Complete Chocolate Lover’s Guide for the San Francisco Bay Area

Passion 5 counter

I ♥ Seoul chocolate


Seoul, Korea has a lot of charm — and artisan chocolate.

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Lotte Ad
Our first day in Seoul, we were surrounded by Lotte Chocolate ads while waiting for the train.

When Cacaopod & I visited Seoul in May 2016, we found a lot had changed chocolate-wise since our first visit in 2009 when we had just started this blog and couldn’t find any local artisan chocolatiers. Now there are Korean artisan chocolatiers sprinkled around the city, making delicious chocolate in delightful spaces. We visited 4 chocolate shops this time (Piaf Artisan Chocolatiers, Cacao Boom, Coco Bruni Chocolatier & Barista, and Passion 5), but we look forward to discovering more when we visit Seoul again. It’s not an easy task due to some unique aspects to Seoul.

Here today…

Seoul is a happenin’ city where things change quickly. We were told that many commercial leases are month-to-month — there are even commercial spaces that rent by the day or hour in trendy areas like Hongdae, a university area full of shops and attractions aimed at young adults.

With such short leases and no caps on rent increases, businesses can be here today, gone tomorrow. More than once, we arrived at a location we’d looked up prior to our visit on English-language sites only to find the business had already moved or gone out of business. One chocolatier we tried to visit still had a banner hanging outside advertising specials, while inside the space was empty, ready to be transformed into a new business.

My advice is to confirm addresses shortly before visiting — communicate with the owners if you can or look up the latest info online. We seemed to get slightly different results Googling in Korea than we got beforehand in the States.

Piaf Artisan Chocolatier Exterior
That space between the dotted yellow line and the steps up to Piaf Artisan Chocolatier? The sidewalk.

Addresses can be tricky too. Korea used to use a system similar to Japan’s with addresses based on when the land was built on, which results in no logical order to street numbers or names. In 2011, the government decreed that addresses would be based on street names with building numbers that increase based on distance along the street, like here in the States.

Eventually, this should make it easy to locate an address, but for now things are a bit jumbled with conflicting addresses listed on the Internet sometimes for the same location — GPS is helpful, but we still got lost a bit looking for places on jam-packed, winding side streets.

I’d recommend learning to read Korean before going. I’m not saying become fluent, that’s a tall order. But the Korean alphabet (Hangul) is phonetic — just like English — and has only 24 basic letters, plus 16 compound characters, so learning them is totally possible. Then you will be able to sound out signs when there’s no English translation and at least know if you have the right street or place name. I have less-than-tourist Korean speaking skills (mostly picked up from watching Korean movies & K-dramas), but being able to read signs helped me to navigate around Seoul.

Parlez-vous chocolat?

The first place we visited was a wrong-address case in point: The address we had from our research before leaving the US was obsolete. We found another address when we searched on the spot, but had a little difficulty finding the place due to GPS not pinpointing our location exactly. But with our rudimentary Korean alphabet skills, we were able to locate the right street and viola! Piaf Artisan Chocolatier appeared.

Piaf Chocolatier wall
The dark wood in Piaf’s shop resembles chocolate bars

Piaf Artisans have the right idea about how to sell chocolate in a city with 4 distinct seasons: The entire space is climate controlled. As soon as we walked in, and the door swooshed shut, I could tell we were in a place where chocolate would be comfy — and people too: Perfect temp and humidity.

The space was also pretty with an understated elegance. Lots of natural surfaces: wood, stone, and glass. The dark wood panels reminded me of chocolate bars.

Piaf has bilingual signage, but it’s French & Korean, no English, which makes sense because Piaf’s head chocolatier, Ko Eun-su, studied in France. Not a problem if you have at least restaurant menu-level French, and the staff speaks some English, which was helpful.

Piaf iced chocolate
Piaf iced chocolate looks cute and refreshing

I’ve wanted to visit Piaf since I first reported on their math chocolates. Started in 2011, they make a variety of bonbons, chocolate bars, chocolate macarons, chocolate-covered nuts, and cold chocolate drinks in individual small milk bottles that looked interesting.

Since it was our first visit, we decided to stick to the classics and buy a box of bonbons. We’ll save the other treats for another time.

One from column A…

Piaf Chocolatier chocolates in box
Piaf Chocolatier chocolates in their form-fitting box

The experience of buying a custom box of bonbons at Piaf is unique. The chocolate box’s interior is molded to fit a specific number of chocolates in specific shapes. So you can choose 8 square bonbons, several rectangular ones, a couple of narrower ones, and one round one. One round space is reserved for the vanilla ganache piece with the Piaf label. If you want another round or square, you will have to buy it separately.

To someone used to thinking a custom box means selecting exactly what I want, this was a little weird, but it makes sense when you know that Piaf makes custom chocolates for luxury & designer brands, like Yves St. Laurent, Piaget, and Miu-Miu. It’s like the chocolate version of form-fitting designer dresses.

Piaf Artisan Chocolatier box
Piaf’s box is covered in a subtle patterned texture that feels like cloth, making even the box seem extra special

Smells like Paris

Piaf chocolates look great and when you open the box, they smell great too — a strong chocolate aroma. They are reminiscent of French chocolates — made with good quality chocolate and mostly traditional European flavors, with thin but not weak shells.

A few were sweeter than I expected, like the Café (coffee) and Double Vanilla (single would have been enough), but the selection we picked was mostly on the less sweet side. Flavors were strong enough that we could tell what we were tasting. For example, the Menthe (mint) was very minty, slightly grassy even, and the one Asian-flavor bonbon, Yuzu, was a very nice citrus-y piece with a little bit of added zest.

We were really pleased to discover a chocolatier in Seoul doing a top-notch version of traditional French chocolate. The whole experience from the store interior to the packaging to the chocolates themselves was the best. We recommend seeking out Piaf Artisan Chocolatier if you are ever in Seoul and want some high-end chocolates for yourself or as a gift.

Piaf Artisan Chocolatier, 27-3, Apgujeong-ro 4-gil, Gangnam-gu

Piaf Artisan Chocolatier counter
Piaf Artisan Chocolatier counter

Cacao Boom exterior
Cacao Boom’s 2nd location is a small shop with a kitchen in the back

Cacao Go Boom

The next chocolate shop we visited in Seoul, Cacao Boom, is similarly European influenced: Cacao Boom’s founder and head chocolatier, Go Young-joo, started making Belgian-style chocolate in Seoul after studying in Belgium.

Go Young-joo ranks as a senior Seoul chocolatier — she opened her first shop in 2006. It’s located near Hongik University in Hongdae.

We visited her newest shop, which opened in 2015 in Itaewon, a neighborhood popular with foreigners and near a US Army base. This location is a small space with no seating to speak of, which was fine with us since we were only buying chocolates. They also sell housemade gelato and chocolate drinks, which I guess people enjoy while walking around the neighborhood. Next time, I hope to visit the original location which has seating and even offers chocolate classes.

Uniquely Korean

Cacao Boom Kitchen
Cacao Boom’s tiny, tightly organized kitchen

Cacao Boom uses Belgian chocolate and some unique ingredients in their chocolates. There are plenty of classic European flavors, like gianduja, kirsch, marzipan, coffee and orange, but also some uniquely Korean flavors like chestnut & honey, and Moonbaesool, a traditional Korean alcohol that is supposed to taste like wild pear. The chestnut & honey (called Honeymoon) was super sweet; the Moonbaesool was more interesting to me, it was like a caramel with a slight alcohol burn.

Another unique flavor, although not strictly Korean, is the Nutmeg Truffle. This handmade chocolate is covered in powdered sugar and has a sweet gingerbread taste. The Crispy Rice was also interesting with a smokey, whole grain flavor to the crunchy rice but I would have liked it better with a darker, less sweet chocolate.

In fact, that’s my only complaint about Cacao Boom’s chocolates: they skew to the sweeter side, more candy-ish than artisan chocolate for my taste. Otherwise, I liked the wide flavor range of truffles and bonbons, they also have a line of pretty hand-decorated bars and barks (the green tea bar striped with dark chocolate was especially attractive), and some cute molded chocolates — lots of gift options for those who prefer sweeter chocolate.

Cacao Boom, 3, Hoenamu-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul and 337-16 Seogyodong Mapo-gu, Seoul.

Cacao Boom counter
Cacao Boom counter overflows with cute chocolate animals

Treasure hunt

Coco Bruni Barista & Chocolatier is a franchise that has locations all around Seoul. But it was hard for us to find, both online and in the field. We thought there was a location near where we were staying, but it wasn’t there anymore. We stumbled on one on our way to see one of the palaces in Seoul, but didn’t have time that day to check it out.

We finally got to one in Itaewon, and I liked it so much that my goal with future trips to Seoul is to visit them all. Coco Bruni is often referred to as a café, but that doesn’t do it justice. It’s a comfortable, stylish place to hang out. A good place to meet friends or go by yourself for fun drinks and/or dessert. No one will hurry you out, and there’s enough space between tables so it can feel almost like your own place.

coco bruni exterior
Coco Bruni’s Itaewon location’s exterior and interior flow together comfortably with plenty of seating

The space is roomy with lots of seating options. Big windows in the front and back of the space make it seem even more spacious. All in all, it’s a very relaxing place to recharge after walking around Insa-dong, a popular tourist area.

Or you can just buy drinks, pastries, cakes or chocolates to go. The chocolate selection is varied — you can find something for everybody. Individual Coco Bruni bonbons are beautiful, and the black & white patterned packaging echoes the slick black, white & wood interior of the café itself. They would make great gifts or treats for yourself.

Worth the hunt

We bought a box of bonbons and a Premium Black Sesame Chocolate Bar. The bar was a milk chocolate slab with a layer of black sesame paste. It was crunchy and had a good nutty sesame taste, similar to sesame candy but not as sweet. And I think milk was the right choice; dark chocolate’s strength would overpower the more delicate sesame.

coco bruni case
Coco Bruni’s case is jam-packed with chocolate choices

I liked every bonbon in the box we bought. First of all, they all looked delicious, and some were even gorgeous. For example, the beautiful Orange Praline was topped with a piece of gilded candied orange encircled by the company logo printed in white on dark chocolate. The smooth orange flavored ganache in the piece had coconut overtones in a  yummy dark chocolate shell.

The Vanilla Pistachio looks similar to the Orange Praline but like a reverse image with a pistachio split to reveal its green inside and the top made of white chocolate with the company logo in dark chocolate. A bit of gilt anchored the pistachio halves so they looked like wings flying off the top. Because it was white chocolate, it was sweeter and not chocolate-y enough for me, but I forgave it because it was soooo pretty.

Unfortunately, these pieces got a little banged up traveling across the globe home, although taste was unaffected. I would hand-carry them next time if I was bringing them as a gift.

The rest of the box traveled well. The half-golfball looking Sésame Noir was similar to the Black Sesame bar we got. The dark chocolate Gingembre had a good gingerbread taste, with a slight coconut aftertaste.

The most unusual piece to me was the Marron Praline. I haven’t tried one of these before, but a marron glacé in a European chestnut that’s candied or in syrup. It didn’t taste nutty to me — I’ve only had roasted chestnuts here in the U.S., and this was nothing like that. Instead it had a melon taste, vaguely honey dew.

Alluring & aloof

coco bruni paves
Coco Bruni paves come in 3 flavors and 2 packaging options

Coco Bruni is similar to many high-end businesses in Korea with an abundance of attention to detail, from the space to the packaging to the individual chocolates. Service was a little cool, another common aspect of high-end businesses there I found. Staff was not rude, and their reluctance to engage could be because I don’t speak Korean, but I’m so used to chocolate sellers being enthusiastic about their product, that it disappointed me that I couldn’t get recommendations or information about what I was buying.

Posters on the product cases were promoting a new item: Packs of 5 pavés in 3 flavors. Since pavés are shell-less, ganache-only chocolates, I passed on them this time, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to eat them all before they got moldy, but I was intrigued by the green tea flavor. They also came in milk chocolate and espresso. I’m hoping for a next-time trip to try these.

We’ll try their pastries next time too, which were also pretty. Or maybe a chocolate-covered soft ice cream cone, or  their Bingsoo, a Korean shaved ice dessert that can have an endless variety of toppings from fruit to condensed milk to ice cream to nuts to whipped cream, in addition to the sweet red bean paste that makes the dessert uniquely Korean. It’s like a dessert smorgasbord on a bed of crushed ice.

Coco Bruni Truffles
Coco Bruni chocolates range from the plain to the lumpy to absolute jewels — and the prices range too

So I have to return because we barely scratched the surface of what Coco Bruni holds. But my new goal to visit all of Coco Bruni’s Seoul locations is easier said than done because I can’t access their website (either it’s down or not available outside of Korea) and their only official online presence seems to be on Instagram. My plan next time is to use Naver, South Korea’s preferred search engine, and look up Coco Bruni there. It returns lots of options, including a map with all locations listed — I just have to decipher the Hangul.

If you want to visit Coco Bruni, I would suggest the best bet is 86, Sogyeok, Jongno, which is off Bukchon-ro 5-gil, the street that connects Bukchon Hanok Village with Gyeongbokgung Palace. It’s in the middle of Seoul and the middle of a lot of tourist attractions, so it probably will still be there. It’s a half-block from the palace, and when you’re there, you will probably be surrounded with tourists and other visitors dressed in rented hanbok (traditional Korean clothing).

Girls in rented traditional hanbok
Girls in rented hanbok walking next to Gyeongbokgung Palace

I’m listing likely locations here, but I suggest that you check once you’re in Seoul to see if you can find the most up-to-date addresses.

Coco Bruni Barista & Chocolatier, 260 Itaewon-ro , Yongsan-gu (also listed as 683-136, Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu) • 86, Sogyeok, Jongno • 19, Dosan-daero 13-gil, Gangnam-gu • 425 Seolleung-ro, Gangnam-gu • 666-10 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu • Bukchonro 5th St, Garosu-gil…

Dessert-forward approach

Passion 4 door
Chocolate counts as #4 at Passion 5 and has its own climate-controlled room behind a door that looks like a giant chocolate bar

Unlike other chocolatiers in Seoul that can be hard to find due to their moving around, Passion 5 was hard to find because it’s in its own dark shiny building without obvious signage. I thought it was a fancy office building. Opened in 2007 by SPC, the parent company of Paris Baguette, a bakery chain that started in Korea and now has a global presence, it’s their luxury showcase store. It’s like a concept car, only with food and dining areas inside instead of car parts.

Did I mention it’s a whole building?! Four floors of food concepts from an Italian restaurant to a kids’ place, but if you’re like me, you won’t get past the first floor your first time here. That’s because the first floor is where all the desserts, gelato and chocolates are in the space called Passion 5.

A maze of amazing food

Passion 5 is billed as a premium food gallery, and while accurate, I don’t know if those 3 little words adequately describe the experience.  The first floor is roughly laid out in a circle and divided into sections. It’s like an IKEA store layout where you thread through all the departments from entrance to exit, except here the hundreds of items are food sized so it doesn’t take as long.

You enter through the café, section #1, where you can get drinks and gelato. There’s some seating and nice music playing, so it would be a pleasant place to sit and people-watch the never-ending stream that flows through the space. Continuing through the space, the next section (#2) is the bakery, where you can purchase loaves, sandwiches, pizza, and other savory baked goods.

Passion 5 eclairs
Help yourself to one of Passion 5’s beautiful eclairs…
Passion 5 tarts
…or one of their even-prettier tarts

Section #3 is where my mind got blown: It’s the patisserie, which is also called a dessert gallery, but if your idea of a gallery is a small curated collection of art objects, multiply that many times over. There are 100s of individual fancy pastries to choose from here — and you do choose them for yourself from open cases.

This is a little disconcerting for American germaphobes — no sneeze guards, and anyone could touch any of these pastries if they wanted to, then change their mind and not buy them. I felt a little uneasy, but didn’t see any bad behavior while I was there, so I think I would take a chance sometime on trying these beautiful pastries.

Passion 5 cakes
A sample of Passion 5’s exquisite cakes

There are also glassed-in display cases of elegant, elaborate cakes. Between the pastries and cakes, there are hundreds of sweet options, but not a lot of chocolate options. Not to worry though, because the next section (#4) is Passion 5’s chocolatier, and it’s stunning enough to make me forget all about trying to choose something from their patisserie.

A big-box approach

As opposed to the open-air patisserie section, the chocolates are in their own climate-controlled glass-walled room. You enter through big wooden doors that look like chocolate bars. Inside you can oogle the beautiful chocolates, but there is no self-serve in here.

Unfortunately, Passion 5 seems to have Home Depot-like customer service. There was no one in the chocolate room when we arrived, and no one came when they saw us inside. We had to go out and ask for help.

Once we did ask, things got better. A common Korean expression, bali, bali, means “hurry, hurry,” and I think it represents a deeply ingrained cultural value, so we didn’t have to wait long after we asked before someone came to help us.

Passion 5 truffles
Even the shelves of the display cases holding Passion 5 truffles are fancy
monkey Head bonbon
If I’m getting a monkey, make it a chocolate bonbon one, please

Beautiful all the way through

The individual chocolates in the store are all visually interesting and look like a lot of care went into creating them. Probably the zenith are the animal faces — round bonbons with 3-D decorations to make them look like baby monkeys, elephants, lions, etc. They are adorable, and would make a special gift for kids or any animal lovers on your list.

We decided to buy a variety of the more grown-up chocolates — although we did get a yellow ducky-shaped bonbon. It was a straight-up crunchy hazelnut praline disguised in all that cuteness.

On the opposite side of visual vs. taste was an elegant gold-flecked square that looked super grown-up and was listed as Yuzu, but tasted like a chocolate covered Creamsicle. It was old school but in a good way.

Passion 5 counter
Passion 5 counter staff was very careful assembling our selections in a keepsake box

Another striking chocolate was molded to look like a macaron and was 2-sided in looks and flavor: The orange side was a very fruity passion fruit white chocolate; The green side was a smooth chocolate.

If the shape of a bonbon wasn’t unusual, the decoration and flavors still made the piece special, like the lightly tart green tea on a crunchy cookie covered in dark chocolate flecked with gold.

The rest of the chocolates we selected were just as pretty and tasty. Even when something was sweeter than I would normally prefer, like the red pyramid liquid caramel Herb Honey, I still liked it because the flavors and textures were top-notch.

The only potential downside of Passion 5 chocolates is that their recommended shelf life is extremely short: 2 days. However, we took over a week to finish the box, and all of the chocolates were just fine and delicious.

I decided to get the chocolates in a keepsake metal box with Passion 5’s logo on top and their slogan, a Chef Jacques Torres quote, on the side: “Life is short. Eat dessert first.”

passion 5 box
Our keepsake box with a Chef Jacques Torres quote on the side: “Life is short. Eat dessert first.”

1, 2, 3, 4…

When we walked out of the chocolate box of a room, we found no section #5 to Passion 5. There is just the exit — or you can continue around the circular layout to section #1 and start over.

Maybe there was a section #5 originally that didn’t pan out. Or maybe they leave it open for something new in the future. According to their promotional materials: “The name, Passion 5, comes from the combining of five elements: the bakery, patisserie, chocolates and café. The 5th is the passion of those who create the desserts.”

So there’s that.

Come for the chocolate, stay for the day

One nice aspect of the whole building being part of the same concept is that since seating is limited on the first floor, you can take what you purchased there up to the second floor and enjoy it in the restaurant as long as you purchase something to drink in the restaurant.

It seems like there are as many ways to enjoy Passion 5 as there are pastries in the dessert gallery.

Passion 5 is a super fun concept with a beautiful, busy, buzzy space full of affordable luxuries. I can’t wait to go and hang out there next time.

Passion 5, 11-140 Yangjae-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul or 272, Itaewon-ro, Yongsan-gu, Seoul

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Published July 1, 2016