Hot chocolate is one of the few things I can enjoy even when it's not very good. After all, many of its pleasing qualities are derived from the situation that makes you want to order it in the first place. Freezing cold weather is essential, maybe with some sleet and a strong wind. Ideally, your hands are so chilled you can barely grab the cash you need to pay for it. In such circumstances, I once experienced ecstatic communion with the artificially flavored cocoa served by a machine at an Interstate rest stop.
But I can also appreciate the real deal. In Madison, the hot chocolate aficionado can choose from an impressive array. Here are three favorites.
David Bacco Chocolates: The petite cups of heaven served at this chic Hilldale truffle shop set the gold standard for local hot chocolate. I ordered one of each - straight-up chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate spiced with curry, and chocolate spiced with chilies - to share with three friends. The intense flavors made us feel like we were drinking melted truffles. A word of warning, though: Do not have more than a single serving of these extremely rich drinks or you will experience a hot chocolate hangover so extreme you will have to cancel all plans for the remainder of the day. Trust me. I speak from experience.
Restaurant Magnus: Here the hot chocolate is hidden in the dessert menu, as an accompaniment to Scandinavian party cakes. I ordered this mix of coffee and Valrhona chocolate late at night, with some trepidation. Would drinking warm chocolate put me to sleep before the meal was over? Or would the coffee part get me too perked up to sleep at home? Not to worry. This light and frothy drink is the perfect balance of snooze and pep. The flavor is all chocolate, but the coffee tones it down a bit, so it's not overwhelming. Perfection.
Casa de Lara: I was lured into the State Street restaurant by the sandwich board advertising Mexican hot chocolate. Could it really be as good as the delicious, cinnamony drink I enjoyed years ago in Mexico? Absolutely! It's not too rich, made with 2% milk and Nestle's Abuelita chocolate - the kind used in homes all over Mexico. You taste the cinnamon in the first sip or two, and then all the flavors meld into a chocolate creaminess that gives you the strength you need to get back out there into that winter wind.