Chocolate love at Sugar-Coated Radical

Taria Camerino opens a confectionary dream

Taria Camerino is well known to Atlanta foodies. She made her first big splash here around 2006 with the opening of Sweet Revolution, a tiny shop in Little Five Points that specialized in Central and South American pastries. Its closing was widely lamented, but it certainly helped Camerino gain the attention of the city's chefs.

Her résumé includes stints at the defunct (and much missed) Dish, Top Flr, Holeman & Finch, Restaurant Eugene and Highland Bakery. She's widely regarded as one of the city's top pastry chefs. Now, Camerino has gone into business again, opening a shop called Sugar-Coated Radical (680 Drewry St., 404-587-4912). It's located in a rickety building in the warehouse area of Drewry Street, west of Ponce de Leon Place. This go-round she's specializing in chocolate confections. Amazing chocolate confections. I'm talking mouth-melting, heart-melting chocolate.

I asked her why she decided to open the shop.

"I don't like to compromise," she said. "That's why I say I'm 'radical.' Altogether, I've been in the pastry business for 18 years and it's a dirty business. There's a lot of waste. People are not paid what they deserve — either by the cacao or sugar plantations. The sugar industry is particularly bad, basically practicing slavery."

Camerino will deal only with Fair Trade suppliers that receive certification for practicing sustainability, provide organic alternatives and pay a living wage. She noted that a lot of restaurant and bakery people pay lip service to these principles but ditch them in the interest of protecting profits.

"That drives me crazy. I'm only selling retail. I don't want to sell to restaurants," she said. "Honestly, I guess part of being a purist is that I don't like the way most restaurants treat chocolate. Servers aren't even taught how to handle it and it ends up melting on the top of a refrigerator and then they cool it. It ruins it."

Despite calling herself a "purist," one does notice something about her confections that some chocolate fanatics avoid. She works a lot with milk chocolate, whereas many purists, such as Kristen Hard of Cacao, work almost exclusively with dark chocolate.

"I do use milk chocolate because it tastes good," Camerino told me. "I am a purist, but not a zealot — well, maybe a little. I only use amazing milk chocolates, which have their own subtle nuances that can't be found in dark. It pairs beautifully with certain flavors."

I ran a gluttonous taste test last Thursday when I visited both Cacao and Sugar-Coated Radical. I bought a box of 10 pieces from both shops and horrified myself by eating all 20 over the course of about five hours. I loved both, and I almost hate confessing that the kid in me still wants milk chocolate most of the time.

The enhanced bitterness of dark chocolate has a fruitier, perhaps more complex taste to me whereas milk chocolate's flavors are milder and the texture seems to melt more luxuriously. I'm not going to bother to recite the sometimes esoteric ingredients with which Camerino's chocolate is flavored. They're all deliciously fanciful but it's the chocolate itself that is the stuff of obsession.

"Chocolate is made from the seed of a fruit, so of course it has a fruity taste and aroma," Camerino told me. She opened a bag of chocolate from Claudio Corallo, who raises cocoa on Principe Island in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western coast of Africa. "This is the world's best chocolate," Camerino said.

I inhaled the tangy, strong scent. "Good chocolate also has the right snap," she said, breaking me off a small chard. "Hear that?" I didn't hear anything, but my mouth was experiencing a symphony as I tasted the chocolate. What particularly surprised me was the powerful aftertaste of blooming flavors.

Camerino, unike Hard, is not roasting and grinding her own cacao beans, but has plans to do so in the future.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Camerino's play with chocolate is its psychological effect. She speaks of chocolate's ability to stimulate the "heart space." I asked her to explain further:

"The heart space is what connects us to everyone else, to children or animals," she said. "It is what I like to call our soft spot, where we can be vulnerable and most childlike before we developed such strong ideas about who we are supposed to be. Sweets have an amazing way of cutting through the bullshit, moving into that space quickly, if we let them. I like to capture the essence of that to move people to a new experience of being. If only for as long as the chocolate lasts, they will feel different."

That may sound a bit woo-woo, but there is burgeoning research on the psychology of taste that supports Camerino's notion that chocolate and other comfort foods are virtually medicinal.

Camerino and her partner, artist Ashley Hinson, are planning an art installation that will include edible creations. "It's a conceptual art project," Hinson told me. The idea is to educate people so that they make more informed choices about the food they eat. The couple also hope to show people how potently food affects mood.

Sugar-Coated Radical is open Thursday through Sunday, 2-7 p.m. Camerino is adding other confections to her sweet menu, such as pâte au fruit featuring prickly pear. She'll also be pulling taffy and making other retro sweets. Do not miss this place.

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