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Price of this candy is dandy

Dinner may be out of the question, and more lovers may be saying it with cards this recessionary Valentine's Day, but hard times were nowhere to be found at a tiny shop where love is spelled: C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T.

That's chocolate without the "e."

Minks and mais ouis were everywhere Wednesday at La Maison Du Chocolat, which Chocolatier magazine says is one of the most exclusive chocolate shops in Manhattan.

No, no, said chocolate maven and manager Deborah Wagner: "We're the most exclusive in the world."

No need to quibble. This is definitely not cardboard box, $9.95-a-pound drugstore candy.

It's chocolat _ the French spelling, of course. And it's expensive in any language.

"If you know good chocolate you'd never consider anything else," sniffed Arie Kirer, who plunked down $35 plus tax for a small red heart, wrapped in ribbon.

So the question is: Just how much do you love your sweetheart?

Enough to shell out $49.50 a pound for an assortment of ganache _ or soft-centered _ chocolates with operatic appellations like Traviata, Faust, Rigoletto or Liselotte?

The 28 different little delights _ handmade and flown in weekly from Paris _ are the creation of La Maison founder Robert Linxe, who owns three Paris shops. The Manhattan shop is the only one in America.

The operatic names come not because the confections make your mouth sing, but because Linxe is an opera buff. Hence, such dramatic descriptions as:

"Othello: a ganache flavored with mountain honey, covered in dark chocolate. This savory, chromatic blend is as forceful as the Moor of Venice."

There's no selling here. None is needed. These people are hooked before they walk in the door.

"Ohhhhhhh. Mmmmmm. I love that smell," a woman in a fur hat moaned as she walked in. She immediately launched into an animated conversation in French, pointing to the oak-trimmed glass case filled with champagne truffles ($45 a pound).

Another customer, Adam Price, predicted a very romantic Valentine's Day.

"My wife is a chocoholic and she will appreciate it," he said. (Or did he say "she WILL" as he shelled out his $35 for a pink heart?)

The boxy little shop is situated just off Madison Avenue on East 73rd Street.

Those truly in love could spend $130 for a 2{-pound box of assorted chocolates. Those wildly bewitched may spend $400 for a chocolate-filled lacquer box.

And those who are just bothered or bewildered can get away with spending as little as $7.50 for a handful of chocolate-covered coffee beans or 90 cents for a single truffle _ plain, not cognac.

Did someone say recession? Wagner hasn't seen any evidence of it.

"We've had orders from Beverly Hills to Michigan and even to a farmhouse with no house number on a dirt road in Rhode Island," Wagner said.