I started my night holding a shrunken head and ended it holding a s'more. Don't worry; I washed my hands in between. It was just another day in this strange little life. I'd had the opportunity to tag along on an after-hours tour of the Museum of Man's underground archives, three floors stacked to the rafters with collections that sometimes get rotated up for exhibition but mostly lay dormant and unseen. I hadn't been to the museum since I was a kid, when I was traumatized by my first glimpse of creepy mummies.
Now that I'm grown up and slightly braver, I found it an adventure of the coolest nature—particularly meeting Rose, the curator of physical anthropology, in her cozy lab, where she showed us a collection of ancient Peruvian skulls, each distinctly warped by some kind of malady, from tooth tartar to a brain tumor, and a soon-to-be-displayed set of tiny shrunken heads, each perfectly preserved and wonderfully gruesome. Naturally, all that climbing up and down stairs made us hungry, so my friend and I met up with another pal for a good dose of girl talk and the unequivocal food pairing for such a conference: chocolate, chocolate and more chocolate.
Local chocolatier Will Gustwiller's company, Eclipse Chocolat, has been active since 2004, selling sweets online and to various retail stores in town, but last October he realized his dream of having a place of his own, opening a dessert shop and café on El Cajon Boulevard between the Lafayette Hotel and the Live Wire. In addition to satisfying our chocolate fix, Eclipse Café also is striving to be a vital cog in North Park, hosting art shows and band performances, as well as donating a portion of their profits to local charities.
Before embarking upon a life in chocolate, Gustwiller was getting his master's degree in sculpture from San Diego State University and still applies an artistic point-of-view to his creations, from their dramatic appearance to the kooky but delicious taste combinations that Willy Wonka himself might never dream up. His truffles, made primarily from organic ingredients, are imbued with lots of interesting flavors, from raspberry-balsamic vinegar dark chocolate sprinkled with pink peppercorns to chamomile- and lemongrass-infused white chocolate. He's even found a way to make vegan truffles worth eating, substituting in rich coconut milk for cream. I'm partial to salty-sweet partnerships, so his caramel chocolate ganache truffle topped with lavender-scented grey sea salt is right up my alley.
Best of all, though, are Eclipse's rectangular chewy caramels, made with crème fraiche and covered with either milk or dark chocolate and sprinkled with different flavored sea salts, from spicy chile to an exotic smoky variety. I've bought many boxes of these gems lately, ostensibly as gifts, but most of them somehow ended up in my mouth. Just one square of Eclipse's signature chocolate bars is pretty satisfying, so they're a relative bargain at just $6 each.
Favorite flavors include lime-infused dark chocolate laden with toasted coconut and a curry-spiced milk chocolate bar with dried mango.
The café, open late enough most nights in time for a post-dinner treat, has an open kitchen in which Gustwiller has begun concocting baked goods and original dessert dishes that make Eclipse more than a just a chocolate shop. My buds and I shared one of his dessert platters, with an assortment that changes seasonally. The winter version featured a wedge of frozen chocolate mousse layered with peanut butter meringue and brittle; a slice of sticky toffee pudding cake and our two favorites: a lush, purple-hued rice pudding made with two Asian rice varieties; and vanilla shortbread cookies filled with a mixture of dates and orange peel.
We had way too much to talk about to limit ourselves to only one dessert, so we also ordered the s'mores platter of chocolate shortbread cookies topped with homemade vanilla-bean marshmallows that have been toasted to a golden brown. The shortbread was flavorful, but I'd prefer it a little crisper to contrast with the soft ooze of the marshmallows. Still, the dish was super-fun to eat, with a drizzling of chocolate olive-oil fondue and sprinklings of sea salt. If hot chocolate could be considered refreshing, the rosemary-mint drinking chocolate would be it. The chile-burnt caramel version is also good, with a nice throat-warming heat. My friends and I parted ways, and I drove home, where a half-eaten Eclipse chocolate bar, crunchy with grey sea salt and cocoa nibs, was waiting.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.Eclipse Chocolat, 2121 El Cajon Blvd., is open 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. www.eclipsechocolat.com.