Christopher Elbow’s San Francisco shop — his only brick & mortar store outside Kansas City — is easy to breeze by if you’re in a hurry. At the corner of Hayes and Gough, situated kitty-corner from Absinthe, the store is far sparer than its neighbors. From the outside, it looks like a gallery: the sales counter is absent unnecessary decor, and the seating area — with its leather couchbenches and cubic lamp-tables — doesn’t invite one to sit and linger.
If you equate visual minimalism with a seriousness about one’s craft, then you’d agree that the shop’s look-and-feel accurately represents Elbow’s approach to chocolate making.
Elbow himself is much warmer than the shop’s appearance might have you believe, however. Last night, my fellow Gourmet Walks guides and I joined a small group of chocolate enthusiasts to sample Christopher Elbow’s fall offerings. Much like a clothing designer, Elbow changes his stock several times yearly, producing confections in tune with what’s in season. He also uses ingredients attitudinally representative of the season. “I don’t know if you know, but Kansas City has some cold winters,” Elbow said last night. “It’s the perfect time for whiskeys, nuts, that sort of thing.”
Having flown in from Kansas City especially for this event, Elbow spent yesterday evening introducing new truffles, ice creams, and beer to a small group (myself and my Gourmet Walks compatriots included). The chocolatier spent just over an hour introducing his creations, fielding questions, and discussing the finer points of his craft. The tasting was completed in three phases. Phase one featured three truffles (pumpkin, brown butter molasses, and bananas curry). Phase two featured four ice creams and a sorbet. Phase three focused on — you guessed it — Elbow’s chocolate ale.
I’ve had several occasions to try Elbow’s chocolates, and I’ve always been pleased with the delicately crafted truffles. Their crisp exteriors easily give way to expertly blended fillings: caramel spiked with rosemary essence, lemon cream, champagne so crisp you swear it has bubbles. Before opening his own shop, Elbow worked as Emeril’s executive pastry chef; the chef’s meticulousness is evident in each handmade piece.
My favorite of the three we sampled was, perhaps coincidentally, Elbow’s personal favorite: bananas curry (pictured above). Elbow had long wanted to incorporate curry into his confections, but he had difficulty finding the right filling with which to infuse the spice. His eureka moment came as he prepared a batch of the bananas foster truffles — he knew the sweet, round banana flavor would stand up to the curry’s strong flavor. “It’s not our bestselling piece,” Elbow admitted, “but it’s my favorite.” It’s easy to understand why: the banana filling, so creamy and true you’d swear the fruit had just been mashed, overlays a judiciously blended dash of curry — a delayed undercurrent of spice.
In recent months, Elbow has developed a line of ice creams sold at two Kansas City locations. Every day, 24 flavors are offered; Elbow plans to introduce ice cream at his Hayes Valley shop within the next month or so. We previewed four flavors of ice cream (mint chocolate chip, goat cheese and honey, rosemary caramel, and Venezuelan spice), as well as a pineapple-cilantro sorbet.
San Franciscans are notoriously hard to please, particularly when it comes to ice cream. Despite its moderate climate, the city is host to a number of cultworthy ice cream shops; Bi-Rite Creamery, Three Twins, Smitten, Humphry Slocombe, and Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous are the best known. Flavorwise, Elbow’s ice creams are killer, but texturally, they leave something to be desired. One of my fellow guides described the ice creams as “grainy.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, but when I’m eating something that’s 16% butterfat, I expect more smoothness: max smoothness. The Venezuelan spice, in particular, was so dense that it was tough to spoon into — a preventative measure against overindulgence, perhaps?
This isn’t to say I disliked the ice creams. The goat cheese and honey was positively dreamy; had I not had to save room for the following samples, I’d have eaten my entire dish. What hits you first is the texture, the lushness of the ice cream on your tongue, followed by the pungent flavor of goat cheese. Each bite finishes with a dainty note of honey, so faint that it’s nearly imperceptible.
The pineapple-cilantro sorbet was also spot-on. Not too sweet, as so many pineapple-flavored confections are, the flavor gains credibility from the touch of cilantro that forms the tail. One of our group joked that the sorbet would make a great cocktail, and Elbow suggested putting “a scoop or two” in a pour of tequila. I’ll keep that in mind for our coming summer months. What would a party be without beer? Not much of a party, some might say, and Elbow is clearly of this mindset; he finished the tasting with small pours of his Chocolate Ale (9.1% ABV). With a base blend of a Scottish-style ale. the brew carries the flavor of the nibs with which it was infused during brewing — a flavor that intensifies as the beverage warms. Infusing the beer was quite a difficult process; the nibs must be heated before they’ll release their flavor, but heating also releases the nibs’ fat, which compromises the final product. Elbow’s solution was to limit the heating time to five minutes, and to add unheated nibs later in the production process.
At present, Elbow doesn’t have plans to develop another beer — he’s dividing nearly all of his time between his KC chocolate and ice-cream shops — but the reputed popularity of this brew is enough to garner Elbow clout in the spirits world. I’m not well-versed enough to speak about the beer with authority, though I’ll note that the cocoa infusion became noticeably more pronounced as time progressed; what began as a hint blossomed into a full flavor. Curious about what to pair with such a beer? Elbow recommends sipping it alone, in place of a dessert wine. Of course, if the beer doesn’t sate your sweet tooth, there’s always chocolate (and ice cream).