On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found it: a tiny portal to heaven in this hell-hole world. Three of the best things you could possibly consume right now—godly hot chocolate, world-class chocolate chip cookies, the aptly named Magic Spread—hide in a 300-square-foot shop that could be mistaken for an installation at the Whitney Biennial. Cloudforest is not merely a chocolate pop-up selling a few comestibles three days a week. It's a world where chocolate exists in a continuum of art and craft, whimsy and organic beauty. Everything is made from scratch, literally. Not just the vanilla, not just monumental marshmallows the size of Rubik's cubes, but the actual chocolate itself.
In this little kingdom, abstract fiber art hovers over bean-to-bar chocolates, each color-coded square sealed in a letter-pressed, wax-stamped, hand-folded envelope, which opens like a flopsy flower. Luminescent-white wrappers wink at astronaut suits and Michael Jackson in the Moonwalk, a bar rifled with Pop Rocks; the dark purple jackets of Holy Wood envelop bars infused with shamanistic palo santo; and so on. Nearby, a table showcases local ceramics, some as thin as eggshells. Up front, a vast 60-pound chocolate bar dangles from a wire. As it slowly melts on the floor below, the drippings harden into something new—a swirling mosaic, dark and milky. It's not pretty, but it is beautiful—perhaps a sly comment that big ideas are destined to change shape, no matter how hard we try.
I thought about this watching Ecuadoran chocolate maker Sebastian Cisneros steam up a hot chocolate at his new command center. a rolling wood cart hand-fabricated by a friend. The straight-up version always delivers, but Cisneros—who has his own flavor wheel—always has a playful new temptation, like strawberry-infused chocolate beneath a peanut butter marshmallow. Hell, get both; if you're not living now, then when?
The marshmallows are as Cisneros envisioned them: geometric and dramatic, a different animal from the mass-market puffs. Pluck down $1.50 and he'll float one on top, a wild iceberg that melts into a half-inch of cool, creamy, meringue-like fluff. “Without it,” muses Cisneros, “hot chocolate is like a bed without a pillow. It ties it all in, the whimsical, joyful, decadent experience. Especially now. We're so inundated with bad news. It brings out the hidden joy.”
Right now, Cisneros is toying with a magnolia-pistachio flavor. He can't help himself. “He has one of the best palates I've seen,” says chocolate authority Aubrey Lindley, one of the first to sell Cloudforest bars at Portland's legendary, now-closed shop, Cacao. “Sebastian has an incredibly nuanced view of food and storytelling.”
Not too long ago, Cisneros was master of his own universe, an under-the-radar talent with an opportunity to dream big in 2,500 square feet of real estate, which he devoted to eating, drinking and making chocolate on SE Belmont—part coffee shop, part chocolate factory. The original Cloudforest, opened in 2018, had its own look, taste, personality. It was an experience—fresh and cool, committed to max—as good as any place, anywhere. Where else, seriously, would you find cookies, at once crisp and cakey, and not one bite bereft of dark, floral Venezuelan chocolate made steps away?
Alas, Portland missed it. Fifteen months later, without deep pockets and dogged by a desire to do everything perfectly by himself, Cisneros folded, then returned to selling bars online and in stores.
In January 2021, drippings of that big idea returned as a micro-shop. Like the original, it's a gem. The coffee-shop mode is still in gear, drip coffee to matcha lattes, plus various hot chocolates, among them a no-sugar option and the dairy-free agua de cacao. Blessedly, those chocolate chip cookies live on, rivaled only by Cloudforest's latest baking project—flourless chocolate bouchons, courtesy of Cisneros's collaborative partner and sweetheart, Jenna Marek, the recipe reinterpreted after her stint in the kitchen of famed LA chef Nancy Silverton. Imagine pudding-like drinking chocolate reborn as a miniature cake and you're there.
The secret baking ingredient? Vanilla pods, grown and cured in Ecuador, then transformed at Cloudforest into the best extract I've tasted. Only under interrogation does the soft-spoken Cisneros confess: that mysterious, undefinable swoon I detect in the cookies is, in fact, the vanilla. “Vanilla is not about taste, but smell,” he points out. “It's the purest smell of caramel and flowers mixed together.”
The vanilla project began at the original spot, but since the pandemic, he's grown more committed, bringing in more pods and diving deeper into the process—the macerating, the two-month soaks, using twice the quantity of beans (a “double-fold”) for a full-throttle vanilla experience. But mostly, Cisneros says, he's an advocate, bringing out the beauty of vanilla not commonly found in America.
Cloudforest's vanilla, handsomely boxed to go, can be found on a small shelf alongside a new product: jars of chocolate hazelnut Magic Spread, sweetened with dates. It comes on like Nutella with a high IQ, more nut-buttery, more roasty, but packing a chocolate wallop. Full transparency: I eat it at home right from the jar, animal-style.
When the weather changes, hot chocolate will give way to another obsession: ice cream, or in the house parlance, “chocolate sheep.” It's the next step in an experiment from last summer, churning house chocolate with sheep's milk from Langlois Creamery, Oregon's lone commercially licensed sheep dairy. Bright sorbets will return, including a raspberry coffee stracciatella flecked with Bruno, Cloudforest's buzzsawing coffee-chocolate bar, all served in house-made cones made of Florentine cookies.
In his spare time, Cisneros is test-driving an unsweetened ice cream. “It sounds nuts,” he says, “but I can get flavor and sweetness from just cacao pulp and chocolate.” Of course he can!
727 SE Morrison St
10 a.m.–4 p.m., Friday–Sunday (Thursday hours coming soon)
Masks required; one party inside at a time