Couture chocolates have been making their mark on the gourmet radar for some time, but it wasn't until the arrival of Araya Artisan Chocolate at River Oaks Shopping Center that Houston got a boutique dedicated to the fine art of innovative chocolate. The bonbon atelier has been open for less than a year, but it has already developed a word-of-mouth buzz that's harnessed a loyal following of those who appreciate hand-crafted desserts with challenging flavors.
Distinctive varieties, such as pink salt, strawberry balsamic, chipotle, passion fruit and Manhattan, are designed to keep customers coming back for more.
In operation only since February, Araya was a long time in the making. It's directed by a trio of Venezuelan expats: Stefano Zullian, a former mechanical engineer trained in marketing, his wife Carla Susi, a financial advisor and wealth management expert and sister Silvana Susi, an electronic engineer.
"She has a lot of masters and that kind of thing," Stefano says of his sister-in-law. "The one thing we all share is food."
While living in Atlanta for five years, the team predicted the arrival of dark chocolate as a foodie trend. Arriving back in Caracas to work as a business strategy director at a concrete company, Zullian approached an artisan chocolatier about opening a branch of her shop in the United States.
"She wasn't interested," Zullian recounts, but she was willing to impart her knowledge gained studying in Japan, Spain and Mexico.
Afterward, the trio tripped around the country, investigating which city was the best for setting up shop. After touring Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and Boston, Houston emerged as the singular city that was seemingly unaffected by the recession.
"I went to gourmet restaurants and witnessed that people have an appreciation for the good life here," Zullian says.
He says he racked up over 4,000 miles of inside-the-Loop driving, trying to map the ideal location for Araya, eventually deciding on a nook beside the historic River Oaks Theatre.
Araya's concept is 100-percent designed, from the sleek brown and white interior to the individually hand-painted marbled chocolates. The family imported designs from Barcelona-based architect Matilde Sanchez, and called upon Venezuelan graphic designer Gisela Viloria to mastermind their bold logo, which is inspired by the French method of making chocolates, in which a Y-shaped fork is used to dip the ganache.
Nothing is prepackaged — customers consult with an employee to create a box of chocolates that nods to the recipient's specific taste. Even the boxes feature thoughtful designs in limited editions, often conceived by local artists and photographers.
Zullian, Carla and Silvana concoct their flavors at a Katy HQ, where they source ingredients from a local farmers market. They reside nearby, and thrive in the large community of Venezuelan immigrants.
"When I'm in the nearby grocery store, it's not Spanish I overhear — it's Venezuelan," Zullian says of "Katizuela." The commute doesn't get them down compared to Caracas traffic.
So what's next for Araya? We can expect new flavors, such as egg nog and crème brûlée to be appear in addition to their current roster of 30 varieties.
As a thank-you to Houston for spurring the shop's success, Araya is curating a gift box representative of the city's diversity by assigning local chefs to create ethnic-inspired chocolates, including Chef Danny of Brennan's of Houston, Chef Taka from Sushi Raku, Kiran of Kiran's Indian Cuisine, Alberto J. Alfonzo of Tintos and a Belgian chocolatier who teaches at Houston Community College.