Thursday, May 2, 2013

Eclipse Chocolate - South Park, San Diego

Total Eclipse of the Heart

I hadn’t visited Eclipse Chocolate since they moved their shop from North to South Park, and even though I’d become a devout fan of their eclectic, homemade chocolate bars – hazelnut chili, espresso walnut, sweet basil mint, blackberry sage – what really blew me away was their take on brunch.

The idea: Everything had an element of chocolate, vanilla or caramel.
The deal: Three plates for $16 (one entrée and two small plates).
The challenge: Executing a sweet and savory menu chockfull of culinary catch 22s.

Drinking chocolate: This would send Swiss Miss packing back to the Alps…or at least the powdered drink aisle. This mixture of melted chocolate with just enough milk to make it drinkable (our pick: sea salt caramel) could have saved Augustus Gloop from getting sucked up Wonka's extraction chute because this chocolate river was flowing with the strength of Niagara Falls and guzzling its stream was highly encouraged. Steam waved at us from the goldfish bowl-of-a-cup that held two, perfectly square marshmallows, whose handcrafted edges summoned the same pleasure of swallowing a snowflake’s individual design.

Then along came Mary...

I went for the Barley spirit bloody Mary speckled with black pepper and a cache of condiments (pickled cauliflower, red pepper, golden beet), distracting me from my first instinct of ordering a champagne drink, which I longed for after I realized something about Mary – all that flare still didn’t float my boat as much as a bit of bubbly.

Small plates
NOTE: Cocoa glazed bacon is not chocolate dipped bacon, but instead similar to the concept of caramelized or maple bacon. Chocolate’s earthy sweetness was present in a dusting of cocoa, but bacon’s salty smoke was still head hog.

‘Sup with the soup?: I chose the French onion instead of carrot-ginger soup, but when a glass tumbler arrived with none of the browned, cheesy adhesions I’d expected, I was disappointed. Instead, a stiff wafer of cheese fit inside the mouth of the glass like a circular dam and a handful of rough-cut croutons were arranged on the saucer like sugar cubes. But after they were dropped in, it was hard to keep the “dairy disc” sideways while bobbing for croutons.

I longed for the usual stringy octopus of gruyere and mozzarella suctioned to every surface, but I forgave this momentarily as my first spoonful of broth sang with rich notes of caramelized, vegetable sweetness…before being drowned out by the overpowering punch of sugar from the croutons. Someone should've stepped in and given this soup an intervention because it came from good (vegetable) stock, but needed more tweaks than a meth-head.

Citrus and vanilla potatoes: These wedges came coated with tart bursts of orange and scented with a thin veil of vanilla that lightly traced itself into every bite = orange blossom for the palate. These could have blown me away if it weren’t for two things:
1) They needed to be much crispier – sog city.
2) They needed to be much warmer (all of the food was somewhat cold, which was a BIG problem).

Building a better Ben-addict: When I didn’t miss my English muffin, I eyed the buttermilk toast suspiciously before admitting that not only did this toast strum some tang on the tongue, but its foundation was sturdy enough to hold whatever my architectural eye could design:

Build-a-Benedict: Buttermilk toast + soft poached egg + chive + choice of topping + choice of sauce:

*Avocado with vanilla bean sea-salted avocado*
Brown sugar pulled pork
Cocoa glazed bacon

*Chili burnt caramel hollandaise*
Brute cocoa mole
Spicy pork sausage gravy

*My design*: I felt like a naturalist coming upon a rare nest as I prodded the soft poached egg tucked along the uneven seams of mashed avocado. I loved fooling myself into thinking I was eating healthy by ordering a "veggie benedict", but once I started lapping up the puddle of caramel hollandaise, I had to give up the charade. Every element hit its mark with surprising accuracy and I was shocked that I didn’t miss the meat, but then again, my ben-addict brain was already designing my next blueprint: the pulled pork and cocoa mole project.

Blueberry stuffed French toast: Picture an ordinary sandwich. Now, replace the bread with two pieces of buttermilk French toast and stuff the insides with a blend of mascarpone and blueberries. Cinnamon-sugar boulders, akin to crumb cake topping, cascade down the side and you realize: this isn’t your average stuffed French toast. No - this guy was in another genre altogether - under the “PB&J iconic sandwiches” category. Watch your back, Fluffernutter...French-n-berry is coming to get ya.

Total Eclipse: Overall, I was seriously impressed with Eclipse’s control over a potentially disastrous menu that not only worked, but embraced the limitless possibility of their niche business. Most chocolate shops stay just that – chocolate shops - but Eclipse’s expansion outside the dessert world breathed life into their brunch and took it a step further with their ever-changing, monthly dinners that continued to test the boundaries of sweet and savory marriages ($30 for three courses). I guess the song was right after all…the Candy Man can.

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