Valentine's Day is upon us. Whatever your feelings are about Feb. 14, it's usually a good time to chat about chocolate. Sure, chocolate makes for a good gift in February, but what about a visit to a real chocolate factory? Craft beer and chocolate-infused savory dishes at a South Park location make it a little more earthly than Willy Wonka's factory.
Eclipse Chocolat moved from its original location on El Cajon Boulevard to South Park (2145 Fern St.) with plenty of fanfare and a lifetime supply of chocolate to a lucky contest winner. No, the winner won't get the chocolate factory itself—it's been too much a labor of love for owner Will Gustwiller, who greeted chocolate enthusiasts during the new location's opening in a Wonka-esque oversized top hat. He looked much happier (and saner) than Gene Wilder's vague and loopy Wonka or Johnny Depp's slightly sinister version of Roald Dahl's reclusive chocolatier.
There's plenty to be happy about, with a café four times larger than the former location. The centerpiece of the room is an expansive, glossy wooden bar where customers can enjoy coffee, beer or Eclipse's lovely drinking chocolate. It's certainly nothing like an average cup of hot chocolate with a watery base and plenty of grit; rather, it's a thick, silky brew that reminds me of a trip to Paris and the hearty French chocolat chaud .
The new space is warmly lit and comfortable for drinks, confections and pastries. Like the previous location, the usual cupcakes, brownies, bread pudding and spicy cinnamon rolls are available every day. I will happily sit all day with drinking chocolate and one of the cinnamon rolls, which sport an elusive heat from cayenne pepper.
The walls are lined with windows offering a view into the kitchen, which goes along with Gustwiller's desire to make transparency a priority. Everyone sees how the chocolates are made and where the ingredients come from. Education is another priority; a giant display of the process from cacao bean to confection is plastered on a wall near the bar. Perhaps he'll eventually show us how to put chocolate in almost everything, as evidenced by the sweet and savory brunch menu. Starting March 4, the brunch will be offered daily, but until then, it's weekends only. The menu is full of dishes with chocolate and caramel integrated in inventive ways. Garlic and white chocolate show up a few times, along with a cocoa nib vinaigrette, while more classic uses include cocoa mole served on pulled pork. On the sweeter side, the panini with sea-salted peanut butter and roasted banana with dark chocolate ganache is not to be ignored.
Eclipse still hosts special dining events, and there's one slated for Valentine's Day. If you're determined to do something for the 14th, call and inquire about possible last-minute seatings. Otherwise, tell your date that dining out that night is overrated and a relaxed weekend brunch is a perfect way to celebrate romance.
Or buy a big box of chocolates and caramels. Can't really go wrong with those.