee and gleaming display cases laden with irresistible goodies. A bûche de Noël sits prominently in the first case. This classic French Christmas treat is a trompe-l'oeil wonder of sponge cake and buttercream shaped to look like a fallen forest log. Meringue mushrooms adorably pop up from the "bark." It's dazzling, and at $40, an affordable way to blow gleeful little minds.
The landmark Schenk-Huegel space has been turned into an airy, mustard-colored elongated room with a coffeeshop vibe. While the build-out is attractive, fluorescent lighting casts a ghoulish dead glow over both faces and food. But interior aesthetic quibbles aside, the look is Madisonian - and the shop is inviting. The staff is smiley and chatty, and the room has the sound of guests who are relaxing and having a good time.
Savory items are quiches, a daily soup and a side salad. The soups are as tasty and hearty as you might expect from an establishment that prominently declares local pride by serving Sassy Cow Creamery, Just Coffee and Potter's Crackers, as well as other nearby producers.
Quiches would be some of the best in town - thick-crusted and served as little personal complete dishes rather than as a slice - if they weren't microwaved. Mon Dieu! The salad of fresh mixed greens is perfect, with just a touch of understated balsamic-mustard vinaigrette and a sprinkling of nuts.
Additionally, there is an Underground Food Collective charcuterie platter and a Wisconsin cheese board. The latter comes as four surprisingly large servings of some of this state's finest dairy products. Recent offerings included Hook's Paradise Blue and Carr Valley Mobay. These are accompanied by an ample number of Potter's Crackers and Quince & Apple preserves. For $14, you'll want to find an excuse to have your next small meeting here. But savory isn't the draw, chocolate is.
The self-proclaimed signature item is Parisian hot chocolate. If you've never had real French hot chocolate, it's as different from dry packet cocoa as bouillon cubes are from demi-glace. Rich and impossibly thick, this is more akin to cake batter than to a liquid. The version here is worthy of the kings and queens of France, who liked to have it prepared for them in an elaborate bedtime ceremony. I hope Chocolaterian will consider late-night delivery.
There are a variety of tarts, which are unabashedly sinful looking as well as unequivocally delicious. These seem to change frequently, just to further erode customers' willpower. A recent example sported big chunks of caramelly toffee. The interior was thick chocolate (so thick it stuck to our forks and teeth), with the crust providing body and salt, and the caramel popping with yet more sweetness. Decadence.
If such a tart isn't your downfall, there are other defense-eroding options. Perhaps a chocolate almond horn? Or a flourless chocolate cake with raspberries and whipped cream? Maybe dainty little macarons, which come three for $5? Are you a shortbread cookie freak?
The Ugly Cookies have already established a faithful horde. They're flatter-than-normal treats with cocoa nibs, pistachios and Christine's Toffee, all held together by chewy, crispy and caramelized buttery cookie dough. Let the love affair begin.
To back away from the precipice, a ricotta cookie will restore sanity with a light and lemony zing. They're excellent with tea, as are the Madeleines. Or just give in and lose it with a chocolate or caramel fondue, served with fruits and delectable little dipping cakes ($14).
Coffee (bottomless for $4; there's free WiFi), teas and even beers are available to cut the sugar. But the real pleasure pairings are to be found among the wines. It's a well curated list, designed specifically to go with patisserie items.
There's Prosecco if you want a little bubbly, a couple of decent Chardonnays and a citrusy Muscat. The Nine Stones Barossa Shiraz is the one for dark chocolate lovers, and it makes for a transcendent moment when the wine chases the Parisian chocolate with jammy dark berry flavors. It's a bit of well-crafted, indulgent heaven - which sums up the Chocolaterian experience nicely.