After hurricanes Irma and Maria destroyed her restaurants in the Caribbean, chef Erika Cline returned to Jacksonville and is opening a chocolate and dessert-based concept.
By Dan Macdonald, Contributing Writer
T he past year has been bittersweet for chef Erika Cline.
September saw hurricanes Irma and Maria destroy the restaurants in Tortola, British Virgin Islands, that she owns with her husband, Neil, who also is a chef.
That catastrophe forced the closing of the chocolate and dessert-based restaurant, Bleu Chocolat; another restaurant, De Loose Mongoose; as well as a cafe they operated in a church. It also heavily damaged their home.
While her husband remains in Tortola to rebuild, she returned to Jacksonville where she lived for six years working as pastry chef at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club.
She is recreating Bleu Chocolat in Springfield, a full-service restaurant and wine bar in the former Three Layers Cafe at 1602 Walnut St.
Neil and her partners are planning a mid-July opening.
After the devastation in Tortola, returning to Jacksonville was a natural choice, she said.
“This is home. It is where friends and family are. I need some sort of comfort. I am away from home. I am away from my husband. When I say family, I mean my culinary family,” Cline said.
The restaurant is a partnership of three pastry chefs. Sister Chefs Group LLC is Cline, Linda Evans and Tanisha Guy. They plan to hire four employees.
Bleu Chocolat’s estimated 2,000-square-foot space is being remodeled and will have two dining areas and patio seating.
It will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, cater special events and provide desserts for other restaurants.
They also are working with Chef Roderick Smith at Mother’s Cafe at 2467 Faye Road.
Chief among the desserts is a seven-layer chocolate cake.
“That’s among my best-sellers. It always sells out first,” Smith said. “We wanted to go in a different route and have desserts that are freshly made and so creative.”
The emphasis will be on sourcing local products and combining Florida and Caribbean cuisine.
Jacksonville roaster Martin Coffee will supply the coffee. Coca-Cola will be sold in 8-ounce bottles made with sugar instead of corn syrup.
Cline calls her candymaking process “bean to bar,” meaning all the chocolate is made in-house.
It’s a seven-day process that takes raw cocoa beans through the roasting process all the way to a dark creamy chocolate.
Much of the food will be small plates designed for sharing. Food items may include chicken and dumplings and collard greens. The lemon-grass tea will come from plants grown in the patio area. They’ll make their own ginger beer.
There will be gluten-free, vegan and sugar-free offerings.
Prices will average $15 for breakfast and $15-$20 for lunch. Dinner, if it includes a glass of wine, $25-$30.
Kline is known for her colorful assortment of bonbons, rich truffles and rich chocolate cakes and pastries.
She lives by her motto: “A day is never good without chocolate.”
One room will feature a wine and beer bar, specializing in South African wines and those owned by African-American producers.
Local craft beers will be served. Another room will house the coffee and chocolate bar. The restaurant will have a large-screen TV in a bar area to attract sports fans.
Open Tuesday through Sunday, Cline sees Bleu Chocolat as a hub of neighborhood activity.
There may be music and poetry readings, a weekly food-themed movie night and church choirs performing at a Gospel Brunch on the last Sunday of every month.
Cline said she will encourage customers to make the restaurant a daily habit by providing high-speed internet access.
“We want to make sure you feel at home and comfortable. We want you to spend the whole day with us and eat all day long,” she said.
Cline and her partners also have plans to expand their business.
In eight months or so after opening, they want a free-standing shop in another part of Jacksonville where they can sell their candies and desserts.
They also want their candy bars featured in boutique shops around the area.
Restaurant expansion plans include Jacksonville, the U.S. and the Caribbean.
Cline backs the plans with credentials that include TV appearances.
She studied and worked in Detroit under master chef Milos Cihelka.
She moved to Memphis, working at the Peabody Hotel, before coming to Jacksonville.
The opportunity to become the pastry chef and originator of a chocolate program at the five-star Graycliff Hotel & Restaurant took her to Nassau, Bahamas.
Cline has appeared as a contestant on the Bravo channel’s “Top Chef Just Desserts.” She served as a judge on the Food Network’s “Rock ’n’ Roll Pastry Challenge.”
She has twice cooked at New York City’s James Beard House and will return for another guest chef appearance early next year.
“We have been welcomed so warmly. We are just excited to get the doors open,” she said.