Chocolate isn’t just for dessert anymore. At JinJu, it’s food, art and a soulful ritual
When I ask Jin Caldwell, founder of JinJu Chocolates, “What is a master chocolatier?” she demurs. “I honestly couldn’t tell you that I am a master chocolatier. I still learn every day.”
But one bite of a raspberry truffle — the tart, fruity pop gives way to velvety richness — dispels such modesty: Each of the dozens of bite-sized creations at her chocolate café is a testament to Caldwell’s skill.
It’s a skill that sometimes seems on the verge of being a lost art. Chocolate suffers from undisputed adoration. Mug-worthy platitudes such as, “There is no such thing as too much chocolate,” reflect the mindless consumption that has in ways cursed the dark treat. Because of blind demand, the beans used to make chocolate, cacao beans, have become a mass-produced commodity. They’re alkalized to produce a neutral-tasting chocolate capable of appealing to everyone, but delighting no one. “It’s like jug wine,” says Caldwell.
According to Caldwell, 70 to 80 percent of cacao beans come from Africa, but she unleashes her flavor notes with beans mostly from Central and South America, Hawaii, and Southeast Asia. “That is something I am really passionate about, blending different types of beans for different types of recipes,” she says. For example, in her pumpkin pie bonbon, she takes care not to undermine the spice of the pie with bitterness from the chocolate.
The chocolate derived from one bean in particular, Pure Nacional, is only entrusted to select chocolatiers. Caldwell is one of them. The Pure Nacional cacao tree was considered virtually extinct until 2011 when Dan Pearson, an American mining businessman, came across one on a farm in Peru. He founded Marañón Chocolate to produce chocolate with beans from the tree and started seeking acclaimed chocolatiers to work with the product.
“We only award our exclusive chocolatier status in a city to the best of best. In our opinion, in Las Vegas, Jin is the best of the best,” says Pearson.
The chocolate, Fortunato No. 4, is named after the farmer who cultivated the tree Pearson encountered. As for the “4,” the fourth sample tested by the USDA confirmed that the tree was indeed the rare Pure Nacional. It is coveted because, unlike other cacao, approximately 40 percent of the beans it produces are white. That doesn’t mean they’re used in white chocolate. Rather, white cacao creates a chocolate that is less bitter, and in turn, more acclaimed for its taste. Culinary legend has it that celebrated chef Eric Ripert called up Anthony Bourdain after sampling Fortunato No. 4 and announced he had tasted “the best chocolate in the world.” The result: Bourdain ventured to the source in an episode of Parts Unknown and collaborated with Ripert on an $18 chocolate bar. (A bar at JinJu is only $9.50.)
Caldwell has been recognized as one of the top 10 chocolatiers in North America and earned a silver medal in the 2007 National Pastry Team Championship. After leaving casino kitchens, she worked for MARS Chocolate for six years, traveling the world to develop ideas for product innovation. The need to balance intense attention to detail (a one-degree difference during tempering can ruin chocolate) with a spirit of creativity made the life of a chocolatier perfect for her.
“There are so many flavors and ideas that you can do, from making a perfect truffle to a six-foot or seven-foot chocolate sculpture, so to me the creativity was kind of endless,” she says.
JinJu Chocolates started as a wholesale operation providing specialty chocolates and garnishes to casinos. Now, there is a store at Downtown Container Park and a café just south of the 215 on Rainbow. At the café, you can order a cup of coffee, select your piece of handcrafted chocolate and enjoy. Caldwell thinks we should take a cue from Europe, where relishing the complexity of fine-crafted chocolate is a daily habit.
“In Europe they have a box of chocolate in their kitchen, and after a meal, eating one or two truffles is a part of their culture. That is why there are so many chocolate shops in Europe. It’s like buying a loaf of bread,” she says.
And, although JinJu means pearl in Korean, don’t be ashamed to admit your devotion to nougat. Caldwell explains, “I am not a snob who only creates the highest cacao products. I have gummy worms covered in chocolate, so a 3-year old kid can walk in and say, ‘Mommy, I want that one.’” And, of course, adults can enjoy them, too.
When you visit JinJu, be prepared for one simple question: “What do you like to eat for dessert?” It’s the question that guides their recommendations. For this box of chocolates, the selection was guided by my penchant for tea, wine, and anything sour.
While the fresh raspberries replete with their pucker-inducing and delectable tartness make a grand entrance, what’s most impressive about this truffle is its lush creaminess. For the ganache, raspberries are blended with white chocolate, which is the source of the velvety richness that also contributes to a smooth mouth feel.
Chai tea truffle
This is definitely more of a chai latte, but with a strong finish. The spiced black tea is blended with organic cream and milk chocolate, which softens the spice notes, but the dark chocolate coating lingers with the taste of roasted coffee.
Figs & red wine bonbon
This square chocolate is JinJu’s signature piece. Black figs are soaked in Primitivo red wine for 48 hours and then blended with local honey, milk and dark chocolates. The figs create a ripe jamminess that is balanced with the earthiness of the wine and maltiness of the dark chocolate.
Earl Grey tea bonbon
From the Akoya collection, which features hand-airbrushed and molded chocolates, this heart-shaped chocolate enhances the sweet, citrus of the bergamot flavor prominent in Earl Grey tea with a bit of grassiness and an astringent finish fitting for a black tea. The balance is struck through a blend of milk and dark chocolate.
7345 S. Rainbow Blvd. #130
707 Fremont St. #2280 (Container Park)
HOURS 8a-9p Mon to Thu; 8a-10p Fri; 9a-10p Sat; 9a-8p Sun