Life isn't like a box of chocolates anymore, thanks to Ryan Sutton, Bloomberg's New York food critic. Now when you buy a sampler, you'll know exactly what you're getting, because Sutton submitted to a blind taste test of Valentine's Day sweets.
"Make 'em good!" he said, with no small relish, imagining an array from one of the city's tony confectioners. But where's the fun in testing a $4 truffle? (Yeah, yeah, it's delicious.) The man is already spoiled rotten by his "job."
Instead, we challenged him to reckon with the greater unknown, on display in almost every big-box drugstore in America. How do you choose between the Russell Stover sampler and the Whitman's? Does a Dove heart beat a Ghirardelli square? We were about to find out what Ryan Sutton was made of.
We dumped the chocolates out and scattered them upon numbered plates. Sutton went through them one by one, nibbling and occasionally drinking tea to cleanse his palate. The scores, from 1 to 10, were based on three criteria -- flavor, sweetness and overall quality -- so that the perfect sampler would be a 30. Here are the dramatic results, along with Sutton's remarks, as closely as we could follow them while watching a cool bon vivant turn into a chocolate-mouth Little Rascal.
Ghirardelli Premium Chocolate Collection: 26 points. "The chocolate, especially the dark chocolate, has a nice sheen, snaps well in the mouth and has character," Sutton said in all seriousness, we think. "This is the only one I would buy on my own dime." $14.99 at Rite Aid
Dove Assorted Chocolates: 22 points. "This is what I want from chocolate. It has a hint of fruitiness, and the filling has a nice buttery ganache flavor. I wouldn't necessarily buy this myself because ganache isn't my jam, but I'd definitely recommend it. And I certainly wouldn't turn down Dove's very good milk chocolate hearts. You can actually taste the clean milk flavor." $10.99 at Duane Reade
Ferrero Rocher Fine Hazelnut Chocolates: 20.5 points. There was less mystery here, because the heart-shaped sampler was filled with just one type of chocolate. Nonetheless, Sutton gave it high marks. "It's a essentially a KitKat bar in a ball format," he said. "It won't get points for using the highest-quality chocolate, but it definitely meets an edible standard." $6.99 at Duane Reade
Russell Stover Valentine's Day sampler: 11 points. He took a bite and gagged. "This tastes like someone accidentally scooped out a tablespoon of Duncan Hines cake frosting and coated it with something." Noted. $4.99 at Duane Reade
Whitman's Valentine's Day sampler: 11 points. "If I blind-tasted the Russell Stover and the Whitman's side by side, I wouldn't be able to tell the difference," Sutton said. "If you're gifted either, choose the coconut chocolate and throw out the rest while your purported loved one isn't looking." $3.99 at Duane Reade
Disney Princess Friends Forever chocolates: 10 points. "This was probably the sweetest of all the chocolates I tried," he said. "The interior had a filling that can only be described as orange sherbet in non-frozen form." $2.99 at Duane Reade
Elmer Chocolate Valentine's Day Heart: 10 points. Though this and the Disney heart are from different companies, come in different boxes and are priced differently, they appeared to contain exactly the same chocolates. "Ditto, I guess," Sutton agonized. $1.79 at Duane Reade
DeMet's Valentines Day Turtles: 9 points. "If I closed my eyes and was asked to identify what this was, I couldn't come up with chocolate," Sutton says. "Even though it's ostensibly covered in it. It tastes like nothing, in a bad way." $9.99 at Duane Reade
Something outdid that?
Maitre Truffout Assorted Chocolate Pralines: 8 points. Sutton spit these right out, into a napkin provided for humanitarian purposes. "That's not food," he noted. "It's like eating soap with the density of bubble gum." $3.99 at Duane Reade
One flaw in our test -- these aren't just chocolates. The more you love the giver, the better they taste.