Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Top Shelf

For 2 years I have driven by Top Shelf Ice Cream Sweets and Eats across from Home Depot on Florida Avenue. And apparently for 2 years years I have missed on some good culinary and artistic opportunities. Fortunately Kathy Steele is out and about and has given me the opportunity to correct my ommision in today's Tribune. After reading her article I made a visit. What a neat place! I was able to see the Mona Lisa chocolate painting and taste some mango ice cream and another flavor ( that was very good but I can't remember what it is called.) Very tasty. The mango ice cream was made that day. The mangos were hand peeled today by the owner Barbara and her husband, Greg then made the ice cream. I picked up a copy of the menu. The items are well priced. They have a variety of sandwiches. Cuban, Pork, Turkey, Italian, Ham and Cheese, Chicken Caesar, Meatball, Philly Cheese Steak, Reuben, and a Coney Island Hot Dog. They also had Chicken Caesar, Chef , Philly and Garden Salads and Cheese, Garden Meat Lovers, Carribean Chicken and Philly Pizzas. The store hours are good, open to 8 PM on some days.
They are located at 9000 N. Florida Avenue corner Humphrey (phone 935-7778) in the Lowry Park North Association area

Thanks Kathy!

Sep 15, 2005

Chocolate Art: Too Pretty To Eat

Photo by: JAY CONNER/Tribune
White chocolate forms the canvas for this version of the Mona Lisa, crafted by Barbara Chronis of Top Shelf Ice Cream Sweets and Eats.

TAMPA The frame is milk chocolate. The canvas, white chocolate.

And the most famous smile in the world is Mona Lisa's -- in food coloring.

This masterpiece is sweet enough to eat, but chocolate artist Barbara Chronis doesn't encourage letting da Vinci's masterpiece melt in your mouth.

"There is nothing there that is not edible, but if you really want to eat chocolate, here's a truffle," she said.

Chronis and her husband, Greg, are owners of Top Shelf Ice Cream Sweets & Eats on Florida Avenue, north of the Sulphur Springs water tower.

Their shop dishes homemade ice cream flavors, sandwiches and an assortment of chocolate treats meant to eat. Hand-rolled cigar truffles are a specialty.

The chocolate art by Chronis is displayed in a case on the shop's counter. It's for sale at prices hovering between $75 and $100, depending on the size of the canvas.

Chronis has created a half-dozen art replicas in chocolate during the past two years. Among them -- a favorite of Chronis' -- is van Gogh's "Starry Night." It was on display until a couple came in on Valentine's Day and bought it, she said.

She is planning to make another "Starry Night," just because she wants to.

"I get attached to my chocolate," she said.

As far as she knows, ravenous chocolate lovers have yet to devour one of her works. She envisions more tasteful but utilitarian purposes, maybe hanging on a living room wall or resting like artwork on a trivet in the front foyer. In recent weeks, Mona Lisa and Marc Chagall's "Circus Rider" have captured the eye of hungry customers at her shop.

Mona Lisa was on display briefly awaiting pickup by Jeffrey and Anne Marie Huggins of Seminole Heights. They had commissioned the 8-by-9 1/2-inch artwork as a wedding gift for friends who had married recently.

The Hugginses and their 6-year-old son, Ethan, had stopped by for ice cream recently and admired the Chagall inside the display case.

That led to succulent thoughts of Mona Lisa.

"We love art and we love chocolate," Jeffrey Huggins said. "What an interesting gift that would be."

They flipped through a book of masterpieces at Chronis' shop. Maybe a Picasso, Chronis suggested

Pierre Auguste Renoir is one of their favorite painters. Maybe his "Luncheon of the Boating Party."

But then Leonardo da Vinci's woman of mystery appeared.

"Who else to do in chocolate but Mona Lisa?" Huggins said. "It's gorgeous."

Chronis agreed.

"I've always wanted to do her," Chronis said. "I've never done her in chocolate, at least."

Life Happens
Chronis, who grew up in Temple Terrace, is a self-taught artist who loved to dabble in watercolors and acrylics as a child. But a career as artiste?

"Real life, kids got in the way," she said.

Instead, she worked for 10 years as a computer programmer, with a flair for art and crafty things outside work.

Greg Chronis, who is from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., was a chef for years at such Tampa restaurants as the Rusty Pelican. He also managed a Chili's restaurant in Pinellas County and owned Candy Kitchen in Madeira Beach but decided he and his wife should strike out on their own. Two years ago they opened Top Shelf.

A favorite ice cream flavor among customers is "creamy cake." The couple also make butter toffees for school fundraisers, "turn-down" truffles for hotels and after-dinner mints for restaurants. Barbara Chronis decided the shop needed a novelty item, something to brand Top Shelf.

VoilÀ! Chocolate art.

She was not the first to think of it, though. Posters and paintings can even be found on eBay. Three years ago, the Toledo Museum of Art commissioned several chocolate van Gogh pieces to promote an exhibition.

"It's kind of neat to incorporate something I really love with the business," Chronis said.

An Unforgiving Medium
Her first venture into chocolate was for a July 4 celebration in 2004.

"I was just out for fun," she said. "I did a big flag."

And it's confession time: The family did eat that 17-by-11-inch creation.

Then a friend sent a postcard from Juneau, Alaska, and Chronis copied a pastoral scene inside a 3-by-3-inch chocolate frame.

"I didn't know if I could do it," she said. "The more pieces I've done, the better I've gotten."

And chocolate, she said, can be so unforgiving.

She makes her own food-grade molds and pours in melted chocolate. Then she adds a bit of flour to give it an antique look. Refrigeration jells the chocolate, but she has to watch carefully. Too long in cold and the frame can crack.

The white chocolate then is rolled out on a cookie sheet. The outer edges are thinner than the center.

"It can't be too thin, but then you don't want it too thick, either," she said, because that can make the chocolate too bulky.

Then, the drawing of Mona Lisa goes on stroke by stroke, with Chronis painting with bottles of food coloring.

"I've got my proportions, and I'm happy with Mona Lisa's hands," Chronis said. "I like to do details."

Confectioners' glaze is added to "make the colors really pop," she said. "Artists have their little tricks."

The whole process takes about 10 hours stretched over a week's time, in between selling ice cream and sandwiches and picking up their three teenagers at school. Chronis said she plays artist mostly on quiet afternoons at the shop.

Art sales come with a word of caution to the customers.

Temperatures above 75 degrees will melt the art. Otherwise, Chronis said, "It would last for years and years."

The Hugginses can't wait to see the reaction to their wedding gift.

"We're absolutely sure they are getting something unique," Jeffrey Huggins said. "More than likely, they're not going to eat it. That's a good thing."

"There is nothing there that is not edible, but if you really want to eat chocolate, here's a truffle."

Barbara Chronis

Chocolate artist

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