One fine day, after the post-2016-election Women’s March, a couple ladies and I went to brunch at Eclipse Chocolate Bar & Bistro in North Park (Women’s March + Brunch After should totally be a thing). I was delighted to find every bite infused with chocolate or vanilla, which in traditionally savory foods was unexpectedly divine. It’s become one of my favorite brunch spots, and one of the first places I suggest to people new in town.
When Eclipse announced their new monthly Afternoon Tea event series, my expectations were high.
Looks like a fairly normal savory tea nibble plate, right?
Would you believe there was a hint of vanilla in the crab salad? Or burnt caramel hollandaise in the shallot tart? Even the butter (used instead of clotted cream) was infused with orange and vanilla. These flavors are subtle and add just a hint of intrigue.
I am ALL FOR out-of-the-box flavor combinations, especially when sweet and salty collide. But, I have to say, when so many flavors come together, the combos can be hit and miss. The theme of this tea was:
Be careful with your pairings
Pro pairing tip 1: Garlic parmesan biscuits go very well with fig jam, not so well with lemon curd, and not at all with orange vanilla butter.
The savories were my favorite, which is not unusual, and the coca bacon-wrapped date, caramelized shallot tartlette and the pesto-tomato-goat cheese ‘sandwich’ will haunt my dreams. And adding a hint of vanilla to aioli is absolutely brilliant.
In fact, I was taking a few notes for my next dinner party, because the pesto-tomato finger sandwich looked both easy to reproduce and impressive (the two characteristics I require for a dinner party appetizer).
While the biscuit and butter-jam-curd trio required some trial and error to determine the best combination, the other savories were flawlessly executed.
But the pairing issue reappeared with the tea.
Usually, when a restaurant that doesn’t usually offer tea hosts an Afternoon Tea event, the tea can be an afterthought. In such cases, the food is usually amazing, but the tea is in a bag with tepid water. It’s a problem. But, it’s not *that much* of a problem at Eclipse.
I’ll admit, I was concerned when our lovely server said they didn’t have pots of tea, but rather large cups of tea. The tea itself was “unlimited,” so you could try any and all of them, one tea-bag-in-a-cup at a time.
I know what you’re thinking: SOOOOOOO many things could go wrong with that. That is what you were thinking, right? Good. I’ve trained you well.
But, I will allay your fears – the tea was loose leaf and of good quality, packed in copious quantities into single-use paper tea filters. Very civilized. And the water was hot enough to steep them properly. I confess to drinking a lot of tea – my mother used to say I had the “kidneys of a camel” – but as soon as my cup reached 1/3rd full, our attentive server was there to ask what I’d like to try next.
Our server… ah. Such a lovely young man. Not just quick with the tea refills, but also a dedicated knitter and crocheter who appreciates fine millinery. My companion and I had almost as much fun chatting with him as with each other. One in a million.
Tea snob moment (non tea-snobs may skip ahead)
The tea selection, though of excellent quality, is not suited for purists. Every tea is flavored, the closest to a traditional black tea was the lavender earl grey (very nice, not too floral), and there are a lot of green-with-stuff-added and fruity teas. Notice the use of “green leaf” and “black leaf” in the menu – instead of actually telling you what those are. Does “black” mean Assam? Darjeeling? Ceylon? Who knows. And honestly, once you add lavender, vanilla, or a Carmen Miranda topiary of fruit, who cares.
One suggestion I’d like to put forth to Eclipse is to invest in proper mini cream pitchers. Because we made a mess trying to pour milk out of this thing.
Back to Pairing Problems
Pro pairing tip 2: Consider what you’re eating when choosing your tea.
With such a wide selection of teas, it’s very easy to choose a tea that does NOT pair well with the food. My companion made the mistake of ordering the chocolate chai with the savory course, and it did not go well.
I played it safe with the Lavender Earl Grey and the Vanilla Bean Black with the savories, and chose the Rooibos Chai for the desert plate. But I can’t even imagine the travesty of drinking something like the chamomile-lemongrass tea with the pesto-tomato-goat cheese sandwich… *shudder.*
Pro pairing tip 3: Drizzle the jam or curd from the ‘savory’ plate onto the shortbread from the ‘sweet’ plate.
Eclipse made its name based on its chocolate bars, and that creates a certain set of expectations for a dessert platter. Low and behold: the flourless brownie bite got top billing on the menu.
The Amaretto tiramisu was rich, drenched, and decadent. The lavender and orange zest shortbreads crumbled on the outside and melted on the inside. The cocoa nib meringue was like wrapping your tongue around a cloud of sugar.
But the apple & aged cheddar tart was unbalanced, the cheddar too aged, sharp and bitter for the apple, overpowering the fruit. I think with a slightly milder cheese it would have worked.
And then there was the flourless brownie bite. The chocolate that could have been the show piece of the plate, but was nearly identical to the brownie bites you can buy at Albertson’s.
What I love about Eclipse: The element of surprise
I love that Eclipse experiments with unexpected flavor combinations. I even love that it can be hit or miss, that it asks your palate not just to taste, but to think. To wonder. To venture into unexplored territory.
One element of an Afternoon Tea that is very rarely, if ever, discussed is the importance of pleasant surprise. The tea sandwich that uses tarragon instead of dill, or a savory pepper jam on a savory scone instead of sweet-on-sweet.
Eclipse excels at upending culinary tropes, delivering surprises with almost every bite, to the point where you expect them, and are disappointed if they aren’t there.
- Ambiance – Afternoon tea was held in their back room, a modern space that can get a little loud, but well spaced and comfortable.
- Service – I want to be bffs with our server, and not just because he was quick with the tea refills. He took a genuine, human to human interest in us, and kicked our whole experience up several notches. Keep being awesome my friend.
- Quality of the tea served – Excellent loose leaf tea blends, but best if you like fruity and flavored teas.
- Tea sandwich quality & inventiveness – Pleasant surprises abound, as do ‘take home’ ideas. I feel like my appetizer game has been elevated.
- Scone quality – Biscuits, not scones, but when you consider that British scones and American biscuits are similar… it just gets confusing. Whatever they were, they were delicious, but too savory to go well with the vanilla butter and citrus curd. Beautiful with the fig jam though.
- Tea cakes & sweets – Tremendous tiramisu, melting meringue and shiver-inducing shortbread. The one disappointment: The chocolate.
- China Cuteness Quotient – Nil. Plain white. But it worked.
Is the tea room suitable for:
- Children – Two babies were present, so while I didn’t see booster seats or high chairs, I would say that this is very kid friendly.
- Large parties – Yes, the back room is ideally suited for large groups and private parties.
- Bachelorette Parties / Bridal Showers / Baby Showers – Yes, Yes, and Yes. Lots of caffeine free tea options too.
- Friend Get-Togethers – Perfect. Also for post-protest-march brunches.
- Theme Days & Events – This was an Event, they don’t offer afternoon teas as a rule. I recommend following them on Facebook (or join my Facebook group for notifications of future tea events).
- Hat Lovers – It’s pretty casual, but Bad Madge Vintage is just down the street and has excellent vintage hats. So I say: You do you.
- Anglophiles & Tea Aficionados – Considering the lack of clotted cream and proper scones, this is not a place for hard core Anglophiles. If Tea Aficionados are open to creative blends, then yes. For purists, probably not.
- Wheelchair accessible? Yes.
- Are high chairs / child seating available? Not sure, but well behaved young children appear to be welcome.
- Gluten free options – Possible with advanced notice
- Vegetarian and/or vegan options – Yes to vegetarian