Sunday, January 27, 2008

Eclipse Chocolat: Conceptual, Edible Art in University Heights

Chocolatier Will Gustwiller is an artist. A sculptor, in fact, who came to San Diego from Ohio to earn his MFA at San Diego State. It was while in grad school that he started fiddling around with chocolate—not to create mimetic sculptures, but, true to his approach as a conceptual artist, to focus less on the eye and instead create sensations and experiences for the mouth and mind.

So, what does a trained conceptual sculptor do with a graduate degree in Fine Arts? Well, this one started making artisanal chocolates. And, so began Eclipse Chocolat four years ago.

I spent Friday morning with Gustwiller at his three-month-old storefront, Eclipse Chocolat Café, in University Heights. His two barristas hadn’t yet arrived and his new culinary intern isn’t due to start until next week. Alone in his small kitchen, loaded with trays of bewitching truffles waiting to be dipped, he took advantage of the quiet to work on a new truffle recipe.

Throughout my visit, Gustwiller was valiantly trying to get the recipe—a white chocolate ganache flavored with Jasmine green tea and Cointreau—to come together. Like all of his recipes, the idea for this truffle had been percolating in his head for awhile until he mentally figured out the flavor profile. Then, he got out the materials and started the process of melting the chocolate and blending the ingredients, with the goal of reaching the right temperature and eventually the right consistency, and, of course, a stunning taste.

But, while I was there, it was a struggle. Holding the large metal bowl with his left arm while his left hand held the candy thermometer in place, he patiently stirred the mixture with a large whisk in his right hand. There were pockets of fat that wouldn’t dissipate. The temperature was too high. He’d put it in the oven briefly to bring it down and pull it out to work it some more. Then add some Cointreau. Then melt a lower-fat white chocolate on the burner in front of him and add that. And, while all this was happening, the phone would ring and he’d have to drop everything, hurriedly wash his hands and try to get to the phone. At one point, a UPS guy came by with a delivery. Then some people wandered in looking for doughnuts. But, despite the interruptions, he kept his cool, determined to get it right. By the end of my visit, I was feeling just as invested in the challenge.

Gustwiller acknowledges that his training in chocolates isn’t formal. It’s all based on reading, research and experimentation. “But, that’s the fun of it,” he says. “It’s part of the reason for my success. But it’s also part of my frustration.”

He willingness to experiment, however, has led to an amazing array of astounding tasting chocolates, not to mention the pastries he also makes for the café. I came in that morning with a craving for something I saw on his blog earlier in the week, a chocolate chip-chocolate brioche made from a 72 percent dark chocolate and butter-fortified yeast dough he starts the night before baking.

The brioche is lovely. Thick and rich, intensely chocolate. I heated one up later and enjoyed it with a little sweet butter. It would probably also be stunning with an apricot or strawberry jam. Maybe even a tart marmalade. In any case, it’s perfect on its own with coffee.

I also tried one of his deep, dark macadamia ginger brownies (bottom right of the three, above). (Gustwiller also makes a masala chai brownie, marshmallow almond brownie and dark muscavado brownie.) The dense brownie flavor is superb, and beautifully complemented by the addition of the candied ginger and occasional crunch of toasted macadamia nuts.

The chocolate bars had me intrigued. These sleekly wrapped chocolates (all of the packaging was designed by Gustwiller) have some unusual names and I was eager to learn if the combinations worked. The Mango Masala has been particularly controversial, Gustwiller says. I don’t know why. The bar is milk chocolate infused with masala curry and studded with pieces of candied mango. I took this with me to the San Diego Union-Tribune to share with my on-air colleagues and guests on The Gourmet Club radio show. No one who tasted it understood the controversy; this is a decadent explosion of flavors—a quiet burst of mellow Indian spices, some sweet tanginess from the mango and the oh so smooth comfort of milk chocolate. It worked for all of us.

I also brought home the Gingerbread Crumb bar and the Kyoto Green Tea bar. The Gingerbread Crumb bar is delightful. Cinnamon—always a good marriage partner with chocolate—gives the bar a nice flavor lift, and the muscavado sugar and gingerbread crumbs add sweetness, a little spice and a nice slightly crunchy texture. There’s no mistaking the flavors of the Kyoto Green Tea bar. Lift it out of the wrapper and the white chocolate takes a bow to the scent and color of the matcha green tea that infuses it. A little ginger and some toasted rice round out the experience, adding a little crunch as you bit down. It’s definitely a little odd, but very compelling. I’d eagerly buy it again.

When I learned that Gustwiller makes his own marshmallows and created what he calls his Marshmallow Almond Rococo, I had to try it. This confection is a stunner, what with his house-made marshmallows, big chunks of Marcona almonds, cocoa nibs and maldon sea salt. This version of Rocky Road far exceeds the ice cream.

But, let’s get down to the real heart of the operation, the truffles. By my count, Gustwiller has developed eight dark chocolate truffle varieties, two milk chocolate and two (maybe three?) white chocolate. The infusion combinations are head spinning: Lavender Poppy, Balsamic Pink Peppercorn, Ginger Green Tea, Black Sesame Anise. You get the idea. Do they work? Oh, yes.

The house lavender gray sea salt works the palate nicely. The scent of the salt as you take a bite titilates the tongue, your taste buds melt over the rich chocolate, then there’s the lavender finish, which lingers after the last bite.

The Balsamic Pink Peppercorn truffle is an altogether different experience. There’s only the slightest hint of the vinegar tucked away in the dark chocolate. Aim right and what follows is the crunch of the peppercorn, offsetting the sweetness of the chocolate. Very nice.

I was a little apprehensive about the Ginger Green Tea with the dark chocolate. I needn’t have been. Gustwiller doesn’t sling these flavors at you; they’re modest additions that tease the taste buds. Here, we get the hints of ginger and of green tea but they serve to boost the chocolate.

Finally, I tried the Lemon Zinger, a white chocolate truffle infused with lemon peel and ginger and topped with candied ginger. This is artistry. If you don’t like the waxiness of white chocolate you’ve had in the past, let it go and try this. It’s rich and smooth and creamy. The lemon is a perfect foil for the chocolate and the ginger prevents the flavors from veering off into something too sweet. It’s a brilliant partnering of flavors and texture.

Gustwiller’s chocolates can be bought at his shop, at Taste, Venissimo, Jonathan’s and Cream coffee bar and wine shop on Park Blvd. in Hillcrest. Hotels like the W and the Lodge at Torrey Pines offer them as amenities to their guests. You can also purchase them online. Next year, Gustwiller plans to have a booth at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, so who knows where else you’ll be able to find his sweets in the future. Not bad for a guy who had to spend his first two years in business also working part-time at Williams-Sonoma in Fashion Valley to support himself and his “hobby.” The gig paid off both in terms of giving him time to make the business work and in teaching him all about merchandising.

If you want to plan something special for Valentine’s Day, Gustwiller’s making dinner and it’s nearly sold out. Check out his blog for details. And, if you do nothing else, head over there for a nice cup of Caffé Calabria coffee or tea and some sweets. There are about half a dozen tables at this hip little shop, free Wi-Fi and simply a cool environment perfect for hanging out with friends or solitary winding down.

Oh, are you curious about how Gustwiller’s new recipe turned out? I got an email from him the following day. “It turned out great! Ironically, right about the time I had decided to give up. Chocolate-making can have a steep learning curve.”

The final flavor, he says, is Jasmine Green Tea. It will be made seasonally and debut this year for Valentine’s Day.

Eclipse Chocolat is located at 2121 El Cajon Blvd. in University Heights.

Have some thoughts about Eclipse Chocolat or other artisan chocolatiers in San Diego? Do you have a favorite neighborhood market or shop that carries unique or unusual foodstuff? Let me know or add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

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  1. Nice writeup Caron - did you try the hot white chocolate with vanilla and orange? It's phenomenal. I took a tour group through there for the Fancy Food Show a few weeks ago and they loved it - I think he's going to do great.

  2. Thanks, Alice! No, I didn't get to try the hot white chocolate -- but I will!

    I agree, Will's going to do great. He's very talented.


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