Chocolate Café adds “savory” to its lexicon of decadence
To the pantheon of great chocolate cities — Zurich, Brussels, Paris — South Bend, Ind., now hopes to be admitted. Already the capital of college football, South Bend hopes that people will remember it not only for gridiron achievements, but for its old-fashioned fudges and gourmet truffles. To do so, the company, founded by Mark Tarner in 1991, is expanding into new markets, opening chocolate shops and cafés everywhere from Put-in-Bay, Ohio, to toll roads in Northwest Indiana.
The Hoosier ($4.59), a gut-busting twist on the ice cream sundae.
One of the most celebrated and storied cafés is now packing in customers in downtown Indy. But this was not without a fight. The so-called “Chocolate Wars” between South Bend Chocolate Company and Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory are, by now, fairly well-publicized. In short, South Bend came to town in 2001 and moved next door to Rocky Mountain, a chocolate shop with a faithful, if quiet, following on Monument Circle. Call it predatory business tactics or just honest-to-goodness faith in a product, but South Bend’s good-natured, aggressive pursuit of Indy’s sweet tooth left its competitor scrambling. Late last year, Rocky Mountain gave up the battle. The vanquisher’s reward? The small storefront next door, perfect for expanding into the savory treats business. In this new spot, the purveyor of sweets has recently added a menu of sandwiches and salads, as well as sprucing up both sides to create some continuity in décor. Vintage confectionary tins and a spiffy private “Hoosier Room” add some charm and hearken to the history of America’s favorite candy ingredient. But the place seems unclear about its identity. Is it a romantic fondue spot for couples, as it mentions on the menu? Or is it a 21st century soda fountain? Maybe a deli with a ton of desserts? Whatever the personality of the café cum chocolatier, counter service on the café side is a little scattered, and the generally youthful staff members often have to ask you several times what you actually ordered before you get it. One manager seemed utterly strapped trying to hold everything together. From a streamlined selection of lunch favorites, a half-sandwich and soup ($5.99) combo brought together half of a chicken fajita pepperjack cheese sandwich and a cup of lobster bisque. The sandwich was a little soggy, despite its tour of duty in the panini grill, and was almost buried by potato chips. Peppercorn bread added a slightly bitter aftertaste. The bisque was creamy enough, but the lobster was a little chewy. A café salad ($3.99) was as straightforward as it gets: a mound of romaine with cucumbers and tomatoes. Admittedly, we could have created our own salad for just $2 more with everything from pecans to jalapeños. A cranberry vinaigrette was less salad dressing and more topping for waffles, but a quick switch to the bleu cheese pecan balsamic vinaigrette was a great move. A cup of Tuscan sausage and white bean soup ($2.49) had more going for it. This thick, earthy elixir with plenty of visible herbs would be a nice way to warm up on a winter day. But you want to hear about the chocolate, right? In truth, the new café almost seems like a front to get a few more waist-watching customers through the door and to win them over to the delights from the chocolate shop. For the most part, it works. Once you stroll through the cramped café line into the somewhat more spacious paradise of chocolate, it’s a bit like you’ve survived another obstacle in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Don’t think fancy old-is-new chocolate with hints of chili powder, ginger and wasabi. Think straightforward, tooth-loosening candy shop fare that will tickle the hearts of every chocolate lover who strolls by. To be sure, we went straight to the core of what South Bend Chocolate Company is all about with an over-the-top soda fountain treat, The Hoosier ($4.59), a gut-busting twist on the ice cream sundae. To gild the lily, we substituted vanilla and chocolate ice cream with scoops of “Death by Chocolate” and “Caramel Caribou,” both made by Bonnie Doon, from South Bend’s twin city Mishawaka. This was accompanied by thin slices of chocolate and peanut butter fudge along with two “Hoosiers,” chocolate-covered peanut butter clusters. If this weren’t overkill, the top was slathered with plenty of whipped cream, nuts and the requisite cherry. Of course, we promised ourselves we’d only have a few bites. This was research after all. But soon enough, we were scraping the sides of the bowl, nibbling down to the chocolates and fudge. Was this world-class chocolate that would put Indiana on the candy-making map? In that hazy, gluttonous moment, it didn’t really seem to matter. Chocolate Café 28 & 30 Monument Circle 951-4816 Hours Monday-Thursday: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday-Saturday: 7 a.m. to midnight Sunday: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Food : 3 Atmosphere : 3 Service : 3