Tuesday, January 29, 2008

San Diego Foodstuff Debuts in National Geographic Traveler

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that National Geographic Traveler writer Emily Haile prominently mentioned San Diego Foodstuff in her 48 Hours San Diego Destination Guide for January/February 2008.

Check it out!

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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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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Fancy Food Show: A Closer Look

I returned to the Fancy Food Show on Tuesday, the show's final day, and was able to focus more on local products and some healthier products. No worries, I also spent some time on some tremendous indulgences as well.

Let's talk local first. I immediately ran into a stall for Carlsbad Gourmet staffed by its president Russ Bruhn. He had what seemed to be dozens of products that revolve around, well, strawberries, of course: Strawberry Spread, Strawberry/Lavender Spread, Strawberry/Jalapeno Spread and the like. I enjoyed the strawberry/lavender combination -- it's a natural marriage. I wasn't as fond of the strawberry/jalapeno combo. It just seemed forced to put together the distinctive sweet strawberry flavor with a huge pack of heat. On the other hand, I've been raving to everyone about the Carlsbad Chronic Bar-B-Que Sauce. Made with Carlsbad Chronic Ale brewed locally by Port Brewing Company, the sauce is a stunner -- tangy, hot, sweet, thick. Definitely something to order online.

Another find isn't quite local, but close. Pollen Ranch fennel pollen is located up in Tulare County but their line of eight fennel pollen spice blends was created by the Marine Room's Chef Bernard Guillas. These include M-Ocean for fish and shellfish; Pollen Asian for all dishes; Hog Heaven for poultry, pork and veal; Little Devil for Cajun Creole beef; and Divine Desserts for baking and desserts. I took a few samples and tried out the Divine Desserts this week in an apple pie. The spice blend includes fennel pollen, dried ground orange peel, lemon grass powder, cayenne pepper, sour plum powder, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamon, ginger, vanilla powder, ground clove and coriander. I substituted a normal teaspoon or so of cinnamon for the equivalent of the Divine Desserts and hoped for the best. It turned out to be a huge success at my book club. The feedback I got was that it elevated the expected flavors and added a bit of an edge. I loved the fact that it melded so well with the apples and gave the pie another dimension. Currently, Jonathan's and Harvest Ranch markets carry the line of spices. The company told me that Taste in Hillcrest will also be carrying it soon.

In answer to the quest for some healthier foods, I tried valiantly and did find some interesting products -- but it really required more willpower than I had to eschew the fabulous in favor of the body friendly. I'm still enthralled with the Popcorn, Indiana products from Dale and Thomas that I wrote about Monday. But, I found another wonderful company called Lesser Evil that sells low-fat kettle corns and low-fat Krinkle Sticks. The latter was a hit on the Gourmet Club radio show yesterday. These are seasoned potato snacks, either Classic Sea Salt or SourCream & Onion. I loved the flavor but found them too salty. The Kettle Corns were simply fantastic in that classic salty/sweet combo. I'm told by the company that their snack bags are equal to two points for Weight Watchers. You can find them locally at Jimbos and the La Jolla Whole Foods.

Another interesting low-fat product is the Skinny Frappe, ice-blended drinks that boast they're low calorie, low in sugar and low in fat. Made by Caffe D'Amore, they come in coffee, vanilla, chocolate and mocha. I tried the mocha, which was delicious and very refreshing. All you need to do to make these is combine a package of the mix, skim milk and ice in the blender for 30 seconds. These can be found locally starting in February at Smart N Final.

As for other low-fat foods, truly most of what was there is already on our shelves and are products you're probably already familiar with. I didn't find much that was both novel and tasty. In fact, one attempt ended badly -- it was a green tea energy bar type of product that simply was foul. Another, a spinach-flavored, fat-free tortilla chip, wasn't much better.

Neither local, nor healthy but tremendously fun were the Soul Sisters from Paterson, New Jersey. These two ladies, Betty and Kathy Dixon, have come up with a wonderfully tasty frozen food: "soulful" egg rolls.

Wrapped in the traditional Asian egg roll dough, these Soul Rolls have several different fillings, each packed with wonderful flavors: sage sausage, Latin-Style Kitchen, Sun-Dried Tomato & Swiss, Jerk Chicken - "Ja Roll," Carne Asada Steak, Latin-Style Chicken and Smoked Turkey. They come four in a box along with a fabulous Jalapeno & Garlic dipping sauce. My favorite was the spicy savory Sage Sausage. It's still unclear what stores here will be selling these so check in on their website in a month to find out if they've made any local distribution deals.

I also enjoyed pear-flavored products from A Perfect Pear in Napa Valley. You can find their Pear Chipotle Grill Sauce, Buttermilk Pancake mix, Pear Fig Jam, Cinnamon Pear Maple Syrup and other items at Whole Foods and Bristol Farms. The flavors are slightly unusual in a good way. Local personal chef Amy Thom developed recipes for the products and made turkey meatballs in the grill sauce. The sauce really turned a low-fat (see, back to our theme) entree into something with a rich, elegant flavor. Also enchanting were pear and sweet potato pancakes using their buttermilk pancake mix, topped with cinnamon pear maple syrup.

If you're working up a good thirst by now, look for lemonade mixes from Urban Accents. I loved the lavender lemonade and the jalapeno lemonade. They also carry cucumber, ginger and spiced flavors. The lemonades are just one line of a variety of products that include spices blends, exotic rices, popcorns, grilling rubs and many other items. The reps couldn't tell me where their products are sold in San Diego, but you can buy them online.

Over by the international foods section, I encountered a young man enthusiastically carving a serrano ham for an engaged audience.

The ham, from a Spanish company called Ilbesa, was a little salty, a little fatty and all around a delightful burst of pork lusciousness. Next to it was a thick chorizo. Both can be found in town at Costa Brava in Pacific Beach.

Portugal also had strong offerings, including a wonderful collection of cheeses with fruit spreads designed to complement them. I tried a couple of sheep and goat cheeses.

The Valle d'Aspe chevre was a little sharp but the edge came off when paired with their Black Cherry with Licorice fruit spread. I also was taken by another goat cheese, gardunha, and was able to find it at Venissimo on Wednesday. This intense cheese is wonderful paired with either sweet fruit or olive tapenade, according to store owner Gina Frieze. Let it sit out at room temperature to get good and soft before eating.

Finally, check out Whole Foods for the Mt. Vikos line of Greek Foods -- superb barrel-aged feta, the herb-spiked Fetiri and a line of appetizers. Next to Mt. Vikos and possibly distributed by the same people at the booth was an interesting product from Spain called Sweet Olive Oil Tortas. These crispy yet fragile, circular pastries are perfect for a cheese plate or just to snack on with tea. You can find them at Whole Foods, Henry's and Bristol Farms.

And that concludes the tour. I don't know about you, but I'm stuffed!

Have some thoughts about the Fancy Food Show 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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Monday, January 14, 2008

Fancy Food Show in San Diego: A Glutton's Delight

For the first time, San Diego is playing host to the Fancy Food Show and as you can imagine, it is not for the faint of appetite. The show, which started yesterday and runs through Tuesday at the Convention Center, is aisle after aisle of specialty food and beverages from around the world, including for the first time on the West Coast, a Natural & Organic Pavilion.

I attended the show yesterday and while much of the crowd -- and it was a tremendous crowd -- was also fixated on the Chargers game, the aisles were packed with retailers, vendors, event planners and others in the food industry sampling an assortment of products that was simply overwhelming. After an hour or so, I had a moment when I unfocused my eyes and all I saw were mouths chewing and chewing. Gourmet? Yes. But gluttony was rampant -- forget New Year's resolutions and willpower. The Fancy Food Show is an industry chow down.

There were vendors from a number of different countries -- England France, Australia, Canada, Portugal, Spain -- and naturally there was a lot of cheese. I was mesmerized by what I saw from Italy, offerings that ran from pasta, sauces and olive oil to cheeses like Grana Padano, a hard granular cheese which looks much like Parmigiano Reggiano and is made with semi-skimmed cows milk in Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, Trentino and Veneto. In the U.S., more people are familiar with Parmigiano Reggiano, but Grana Padano has been around since the 12th century, when Cistercian monks in Northern Italy's Po River Valley processed the milk of their cattle into these large -- 65 pound -- wheels of cheese. It's actually the largest selling hard cheese in Italy and in San Diego you can find it at Venissimo.

There were some sublime offerings in the world of chocolate. A few stood out, including Poco Dolce's bittersweet tiles with sea salt, the single-source Chocolates El Rey, which uses Venezuelan cacao and Schokinag Chocolate, which makes an outrageous hot chocolate. I sampled the Extreme Dark, with a 79 percent cocoa content, and instead of getting what I worried might be a stream of bitterness, instead enjoyed a very adult, very luscious sip of warm cocoa.

Among the more mundane, though tasty, displays was bagged popcorn. This is not something I would normally bother with, but I took a couple of bags from Dale and Thomas Popcorn and popped them open last night. Their Movie Theater Popcorn was surprisingly light and crunchy with just the right amount of salt and butter -- yes, they use clarified butter. And, the Kettlecorn popcorn was almost as good as what you'd find fresh at the farmers market -- that wonderful combo of sweet and salty with a good crunch.

I also had a wonderful surprise with licorice. Black Opal Aussie Licorice has a terrific, thick black licorice that diehard licorice lovers will love. It's chewy and rich and very satisfying. They also make a raspberry flavor covered in dark chocolate which is simply ridiculously divine.

Given the heady world of celebrity chefs, there were surprisingly few on hand. Paula Deen had a booth, but I didn't see her there. Same with Emeril and Rick Bayless (Frontera). A physically diminished Paul Prudhomme was gamely sitting on a mobility scooter, sauteeing a dish using one of his spice blends. The star of the show seemed to be the Barefood Contessa, Ina Garten, sitting at her booth, surrounded by cookie and cupcake mixes and dessert sauces, signing autographs.

I didn't see a lot of local vendors at the show, but I did meet one pair from Encinitas, Judy Nakatomi and Kazuyo Hirose, who own Kanaya Fine Tea. I tasted their "first plucking" Sencha and Hojicha teas, both of which were lovely and smooth. The partners are just introducing organic tea powders that can be used as a quick way to make a cup of tea or add to another beverage or to use for baking or creating sauces. The two flavors, Sencha and Genmaicha, are subtle and filled with the same vitamins and antioxidants you'd find in their leaf tea counterparts. Locally, you can find them at Zinc Cafe and Cardiff Seaside Market.

I know this is a ridiculously short list given the sheer scale of what was available (and I tasted everything from mozzarella stuffed red peppers, smoked sturgeon and brandy-infused caviar to chocolate truffles, duck sausage and at least seven different olive oils) but actually much of what was there is currently on the shelves and in the refrigerated sections of most of your favorite markets--products by Soy Vay, Republic of Tea, Ghirardelli and others that you already know. Others are less familiar but they are stocked in a variety of local shops. I'll be writing about some of them shortly, but in the meantime, the next time you hit Vons or Whole Foods or even CostPlus, take another look beyond what you've spotted on your shopping list. You might see something I tasted at the show that will open up new culinary possibilities for you.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Heads Up: Marukai is Opening Next Week

I stopped by the new Japanese market Marukai yesterday before going on the Gourmet Club, hoping that it had finally opened. But while the doors were open, the shelves were still being stocked. However, the store manager told me that Marukai would at last be open on January 17, with an official grand opening taking place in February. So, stay tuned. I'll stop by and see what they've got and how they compare to nearby Mitsuwa and Nijiya.

Marukai is located, along with Marukai Living and Daiso (the marvelous $1.50 store), at the corner of Balboa and Mercury, near Highway 163.

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