If the Chocolate Maven were a person, instead of a bakery and restaurant, this is how it would go: an involuntary 72-hour psych evaluation followed by heavy medication for the foreseeable future. The place is, all political correctness aside, positively schizophrenic.
“Split mind,” to get Greek about defining schizophrenia, is apt for an eatery that shares a wall with an auto mechanic. Then there’s the delusional décor: precisely one-half industrial warehouse chic and one-half rural quaint. Yes, those are commercial mixers and that’s a three-phase power supply. Yes, those are ruffled curtains hanging above the wainscoting. And, of course, there’s a whole store full of packaged and decorated baked goods. It’s like Little House on the Prairie collided with The Matrix and became a…hazelnut cheesecake.
The most recent sign of mental instability is the addition of a dinner menu. Let’s do a run down: A bakery that turns out a reliable breakfast and brunch, and consistently wins “Best Dessert” in SFR’s Best Of Santa Fe readers’ poll decides its customers should sneak back to its curious location in an industrial wasteland—after night falls and the junkyard dogs have been loosed on the other side of the fence—in order to enjoy some fine dining in a poor simulation of grandma’s house. You can buy saner ideas from the guys who drink themselves to sleep in flood-prone arroyos.
Schizophrenic delusion can affect any or all of the five senses and, if fashion sense is counted among those, a straightjacket is in order at the Maven. But an armchair analysis of taste and smell at Chocolate Maven reveals a calculating and ingenious kind of sanity.
Chef Peter Zimmer has assembled a farm-fresh and largely localized menu that reads like erudite food porn and tastes like dinner in some glorious afterlife.
For example, it is challenging to propose a dish that sounds more pretentious than roasted yam naan with black bean ginger sauce and a spreads trio: grilled eggplant confit, hummus and curried avocado cream ($12). Yet, in practice, this is a combination of earthy, proletarian foods and flavors. The opulence comes courtesy of taste, texture and presentation, wealth generated by Zimmer’s freaky kitchen calculus.
Speaking of earthy, the entrée offerings are divided between “water” and “earth” categories, apparently as a way of elementally segregating fish and, well, everything else. There’s no air category, for example—the garlic- and herb-stuffed chicken ($19) is stuck, free-range but flightless, in the earth column. But following the split mind principle, hipster menu trickery and pricey entrées really don’t distract from the quality of the food and the long list of starters, small plates and salads. It’s simple to assemble a light, affordable meal and it’s no problem to go tapas style between a few friends. The wine list encourages liberal libation.
A seasonal harvest vegetable platter with sweet corn polenta and harissa chile cream ($14) is a painful reminder that growing a garden and cooking from it is one thing, but diluting one’s harissa with tears of gustatory joy is quite another.
For cheap—but not low-priced—thrills, one might be tempted by the hot Thai caramel bananas flambé with vanilla ice cream and shortbread ($12). It sounds like a catalog entry in a sexual tourism guidebook and it feels like eating a wet T-shirt contest.
But it tastes like it was made by a maven.