A Perfect Sundae: Ghirardelli Square
It may seem strange for a foodie blog to heap praise on a tourist spot, but no one should be more surprised than I was. During a recent visit to San Francisco, I decided to return to Ghirardelli Square, where I hadn't been since I was a pre-teen. Even then, it struck me as just an excuse to sell people chocolate they could get anywhere else. But I thought my daughter might enjoy it.
Well, I have to confess I was as impressed as she was--maybe more. Yes, mixed in with other retail, there are many spots to buy the full line of Ghirardelli chocolate products in the Square (only some packaging seems to be unique to this locale, no actual product differences), but the main attraction is the Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop, a classic-style cafe which has now also expanded to include four different counters (or is it five) throughout the Square, serving ice cream sundaes, hot chocolate and coffee drinks.
That doesn't sound like anything special, and doesn't explain the long lines at every counter, until you try the sundaes. We sampled a classic hot fudge sundae (the fudge is made on premises) and a warm caramel sundae. Both were everything they should be, creamy, sweet, unctuous but not cloying. The warm caramel impressed me most, sweet and silky but not chewy and overly sugary, as it often is. None of the treats are cheap, but for the quality and portion size (they are easily splittable) they aren't bad value at all ($7-8).
As much as its a historic spot, I do wish Ghirardelli devoted a little more space to its legacy as the oldest continuously operating chocolate company in the US than some automated machines squeezed in under the stairs, and a few glass cases of old tins. But nobody else seemed to mind. Other than the cafe, the most interesting aspect here to chocolate fans was the huge bins where you can pick from single squares of every single flavor they make (and there are more than you realize).
On my way out, one thing that caught my attention was the trio of "Intense Dark" bars subtitled "Save Me San Francisco Chocolate." It turns out the three bars are a collaboration with the band Train, who also have a line of wines under the same name, that won a few awards last year. Both are charity ventures for the non-profit Family House. Who knew?
Ghirardelli were nice enough to send me a bar each of the 72% Cacao, Sea Salt Almond and Dark Cabernet, which it turns out are actually wrap-arounds of the Twilight Delight, Sea Salt Soiree and Cabernet Matinee flavors. Again, while I have to admit I've never been a huge fan of Ghirardelli's bar chocolate (typically prejudiced towards the Belgians), all of these made a strong impression.
Despite a healthy snap, the Twilight Delight has an undeniably creamy texture on the palate, which doesn’t dull the soft berry and orange flower notes over pure cocoa flavor. It does have a curiously dry finish (almost chalky), which I think would make it idea for pairing with a port or bold red, as well as hard cheeses.
Though it has a considerably lesser fat content, Cabernet Matinee (made with semi-sweet) has the same appealing texture, with a sweet grape-berry flavor dominating the cocoa. Real dark chocolate fans might debate it, but I would love to chunk this up into some Tollhouse cookie dough.
The Sea Salt Soiree oddly has more sugar in it than the Twilight, but the pulverized salt and almonds mixed in do deliver a nice salty-nutty flavor while maintaining the silky texture. Again, a great pairing for hard cheeses, such as aged Gouda or Manchego.
With 3-4 grams of fiber per “serving” (3 squares, if you can stop at that) and good amount of iron in these bars, they are arguably as nutritious as a lot of other supposedly healthy snacks (compare them to a spoon of hummus, for example). Not to mention those flavanoids. The packages state the ingredients are All Natural.