"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.
Plus, it turns out they do entire chocolate- or cocoa-based meals every month here on a different theme. This month (on the 25th), it's a five-course Moroccan-spice dinner. Things like "fried chickpea fritters with dark chocolate harissa sauce." I tell you, from PI (the Philippines) to CA, sweet and sour: It's happening.
A few days later, Ms. Naomi continues my education. This time we're up at the corner of Fifth and University. That prime Hillcrest spot that used to be wasted on a realty office. Now it's white, glassy, classy, and somehow, it makes you feel important just to walk through the glass doors. And even more important when the server hands out real linen napkins in silver and lime enamel napkin rings. The place is white and green, with ceramics and sculptures recessed in niches, and a long white bench-seat running the length of the Fifth Avenue side, a wall fountain, another big three-tier green-leaf fountain, ebony-framed white chairs, black marble and slate floors…I swear. It could be Paris. We sit down at this table that looks like polished tapioca pearls. It's the kind of place that makes you clean your fingernails under the table.
But man, this'd be so great to come to in the mornings, have a coffee and croissant and read the New Yawk Times. 'Course they'd kick you out if you read anything less.
We're both, like, hongry, and starting to enjoy this finishing-school thing she's doing with me. And salivating over all the good things to come. But first, we order something savory, seeing as it's on the menu. In fact, they have breakfast and lunch items like quiches and sandwiches for $5–$10, and then the full panoply of desserts, all around $5. And a bunch of unusual takes on usual drinks. Like Dutch Coke, and Orangina. Naomi gets an espresso. I get straight coffee and a chocolate-filled mini-croissant. Oh my. That little cruncher is so deelish, and fresh, and goes perfectly with the coffee.
Then we go for a quiche of caramelized onions and Gruyère cheese. Naomi takes a bite, falls silent, looks up. "Amazing. The custard is amazing, So silky, light. Do they force it through a chinoise?"
Now she presses with her fork to get through the dough crust to cut me off a piece. "Crust's rather thick and heavy," she says. I take the taste. Mmm. What I like best about it is the French-onion-soup flavor.
I get a prosciutto sandwich. Of course, it's not just a slab of ham. It comes with "fresh buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, basil, spinach, and a honey and white truffle vinaigrette." There's that sweetish tang again. It works. Then again, for $9 it should.
We go to the counter to look for sweet things to go. And wind up going hog wild. I get a big orange slab called "Apricot Summer," more chocolate croissants, and a bunch of specialty chocolates. Naomi insists on paying. Me, I'm like a kid in a, well, candy store. Mostly what I can't believe is the fine art in the smallest chocolates. One, spray-painted with an airbrush, I swear, like a — what? thrush's egg? — is spotted from blue to brown, and it looks just too damned good to chew. I chew anyway. It tastes of fudge inside.
One thing we have to try: a Mille Feuille.
"What exactly is it?" I say.
"My God! Were you brought up by wolves?" Naomi says. But she's willing to share some of her flaky ("Mille Feuille: a thousand leaf") croissant-type pastry. It sandwiches layers of vanilla-rum custard with a striped vanilla and dark chocolate on top. "This is a variation of the 'Napoleon' dessert," she says, "a triumph of classic French pastry techniques. But you should have espresso or something strong like dark-roast French coffee with it, to give it some bitter with the sweet. And, my dear, this espresso here is excellent."
I see she's impressed by Mille Feuille, the food, the elegance, the atmosphere. But she has to take off for another gastronomical engagement. After she hurries away, I come across the guy who runs the kitchen. Thomas Gérard, wunderkind from Lyon, gastronomic capital of France. Turns out he has Paris, New York, San Francisco, and L.A. on his pastry-chef résumé. He was lured down to La Valencia in La Jolla.
"La Valencia is where I invented Apricot Summer," he says. "The wildfires were burning. The cooks were making carrot cake. I looked at the orange color, I looked at the fires, I got an idea."
Result is this coconut, pineapple, and carrot sponge cake "layered with orange-apricot cream-cheese filling topped with a marble glaze," as the menu describes it. And it sure does blaze out at you from the cabinet. Later, when I try it with Carla at home, we love the great combo of carrotty, orange-peel nuttiness and the texture, moist enough to put any fire out.
I ask Gérard about the more ordinary things on his menu, like my prosciutto sandwich. "I wanted to create something parallel to the burger concept," he says, "but healthy. Of course, we use our own bread, which is light, and burata, which is the softest mozzarella."
"Omygod!" says Naomi, when I call that evening. "Burata! It's like a mozzarella truffle. The softest! A skin surrounding a mozzarella cream.…"
Dang. Wish I'd thought more about it while I was scarfing it down.
So then we kinda analyze Mille Feuille. "For starters," Naomi says, "their mini-croissant is the best idea since sliced bread. If you're on a low-carb diet, it's a breakfast indulgence rather than a binge. I brought one home with apple filling. Sort of French meets American pastry, croissant meets apple pie. Second to brioche, these [mini-croissants] are what I'd like to eat for breakfast most."
She raves about Mille Feuille's piña colada pastry, another of her "to go" collection. "It's coconut panna cotta (eggless custard) swirled atop a very light, almost airborne sponge cake. On top, it had lightly caramelized cooked pineapple. The panna cotta was a bit sweet for my taste, but otherwise this is my idea of a perfect dessert. Light? It was like sweetened, flavored air."
Wow. And the chocolate orange tart? "Less orange flavor than I'd hoped for — I wanted more bitter (from the rind) against the sugar in the chocolate. But fudgy, rich."
And how about those marshmallows I saw her making off with (as she must have from Eclipse, too, while I was trying to figure out what went with what)? "Both are sublime. I think I like Mille Feuille's a bit better, but it may be prejudice because I like Mille better. And also because my marshmallows from there are a favorite flavor (coconut), whereas Eclipse's are lemon, which is another favorite, but less emphatic."
So, her standouts from the two places? "My favorite was the pistachio truffle from Mille Feuille — ground pistachios with a coating of white chocolate ganache. A little taste of heaven. Just one bite and it melts in your mouth and vanishes. Subtle and supernal. Mille Feuille strikes me as the first serious challenge to Karen Krasne's Extraordinary Desserts south of the 8 freeway."
Wow. Supernal. I look it up. "Heavenly, coming from on high." And the best of Eclipse? "The basil-absinthe truffle I brought home," Naomi says. "The sweetness actually masks the other flavors when you're eating it, but it leaves a pleasing, odd bitterness in the mouth, I suppose from the wormwood. That's the basis of absinthe. This is a good grownup taste."
It's been quite an education. But now, I have to try one on my own. I can do this, I tell myself as I get off the Number 7 at 30th and University, in North Park. The halo above the sign for Heaven Sent Desserts glints in the evening sun.
Coming here because I've heard that the new pastry chef, Tina Luu, has created a dessert that's a tribute to U2. She's a fan and, hey, I'm a fan, and I want to see how you'd make a, well, dessert tribute to such a gritty Irish band.
The place is chocolate and cream outside, with tables and chairs. Bi-ig improvement on the check-cashing place that used to be here. Inside, the first thing you notice is that the people behind the counter, the servers, are pretty much rake-thin, and the people on the customer side are, well — and I fearlessly include myself — a little on the porky side.
It has a nice feel to it. Civilized. Varnished plank floors, shiny mahogany-looking tables and chairs, high ceilings, translucent, marble sconces, tea-green dividers and walls, rust-red accents and walls, and a chocolate-brown ceiling in the main room, beyond the counter with, hey, old silent movies being projected onto the far wall.
But what everybody looks at is the displays. While I settle in, I order a gingerbread cookie, and a "Tolstoy tea cake," and, heck — why not? — a tiny Sarah Bernhardt chocolate dessert. And a pot of Earl Grey tea. I like that they give you a Winnie the Pooh book with your order number to scan while you wait. You see adults smirking as they read, rather than the usual champ at the bit waiting for their orders. Mine's Kanga and Baby Roo Come to the Forest.
I stop reading, start noticing the taste of the fresh ginger strips laid on top of the delicious ginger cookie I'm nibbling on. This lady leans over. She's at a table nearby, working on a laptop. "That's a triple ginger cookie," she says. "It has candied ginger, ground ginger, and fresh ginger. Also balsamic vinegar to make it sappy, and some black pepper. Do you like it?"
I sure do. It's vivid. The lady turns out to be Tina Luu, the pastry chef herself. She tells me how the Tolstoy is like a Russian or Mexican wedding cake. No eggs, little flour. "So it should crack and crumble in your mouth." And the Sarah Bernhard, she says, is a pastry-chef staple, worldwide. "When you bite, you should crunch through the thin chocolate shell, then discover chewy macaroon, and, finally, feel the mousse melting. It's a three-stage pleasure."
But "Sunday, Bloody Sundae," her U2 tribute dessert, is all hers.
I've gotten up and ordered one. "A rich fudge brownie grounded on whipped cream," the menu says, "topped with mint ice cream and blood orange sorbet, accented with butter scotched caramel sauce, seasonal fruit compote, and finished with mint Pop Rocks and a caramel halo."
Oh, man. Total indulgence. But where's the tribute part? Irish-green ice cream, I guess. When I start chomping, it's that mint flavor and the chocolate that's the heart of it. And then I get a hint. As I chew, little Pop Rocks start going pop! pop! in my mouth.
"I remember the moment when I thought of it," Tina says. "I was making the new menu up in January [when she took over], and I discovered that Lachlan [Oliver, the owner] loved U2 as much as I did. I wanted to do something with ice cream, and it was January, so blood oranges were in season. That seemed appropriate for the song that commemorates two 'Bloody Sundays' in Ireland, and then I thought of adding Pop Rock candy — candy with carbonation inside — on top. Because it 'explodes' in your mouth."
That's what gets me. The stories that go into this food. The tales they tell. It's so human. It's back to old, inefficient handmade ways of doing things. It must be tough to make it work in this age. But these guys seem to be making it. Man, I'm so pleased to be living in an age when it's cool to sometimes go back to the future. Thanks, Naomi.