"Let's do it," said Naomi.
Wow. I never thought she'd agree. I wanted her to show me what's going on with these new, like, artisanal dessert places popping up around town. Turns out she's curious too. So, hey, time to exercise the much-maligned sweet tooth.
The safari starts off on a Wednesday afternoon when we walk up to this door at 2121 El Cajon Boulevard. "Eclipse Chocolat: Chocolate-making as Alchemy," says the sign. Huh. Surprised to see a place like this in a place like this. Nothing wrong with the Boulevard. Just that here it's more, well, Napa Auto Parts (there's one opposite).
But inside, it could be Hillcrest. First thing you notice is a sea-green wall on the right with a huge pink swirl curling all along it. Second is the polished concrete floor and shiny tabletops made of Japanese split- bamboo.
And then, on the left, there's this big wall-sign that says: "A new moon crowns the night sky/ This is the moment of eclipse/ A convergence of art and science/ It is chocolate-making as alchemy."
Uh, okay. No worries. Naomi looks as though she understands. "Remember, we're here for the seasonal platter," she says. "That'll give us the best spread of what they've got."
We sit down with a couple of sheet menus that look more like architectural drawings. Except they're of cupcakes, platters, drinks. Actually, drinks — espresso, teas, lemonades, drinking chocolate — take up all but one menu column. But finally come the cupcakes, and — aha! — the real food, dessert platters, including the "seasonal platter" ($12), a "collection of four perfect little chocolate desserts that reflect seasonal ingredients."
But when this guy Zach comes up, he says that's off today. Naomi's, like, majorly disappointed. "That's the one I heard about," she says. "Interesting truffles, cupcakes, chocolates."
So that leaves a vegan-friendly "chocolate olive-oil fondue and fruit platter" ($10) and an "artisan caramel and cheese platter" that's basically four small slices of different cheeses with candied mango and sugared torta and a dipping glass of chile-burnt caramel sauce. They also have a salted s'mores platter ($10), but that's mainly house-made marshmallows sitting on chocolate cookies with a chocolate/blood-orange/olive oil fondue and a couple of bowls of "exotic sea salts."
Hmm. Interesting. I mean, who thinks these things up? Seems like they're into a lot of unexpected pairings of sweet and savory or sour. Reminds me of the Filipino idea of mixing sweet desserts and hot fish dishes all on the same table at the same time.
We order one each, me the fruit platter, Naomi the cheese platter. Plus, she gets an espresso, and I get a "Rio Earl Grey" tea. What surprises me when they come is, well, it's kind of minimalist. Looks beautiful, but it's a bit like a Honey I Shrunk the Kids play-lunch.
Naomi must've noticed my gaping jaw.
"We're here to enjoy unusual pairings, flavors," she says. "Not fill up at a gas station."
Ho-kay. Get the picture. But my plate is a small pile of, well, not mangoes today, but pretty moist dried apricots, and then some little crisp bread pieces, some interesting plums, a little pile of almonds, and the chocolate/OJ/olive-oil dip in a glass. I mean, I have to take a time-out. Chocolate, blood orange, and olive oil. Who'da thunk it?
Basically, to an untutored gut like mine, it tastes like a chocolate sauce. I like it, dipping the sugared crisp bread in, combining it with the kinda tart plum and the sweeter apricots. Plus the cheeses on Naomi's plate taste great, dipped in their caramel sauce.
"These are marcona almonds," she says, reverently. "Very trendy. Taste how meaty and rich they are? These are lightly fried. From Spain, just as the sugared torta are. Flatbreads. All the way from Spain." Now she's pecking at the three cheeses. "Aha. Gjetost," she says. "Goat cheese. From Norway." Huh. Gjet is goat in Norwegian. Ost is cheese. Who knew, apart from Ms. N? Whatever, it's caramel-colored and has a dense, sweetish taste, a little bit sharp, a little bit caramel-y. Ties up well with the caramel dipping sauce. "See?" says Naomi, pointing to the three cheeses. "A goat, a cow, and a sheep." The other two, according to Will Gustwiller, who started this place, are a mango-ginger Stilton from cows' milk and a sheep-milk cheese called etorki that has been made exactly the same way up in the French Pyrenees for — get this — the past 4000 years.
'Course this all is way above my pay scale, but what gets me is how interesting it is to connect with history and faraway places through these modest little nibbles. Naomi says something about my plum being a little sour and the chocolate sauce not being sweet enough to sweeten it. And she calls the cheese plate's caramel dipping sauce "pleasant" but "a little naïve and simple — one size fits all."
"Huh," I say. Typical prole response, I guess. "Seemed great to me."
"Bedford," she says. "There's a whole food sub-industry out there (small producers, of course) producing fruit pastes aimed at complementing specific cheeses. Fig, quince, what have you, even honeycomb."
It's important, she means, to get it right. At least for cognoscenti like herself. We buy a couple of cupcakes for good measure. Even though — surprise! — I'm starting to feel a little full. We split these not-so-little monsters. "Oh, yes!" Naomi says. I can tell: she's happy again. Her instant analysis: "Devil's food cake texture with moist dark-chocolate center…idealized all-chocolate version of a Hostess Ho-Ho…but seriously fine bittersweet chocolate pastry. No perceptible lavender flavor, just some subtle hint of 'otherness.'"
And the goat cheese–fig cupcake has her speaking in tongues: "Mm. Ho-Ho for sophisticates. Goat cheese instead of vanilla cream at the center…faint spiciness…very sexy… can't taste fig per se…maybe that's the secret source of its sexiness.…"
I've got to hand it to these guys — Will and his manager Zach Negin — for originality. I go back past the counter to where they're making everything, molding it, even packaging it, by hand. Zach says they're fanatically green and give ten percent of their net profits to local nonprofits. Cool. Very cool.