When our client moved from SFBA to SoCal in 2019, cacaopod & I thought it would be a great opportunity to get to know SoCal chocolate artisans, as we could visit them during trips to see our client. We managed one quick trip to SoCal before COVID hit — and had no time to visit anybody except our client.
So until we can move freely around the state again, I maintain a list of SoCal chocolate to explore in the hopefully not too distant future. As part of my research I ordered some bars from an iconic LA chocolatier online, sampling the gamut of their eclectic line.
Compartés Chocolatier, Los Angeles, has been around since the 1950’s, when it started as a European inspired chocolate shop; but when it got really interesting was after Jonathan Grahm’s family bought it at the end of the 20th century, and Dad saw that Jonathan was really into the business (Jonathan was a teenager). So Dad basically handed him the business in 2005 (when he was 21), and he’s been the head chocolatier, package designer, and general impresario since. He bought the company outright when he was 24, and has continued to make it his own.
Compartés still makes European style truffles by hand, but in a wider variety of flavors, with some unusual selections (blackberry & sage, pineapple habanero, huckleberry rhubarb). They still do chocolate covered fruit, but now they also do Oreos covered in pink chocolate. They make hot chocolate mixes, but include dark and white chocolate ones. Their bars are similarly interesting and unique.
Jonathan has said in interviews that the bars are inspired by LA; and you can definitely see it in the bars’ packaging that he designs: big, bright, colorful graphics that reference Art Deco, palm trees, sun & surf, even Marilyn Monroe’s flying skirt from “The Seven Year Itch.”
His packaging is so distinctive and fun — and so big (3″ x 7-3/4″) — that they make for exciting gifts. You anticipate what’s inside is going to be as thrilling as the outside. He also seals the chocolate in a gold foil pouch inside, channeling Willie Wonka’s golden tickets, to keep up the anticipation. The anticipation is rewarded when this attention to detail and the layers of meaning extend from the packaging to the chocolate inside.
A case for on-the-job training
Jonathan does everything — the chocolate, the flavors, the packaging, the business — without formal training in the culinary arts, graphic design, business, or marketing. Instead, it’s decades of hands-on experience, passion, talent, and vision that creates these LA-tastic bars.
He obviously knows what he is doing: Just before COVID, they expanded from their original Brentwood location to a giant 6,000 square foot space on La Brea near Melrose Ave. to handle increased production. Envisioned by Jonathan as part Wille Wonka, part LA luxury, the Compartés Global HQ & Chocolate Factory is lavishly decorated with marble and brass, and includes glass walls between the production line and the factory store, so you can watch the chocolate making in action.
Unfortunately, the factory store remains closed to the public due to COVID, offering curbside pickup or shipping instead. But when they re-open, they plan to offer tours and special events there, such as private chocolate parties and public tastings.
I read somewhere that Jonathan has developed over 200 bar flavors. They are not all available all the time. Some are seasonal, some are just so popular it’s hard to keep them in stock (like the Avocado), and some are limited time offers.
Most of the bars we tried are usually available, but the one we loved the most is not. We hope it comes back because it was great. Based on our experience, I’d recommend that if any of their more unusual bars intrigue you, buy it right away. It will probably be worth the risk, and you might not get the chance again.
As is the case with any experiment, some bars we tried were more successful than others. Compartés makes white, milk, and dark chocolate bars; we tried a few of each type, and I liked all 3 of their couvertures. It was just some of the inclusions didn’t work for me, or the balance of ingredients was off.
White chocolate winner
The first bar we tried this time was so experimental, I thought for sure it wouldn’t work. I wanted to try it first because it sounded so weird. It turned out to be our absolute favorite bar.
The Persephone Huckleberry Croissant was a white chocolate bar studded with bits of real croissants and huckleberries. This was not one of those bars that uses inclusions or infusions to mimic other tastes (like fenugreek substituting for maple syrup). They really tore up croissants in the Compartés kitchen and sprinkled them through the white chocolate. I could see pieces of croissant in the bar, along with huckleberries.
The bar had a wonderful huckleberry smell and pronounced huckleberry flavor. But even better was that in the pieces with visible croissant bits, I could taste the buttery flavor and feel the texture of the croissants. And holding it all together was a really good white chocolate that wasn’t too sweet. The only thing that would have made it better in my opinion is if they had colored the bar purple with a huckleberry infusion.
But that’s a minor quibble. All in all, they pulled off this crazy concept: My respect for Jonathan and Compartés went through the roof: Such an unexpectedly successful bar. Even if I can never have one again, it will remain one of my top chocolate memories.
Acceptable, exceptional substitute
If you can’t get the Persephone bar, Compartés makes another white chocolate bar that is an acceptable substitute. The Strawberry Shortcake Chocolate Bar is a pretty pink bar with lots of visible strawberry and cookie bits and a strong strawberry aroma.
I feel like the name is a bit of a misnomer — I think of shortcake as either sweet biscuits or a spongy cake (depending on where I’m at in the US). The bits of “shortcake” in this bar seemed more like shortbread to me: a buttery cookie crunch instead of a flaky/soft inclusion. But maybe in LA, they do shortcake differently.
In any case, it doesn’t detract from the experience, just contradicted my expectations. The bar was made with the same quality white chocolate couverture as the Persephone bar and had a predominantly strawberry taste. The small crunch from the shortbread and dried strawberries added interest. The cookie inclusions helped the bar not be one note. An excellent bar; we recommend it.
Other white bars
We tried 2 other Compartés white chocolate bars. The Tie Dye and the Matcha Green Tea bar were OK, just not on the level of the Persephone or the Strawberry Shortcake bars.
The Tie Dye bar is a fruit flavored bar that looks like handmade soap with 4 pastel colored irregular sections that have their own flavors. It’s a cool concept and a pretty bar. I just found the flavors too “pastel” — I would have preferred something stronger.
We broke off triangles in the different sections that seemed the most likely to have the best flavor, i.e., they were the most solidly colored. We tried the blue section first; it had a faint blueberry taste, but was more strongly white chocolate sweet tasting. The yellow section was better; it tasted lemony, not as sweet as the blueberry section. The smallest section in our bar was orange colored and flavored; it was ok, but not very orangey. The biggest section was brighter pink than the Strawberry Shortcake bar, but not as strawberry tasting. Again, it was ok but I would like a stronger taste.
The final white chocolate Compartés bar we tried was back in 2020 when I fell in love with its packaging on the shelf at Chocolate Covered. Their Matcha Green Tea White Chocolate Bar is flavored with matcha, evaporated milk, and sugar. The bar was a pretty matcha green, and the packaging was an eye-catching take on Japanese-print style waves; but the bar tasted more like milk tea to me than matcha green tea.
I think I will always prefer Socola’s Crispy Matcha Green Tea White Chocolate Bar. It’s a more flavorful bar, not too sweet, and with no evaporated milk taste. To me it tastes like it uses a better grade of matcha or at least is made in a way that better captures the flavor of matcha. The bar’s texture is also lighter/not as dense because it has added crispy bits of feuilletine, and I like that the matcha masks the taste of white chocolate.
Compartés has a lot of other white chocolate options, including the elusive Avocado, a pretty purple Lavender bar, and more younger trending flavors like Cookies & Cream, Birthday Cake, and Cereal Bowl. It seems like they try to have something for everyone.
Like the white chocolate options, we tried 4 Compartés milk chocolate bars, including their best selling milk and a proudly plain milk.
The limited edition Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows bar is a plain 46% milk chocolate — no inclusions or infusions, no listing of cacao origins — as far as I can tell it is simply Compartés’ house milk chocolate couverture dressed in a pretty 30’s tropical print.
That simplicity is surprising compared to the rest of Compartés line, which veers toward the flamboyant; but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It reminded me of Wendy Sherwood at La Forêt who was trained in French chocolate making and developed her own couvertures like they do, without knowing that most American chocolatiers don’t do that; they find a readymade couverture they like and use that.
I think Jonathan might be in the same camp as Wendy. His training was also old school European from the previous owners of Compartés, and the rest of his development has been on his own. Like Wendy, he probably didn’t know the American chocolate status quo — or if he did, it didn’t line up with his interests, so he created his own couvertures.
I could be wrong, but whatever the case, I liked his white, milk, and dark couvertures, so I enjoyed this bar. Like all of his couvertures, it had a smooth texture and good mouthfeel. It’s a very milky bar, which I prefer in a milk chocolate bar over sweeter bars that use less milk and more sugar. The bar was sweet, just not overly sweet for me.
Whatever cacao he is using made for a balanced bar, not bitter or fruity, no top notes distinctive enough for me to pull out. It’s just a good milk chocolate that fills your mouth with nice milky-milk chocolate flavor.
My staples: PB&J
I am not much of a cook, so my go-to meal when I am on my own is PB&J. Of course I had to try Compartés’ Peanut Butter & Jelly Bar. It’s a 44% milk chocolate bar infused with peanut butter with added salted roasted peanuts and raspberry jelly.
The bar smelled like raspberry jelly and had an immediate jelly taste followed by peanut butter. The milk chocolate definitely took a back seat in this bar, but it was good. Cacaopod and I think it’s probably the same milk chocolate as the Beverly Hills Hotel bar.
The best part of the bar, I think, were the peanuts: They seemed like they were caramelized, like honey peanuts, because they had a crisp crunchy texture. I liked this bar a lot. Recommended.
We tried Compartés’ best selling Donuts & Coffee bar, which includes donut pieces and coffee grounds in 44% milk chocolate. To me, it definitely tasted like cake donuts, then coffee with a little crunch from the coffee grounds.
The coffee makes it a savory bar, and the savory coffee flavor lingered as the aftertaste. Personally, I thought it needed more donut; the balance was off. It was too heavy on the coffee, and it was not the best coffee flavor. It tasted like perked coffee: a little burnt and smoky, very evocative of drinking old-fashioned diner coffee.
I would prefer espresso instead, but this is a novelty bar, so maybe the old American diner experience translated to chocolate is the point.
While the Donuts & Coffee bar was weird, the Malibu Magic bar was a dud. It’s supposed to be an interpretation of a chocolate malted milkshake, but it didn’t work for me. It didn’t taste like malted milk.
It had a texture that was evocative of malted milk balls, with a small crunch but the crunchy bits felt like sugar crystals. Plus I didn’t care for the flavor. I think it was probably the same couverture as the other 44% milks, but the taste was unpleasant.
We tried a bunch of their dark chocolate bars, I loved their dark chocolate couverture, and I found I preferred the simpler dark chocolate bars to the more unusual ones.
The 75% dark chocolate Coffee Crunch bar was excellent! It started with a good chocolate aroma, and a visually interesting, heavily textured back of cacao nibs sprinkled around an all-over distribution of finer coffee grounds.
The coffee made it extra dark tasting; and I liked the crunchy bits, although cacaopod said it felt like sandpaper on his tongue. I still recommend it; just maybe melt it on your tongue smooth side down.
The elegant Old Hollywood bar’s packaging with its allover Art Deco pattern revealed a simple 75% dark chocolate bar sprinkled with smoked sea salt on the back. Like the Coffee Crunch bar, it had a good chocolate smell and the same delicious dark chocolate couverture.
This bar is the closest to a plain dark Compartés bar they make. I don’t know why they don’t offer a plain dark because the couverture is really tasty. A little bitter, but otherwise pretty balanced.
Like the rest of the bars we tried, this one had a very smooth texture, which was enlivened by random hits of salt. An excellent bar I recommend.
The Salted Pistachio Dark Chocolate Bar seemed at first to be basically the Old Hollywood with nuts added, but it was its own experience. It said 73% dark, but it seemed like the same couverture to me. I did think their dark couverture tasted darker than the percentages listed, but I liked that.
I thought the bar had the right amount of salt, but not enough pistachios. Pistachios are so mild tasting, I really think they should pack the bar more. Still the bar had enough to taste the pistachios with the chocolate; and it had a really good aftertaste.
The Honeycomb Crisp bar was a fun bar starting with the cute wrapper of bees walking around dripping honeycomb and the 4-line poem on the back:
This chocolate bar is the bees knees,
Honeycomb dark chocolate, yes indeed,
Crunchy delightful golden bits of honey,
Get this chocolate bar into your tummy.
(All of the bars have their own 4-line rhyming poem, written by Jonathan, on the wrapper. This one was my fav.)
The bar itself is 68% cacao with crunchy bits of honeycomb. Same good dark chocolate as the other bars. The honeycomb made for a combination chew and melt experience, which was fun. But we called it an interpretation of honeycomb, not honeycomb: it didn’t have the texture of sponge candy; it was harder and crunchier. Maybe if there had been pieces of honeycomb, it would have that hard/sticky texture; instead it was more like a small crystallized texture. I liked it though, and the chocolate flavor lingered.
The other dark chocolate bars we tried could use some improvements. The 70% dark German Chocolate Cake bar had soft-crunch coconut and pecans, but the pecans were so unevenly distributed that different bites had different flavors. I think it would be better with more pecans and a more balanced inclusion.
The California Dreaming bar was a 67% dark bar that included big chunks of brownies. While it was their same good dark chocolate, it needed nuts, less salt, and a more bitter couverture to balance out the sweet brownie chunks. I also didn’t like its sugary texture. It wasn’t a bad bar, just not my favorite.
The only dark bar I didn’t like was the Campfire S’mores bar. It’s a 70% dark using the same slightly bitter couverture that I like. It had a strong marshmallow flavor from dried marshmallows but the texture was wrong: It was hard. It also had a marzipan overtone, which was weird and off-putting cuz I don’t like marzipan. It had a little graham cracker crunch, but I think it would be better with pieces of graham cracker for more of a graham cracker taste. Cacaopod said it had all of the ingredients of a s’more, but none of the charm, which I agreed with.
Old & new
For a business that is over 70 years old, Compartés is a surprising dynamic and energetic entity. Sign up for their newsletter on their website and get a heads up — every day it seems — about something new. Today (April 1), they announced an April Fool’s Day limited edition bar, Pizza Pizza, which features tomatoes, basil, and bits of caramelized pizza crust. Jonathan is endlessly creative.
Compartés’ factory store (516 N La Brea Avenue, LA) isn’t open now because of COVID, but when it opens, you can watch the factory from the marbled shop. Maybe when they open again, we will be ready to visit. For now, we will have to settle for delivery. If you are in LA, they offer curbside pickup at the factory. If you’re here in SFBA, you can find some Compartés bars at Giddy in the Castro. However you can make it work for yourself, give Compartés a try. It’s a fun, delicious experience.