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| Sweets |

Araya Artisan Chocolate

Next door to the River Oaks Theatre sits the storefront for Araya Artisan Chocolate (2013 W. Gray St.), which is turning out some of the most decadent chocolates in the city. The room is miniscule, yet open and inviting. Lush orchids occupy angular white tables. The tiny sitting area offers sanctuary for customers who desire a moment of indulgent relaxation with a chocolate (or three).

There are rows and rows of boxes just waiting to be filled with your selection of hand-crafted confections. These boxes feature works by various artists, local and from as far as Uruguay; they change routinely, and once they're gone, they're gone. In fact, a certain number of mom-friendly boxes will be released just in time for Mother's Day (hint, hint). The sturdy boxes double as a gorgeous keepsake after the decadent chocolate is gone.

But enough already about the exquisite boxes. You hungry readers want to know what's inside. In a word, it's ethereal. Italian-Venezuelan Stefano Zullian co-owns Araya along with his wife Carla Susi and her sister Silvana. Though he only recently delved into the business of cocoa (Araya has only been open since February), somehow Zullian has turned the art of chocolate-making into a seemingly effortless process producing an outstanding product.

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Zullian allowed Eating Our Words to try all the flavors we wanted, which happened to be all of them. Of the 22 flavors currently available, the Passion Fruit, Pink Salt, Key Lime and Orange Marzipan are among the most popular. When asked to choose his favorite, Zullian laughingly pointed out that this was akin to asking a parent to choose a favorite child.

Being the boozehounds we admittedly are, we would also add the Margarita (dark chocolate ganache with real Jose Cuervo tequila, lime zest and salt), Irish Cream (milk chocolate and creamy Bailey's) and Bourbon truffle infused with Maker's Mark to our list of must-trys. Stefano regaled us with a tale about a girl who purchased all the booze-filled chocolates for her best friend, who was going through a break-up. Now that's a pity party we'd like to attend.

Venezuelan chocolate is arguably the best in the world, and El Rey is arguably the best chocolate in Venezuela. All of Araya's chocolates are made using El Rey. And Araya's flavors themselves are modern, inspired and fresh. Take the aforementioned margarita chocolate. We had reservations about salt, lime, chocolate and tequila truly melding well. But perhaps because real lime zest and juice, decent tequila and top-quality chocolate were used, the end product was a journey of complexity that takes you to a new flavor experience with each mouth movement. When real, fresh, natural ingredients are paired with quality chocolate, you get a guilty pleasure so good, it takes away the guilt, leaving only pleasure.

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