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Sweet In-Cline-ation

Chef Erika has affection for confections

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There’s a new chocolatier in town and she’s all about sustainable chocolate! Erika Cline’s new Bleu Chocolat Café has opened just in time for Valentine’s Day. This shop should be your first stop when gathering all the goodies to bribe … uh, honor your loved ones. One cool feature is the build your own box of bonbons; choose from several amazing flavors and fill that thing up. And the usual—or shall I say unusual—items are a-plenty, too.

Like many folks who love food, Chef Erika grew up in the kitchen. In fact, her description of her childhood sounds like a coming-of-age dramedy. She grew up on five acres of land in Illinois, with extended family members nearby. “I had my own adventures,” she said, thinking back to that time with her cousins. “It was safe, all the time.” She and her cousins would gallivant all over the place, imagining they were explorers and adventurers. She remembers a “giant, giant tree” that was the ultimate climbing, playing tree—the kind where you could almost live.

Family dinner with grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins was a regular occurrence, and she learned to cook watching her grandmother prepare the huge meal. This family time influenced her love of cooking. Her grandmother would tell her, “If you want to lick the bowl, you gotta be in the kitchen!”

Cline recalled, “After seeing everyone’s reaction when they ate her food … I was hooked. I wanted that reaction.” From a young age, she knew she wanted to be in the restaurant industry.

The experienced chef’s résumé would be the envy of anyone working in a kitchen. She’s cooked at the James Beard House, worked with Vegas’ high-end restaurateurs and even with Chef Milos Cihelka, America’s first Certified Master Chef, owner and chef of Golden Mushroom. It’s a certainty she knows how to cook. With her most recent stint as Creative Director & Head Chocolatier at the Bahamas’ Graycliff Hotel under her toque, she started Bleu Chocolat Café in Tortola. Then Hurricane Irma hit, and as she was rebuilding that location, she looked for a new place to relocate, setting her sights on this area.

Cline is no stranger to Northeast Florida, having worked at Casa Marina in Jax Beach and the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club some years back. After experiencing other places and other projects, she returned here last year, seeking a staging area for her own shop. A friend who’s also a chef urged her, “You gotta see Springfield!” Bleu is set up in the former Three Layers Café building and, honestly, it’s never been more gorgeous. The giant windows allow generous lighting and, according to Cline, everything about the place is a “match made in heaven.” We think those massive windows give the venue the sort of vibe that says, “We’re community, not just neighbors.”

This chocolatier may not be as quirky as Willy Wonka, but she is just as serious about sugar. For Erika Cline, the essence of chocolate-making is 70-percent-plus cacao. Bleu’s base is usually between 70 and 75 percent because, as she said, “It’s healthier and that’s where the flavor comes from!”

Right now, Cline’s chocolate-making process takes about 36 hours—and “that’s the short process.” As she built out her space in Springfield, she made alterations, intending to be able to roast cacao beans onsite. In a few short months, phase two will be complete and the aroma of those lovely beans a-grindin’ will become a reality.

“Our next phase is our chocolate studio. We’ll be making chocolate from bean to bar,” she explained. That process, the real deal, takes about two months to complete—it’s called “the long process.” Once that space is finished, expect to see classes that may share a morsel of her chocolatier’s knowledge with the rest of us choco-hungry acolytes.

Cline holds the belief that good chocolate can render the average person speechless, adding, “We believe in our process and our product.” Each bite is a heavenly, flavorful experience, and each bonbon is a hand-painted beauty, a little work of art so colorful it could exhibit at MOCA.

For Cline, it’s not just art, it’s a “form of quietness and happiness. I can go in there [her chocolate studio] and be creative.” And she isn’t worried about the impermanence of her handcrafted bonbons. “I’m doing something that I love to do and know that when I’m finished, someone’s going to enjoy it.”

Bleu is her passion, but the Jacksonville business is a collaboration. Cline runs Bleu with two ladies she calls her “sister chefs.” They’re all masters of the kitchen, and each brings particular skills to the … er … table. Linda Evans is a master cake decorator, and Tanisha Guy a skilled baker—and they can all whip up soul-satisfying food. Cline says that whatever you choose from the menu, as you savor it, you can feel the love the women put into each dish.

Launching a new business isn’t an easy task; the team is up at 4 a.m., and wrapping up at 8 p.m., six days a week. Those long hours have kept her from personal pursuits, like relaxing, just paging through a book. There’s one book, however, that she does mention: Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights & Every Day, a cookbook/memoir written by J.J. Johnson and Alexander Smalls. “They’re crazy,” she said, with a smile.

One of the missions of Bleu Café is to support women of color and African-American-Caribbean businesses, so when it comes time to roast their own beans, it’ll be all about cacao beans grown in Southern Caribbean. According to the experienced roaster, some of the best beans are in Saint Lucia, Puerto Rico and Grenada. Many large chocolate companies worldwide buy from those islands.

She described the bonbon flavors as “what we think we’d like to eat.” They use as many locally sourced ingredients as they can, like the infusion for the popular Lemongrass Bonbon. That herb is close at hand—from the shop itself. “We grow it in the back, in our courtyard!” In fact, she said, “We use it so much, it’s getting down low!”

The makers also partner with area companies, like sourcing the Scotch Bonnet Peppers from local aquaponics farm Native Fresh for spicy-sweet Spicy Scotch Dark Chocolate bonbon. Cline works her magic on all kinds of chocolate, such as Sweet Mango White Chocolate and Island Coconut White Chocolate. Traditional Red Velvet Dark Chocolate and Banana Pudding Dark Chocolate are available, as well as the sophisticated Almond Praline Dark Chocolate.

It’s always fun to experiment with new flavors, but sometimes the result isn’t what is expected. Cline’s craziest combination so far has been a “tomato basil.” The chef doesn’t mince words: “I hated it.” It was a tomato basil combo in dark chocolate and there was just something a little off about the “acidity from the tomato” that was just no good.

The talented ladies at Bleu know your need to pamper your loved one (or yourself!) on Valentine’s Day, and they’re ready for the onslaught. (Though, really, the chocolate boxes are ideal for any regular ol’ day, so keep that in mind for the next rainy Tuesday!) The bonbon boxes are mix-and-match, so pick whatever flavors you like. Four bonbons in a box are $15, a dozen delights go for $30 and two dozen—imagine, 24 bonbons (who says you have to share?)—are $60. Worth every cent.

If you’re a more experience-driven gift-giver, you’ll want to snag two seats for the Valentine’s Day three-course dessert menu. Yes, three courses of amazing desserts! Just $35 a couple—and Cline was tantalizingly, teasingly mysterious about what’s on the menu. Her reason for being so coy? She said that they’re still playing with it, but “everyone’s going to be very happy.”

This story is admittedly chocolate-centric, but I do want to make sure FW readers are aware of the café’s savory side, too. Because, damn. The high-end Caribbean-inspired menu isn’t something found in this region, and from the international ingredients, to the process to the plating, these dishes are a delight. Each item—pancakes, omelets, breakfast burgers, fried chicken sliders and more—is served tapas-style, so you can try almost everything on the menu. I was able to sneak a bite of Southern Spring Green Spring Rolls ($8), but Chef Erika said every item on the menu is great. She recommends the Jamaican Beef Patties ($6) that Tanisha enjoys putting together. “It’s a lonnng process” and a labor of love.

Bleu Chocolat Café may be your first best stop for Valentine’s treats, but be sure to drop in on an ordinary day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, too.

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