What Would Wonka Get?

You knew the desserts were gonna rock, but Café Cacao holds its own with the savories, too

“This place smells so good,” I said to the waiter at Café Cacao, the new cafe in the Scharffen Berger factory in Berkeley.

“I don’t really notice it anymore,” he replied. Indeed, the faint smell of roasting cacao beans faded after a couple of minutes. But dessert suddenly felt eons off.

The idea of a cafe in the factory has been part of the plan ever since John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg moved their production facility from South San Francisco to a 1920s-era red-brick building in 2001. The cafe seems like the natural extension of the factory tours, which are now bringing in locals and tour buses alike.

But Café Cacao isn’t just a tourist destination. The area around Seventh and Heinz continues to fill up with offices, and many of the workers have to get in their cars to search for lunch. Offering coffee, salads, and panini — most in the $6-$10 range — the cafe is bringing smart, affordable Californian cuisine to the lunch crowd.

The cafe is filled with light. Banks of high windows and skylights let it flow throughout the restaurant. Clean and new, the room is a study in sand and sage, with plump leather booths along the back wall and the rest of the space filled with rows of small tables flanked by striped wicker chairs. The desserts come from the barista’s counter, and a semi-open kitchen lets diners watch a trio of white-jacketed cooks at work.

French-born chef Arnon Oren comes to the cafe directly from Chez Panisse, where he was a senior cook. He has started out with a cafe and lunch menu; the restaurant plans to open for weekend brunch soon, followed by limited dinner service some time around Mother’s Day (check CafeCacao.biz for updates). Before and after lunch, the cafe is open for pastries and coffee drinks, including mocha, hot cocoa, hot chocolate, and iced chocolate, a barely sweetened mix of cocoa and milk that resembles iced coffee.

The dinner menu will incorporate chocolate in the savory dishes, but none of the lunchtime offerings do. Instead, Oren works in a pan-Mediterranean palette of flavors, treating seasonal ingredients with the delicacy you’d expect, given his pedigree.

For example, the arugula salad is coated in the lightest of vinaigrettes — just enough to put a shine on the leaves without obscuring their punchy flavor. Roasted almonds and shaved manchego (an aged Spanish sheep’s-milk cheese) play off the greens, rounding out their flavor with toasty and sharp notes. Potato chips, whisked from the fryer to the table, crackle like the thinnest rice paper, with aromatic fried rosemary leaves sprinkled throughout the tall, fragile stack. For one daily special, Oren blanches the crunch out of pencil-thin asparagus, then marinates the meltingly soft stalks with shallots and top-notch capers.

Most of Café Cacao’s panini fillings are layered between big slabs of country-style bread, which are then liberally buttered and pressed until the outsides turn into a crust and the insides melt together. The two best sandwiches are as satisfying as your mom’s best grilled cheese. The ham ‘n’ cheese sandwich — that’s Niman Ranch ham, high-quality Gruyère, and biting wholegrain mustard for you — is a natural. But the rapini and mozzarella sandwich is even better: There’s no bitterness to the chopped green leaves, just a deep vegetal flavor that makes an apt substitute for meat, especially when the cooks spike it with lots of garlic and the jolt of chopped green olives. All of the sandwiches came with an Easter-hued assembly of pickled vegetables — sometimes whole carrots, pearl onions, and cabbage, coriander seeds and cloves scooped up from the brine with them, and sometimes a biting red-cabbage slaw sharpened with a handful of yellow mustard seeds.

But at times Oren’s delicate touch proves a little too restrained. A “spicy tuna salad” with arugula leaves and sliced hard-boiled eggs looks forbiddingly red, but its bite is toothless. The meaty shredded tuna is mostly mixed with paprika and a few capers, and really just needs a big dollop of mayonnaise. Like the arugula salad, Café Cacao’s Caesar salad is vaguely dressed in a garlic-lemon-anchovy vinaigrette; but this time I wanted to taste the so-right-so-wrong dressing more than the carefully selected and placed hearts of romaine. I shrugged at the greens and plucked off the garlic-drenched croutons made from the spongy interior of ciabatta bread. They looked and tasted like deep-fried clouds. In addition, the pressed chicken sandwich with charmoula sauce wasn’t quite complete. It wasn’t the moist shreds of chicken breast, and it wasn’t the charmoula, a summery Moroccan pesto of parsley, cilantro, lemon, and North African spices. A pinch of salt helped. What would have made the dish a stunner would have been the addition of something bright, like preserved lemons or pickled onions, to focus the flavor of the other two ingredients.

At seven dollars a sandwich, such complaints sound a little nitpicky. Oren’s food is good enough that I felt like I could worry over the details. And his restraint comes across as finesse when he’s working with such a bombastic material as Scharffen Berger’s dark chocolate. Oren was helped along by consulting chef Alice Medrich, the Berkeley-based chocolatier who has written A Year in Chocolate and Bittersweet.

First off is the simplest, a pressed chocolate sandwich. “Is this an entrée or a dessert?” I asked the waitress. She played coy, so I took no chances and ordered it as a third course, a thin layer of chocolate melted between slices of white bread that have been spread with more butter than you’d ever admit to eating in a week. It’s the kind of snack you’d imagine millionaire stoners ordering up from their personal chefs.

The rest of the pastries and chocolate desserts are decadent in a more familiar vein. So much butter is creamed into the batter of Café Cacao’s chocolate-chunk cookies that they spread out into crisp, caramelized disks. A delicate hand drizzles fine threads of chocolate onto a butter-crisp tuile. The scone hits the perfect point between biscuit and cake, with orange zest counterbalancing the flecks of shaved chocolate folded into the dough. A small, round Queen of Sheba is so dense and creamy that it tastes like chocolate mousse masquerading as cake. And shards of shaved chocolate ring the chocolate triumph cake, layers of moist cake and whipped mousse (chocolate, of course) with a thin layer of melted chocolate poured over it.

But for the total Scharffen Berger experience, go to the bathroom. The moment you step into the hallway outside the restroom — located inside the factory itself — you’re surrounded by a rich, confectionery fog. It’s like stepping into a hot-chocolate sauna. I never wanted to leave.

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