Eclipse Chocolat: Conceptual, Edible Art in University Heights
By Caron Golden
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 artisinal chocolates. And, so began Eclipse Chocolat four years ago.
I spent a Friday morning with Gustwiller not long after he first opened Eclipse Chocolat Café in University Heights. His two baristas hadn’t yet arrived and his new intern wasn’t due to start until the next week. Alone in his small kitchen, loaded with trays of sleek round 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 a while 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 spatula 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 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.”
His 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 with coffee.
I also tried one of his deep, dark macadamia ginger brownies. (Gustwiller also makes a masala chai brownie, marshmallow almond brownie and dark muscovado brownie.) The dense brownie flavor is superb, and takes on a higher profile with the addition of the candied ginger and occasional crunch of toasted macadamia nuts. Gustwiller has also become known in town for his cupcakes. He has about 10 varieties that are similar to the truffle flavors. Let’s just say caramel figures in many of them, but always with surprising complementary ingredients, like lavender and sea salt.
The chocolate bars had me intrigued. These sleekly wrapped chocolates 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. It is a decadent explosion of flavors — a quiet burst of mellow spice, some sweet tanginess from the mango and the oh-so-smooth comfort of milk chocolate.
I also brought home the Gingerbread Crumb bar and the Kyoto Green Tea bar. The Gingerbread Crumb bar is delightful. Cinnamon gives the bar a nice flavor lift — always a good marriage with
chocolate — and the muscovado 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 low profile to the scent and color of the matcha green tea it’s infused with. A little ginger and some toasted rice round out the profile and add a little crunch as you bite down. It’s definitely a little odd, but very compelling.
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 any ice cream by the same name.
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 over nicely. You can smell the salt as you take a bite, your taste buds linger 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 profile.
Finally, I tried the Lemon Zinger, one of his white chocolate truffles that’s 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 the perfect foil and the ginger prevents the flavors from veering off into something too sweet. It’s a brilliant marriage of flavors and texture.
Gustwiller’s chocolates can be bought at the shop, at Taste, Venissimo, Jonathan’s, Cream Coffee Bar and Wine Shop, and hotels like the W and the Lodge at Torrey Pines offer them as amenities to their guests. You can also purchase them online. 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.
Gustwiller has also been hosting chocolate-themed dinners. 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 the shop, free Wi-Fi and simply a lovely environment to chat with a friend.
Oh, are you curious about how Gustwiller’s new recipe turned out? I got an e-mail 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 said, is Jasmine Green Tea.
Eclipse Chocolat is located at 2121 El Cajon Blvd. in University Heights. Web site: www.eclipsechocolat.com, phone: 578-2984.
Caron Golden is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog, San Diego Foodstuff, is at www.sandiegofoodstuff.com.