By Elana Schor - 06/11/08 05:04 PM EDT
In the great theater of cuisine, chocolate is undoubtedly the diva. The sugary stuff inspires passion, temptation and catharsis — but it rarely plays the starring role in a meal.
Enter CoCo Sala, the self-described “chocolate lounge” that has reeled in a stylish clientele since opening last month in Penn Quarter. Adding ACKC Cocoa Gallery in Logan Circle and new U Street dessert spot Locolat to the list, one thing is clear: Washington is in the grip of a killer chocolate addiction.
Yet CoCo Sala could not be further from the Willy Wonka fantasy that fuels every child’s sweet tooth. The lounge oozes seduction, its interior swathed in warm shades of auburn and russet with a voluptuously curved ceiling that matches the votive candles on each table. From the plush asymmetrical banquettes to the red leather menus, CoCo Sala is perfectly geared to both date night and ladies’ night.
That was exactly the vision of Bharet Malhotra, who joined with pastry chef Nisha Sidhu to develop CoCo Sala as the local answer to Manhattan’s trendy dessert bars. The duo spent two years perfecting their vision, traveling to India and Amsterdam to learn what hit and what missed.
“We tried to stay away from the cliché,” Malhotra said. “You go to a lot of places that like to serve molten hot chocolate. It’s good in terms of taste, but very common.”
With help from chef Santosh Tiptur, the winning concept for CoCo Sala was forged. Four chocolate tasting menus were crafted, each offering what Malhotra called “familiar foods with global flavors.” There is a Mexican-themed Aztec Experience, an Italian Voyage, a Passage to India, and a cheekily all-American Childhood Favorites menu.
The choice of a tasting menu thus becomes as easy as picking a take-out cuisine. Each one can contain three or five courses, the most intense of them being a main dessert and a cheese course that can also be ordered independently.
I was most charmed by the Aztec menu, which begins with two warm and skinny fried-dough churros that melt into a trail of piquant cinnamon on the tongue. The chipotle soufflé that anchors the Mexican tasting is a delightful twist on that too-common trend of molten cocoa desserts, teasing the palate with warmth before delivering a different kind of heat at its spicy center.
The other menus also have their share of high notes, particularly the trio of parmesan toast points and berry-flavored tiramisu in the Italy tasting. Quirky pairings, such as the mint-chocolate-chip ice cream with strawberry Pop Rocks that closes the American tasting, make the best impression.
But even the strongest sweet tooth is bound to struggle with the sugar quotient in all five courses, not to mention a $30 price tag that is fit more for an anniversary celebration than an ordinary Friday night. The female servers are good-natured, and clad in skintight red tops that are sure to please male patrons, but they are prone to leaving tables hanging during the dinner rush.
Surprisingly, the best thing about CoCo Sala is not the impressive and elaborate desserts but the non-chocolate items that were added to the lineup later on in the restaurant’s genesis.
“I knew chocolate was very thematic for females,” Malhotra said. “When a guy comes down at 6:30 p.m., he’s not craving tiramisu or a cupcake. He wants a burger to fill him up. Then he will indulge.”
The economic risk of integrating hot foods into the kitchen paid off handsomely. The four types of savory dishes — salads, sliders, crabcakes and macaroni-and-cheese plates — all contain a subtle hint of chocolate or coffee flavor, and each comes in three different varieties.
The Moroccan swordfish slider, a mini-burger topped by earthy hazelnut-coffee dressing and a zesty fennel salad, is bold enough to taste bigger than its actual size. The “crispy Louisiana” crabcake, made from the freshest of shellfish bound only by spices and a nicely crunchy breading, comes with mango salsa and a chipotle-chocolate glaze.
For anyone fearing sugar shock at CoCo Sala, one of the inventive cocktails alongside a few savory dishes makes a fine meal. The “cocojito,” a chocolate-infused vodka spin on a mojito, is sweet without overwhelming the palate.
Perhaps the answer to a more casual chocolate craving can be found at ACKC, where the sensuality of CoCo Sala is replaced by pure light-hearted fun. The walls are red as a Valentine and covered in glittery, colorful art that recalls a little girl’s birthday party — after every guest but the parents has gone home.
On the menu are chocolate truffles, baked goods, and sweet drinks both hot and cold. But scouring the tables of packaged bonbons and treats, you’ll discover an endless array of chocolate-covered items. If human beings have dipped an item in cocoa, ACKC has it in stock, from pretzels to mangos to an irresistible quinoa-blueberry-plum cluster handmade by an Arlington culinary goddess.
Unfortunately, ACKC’s beautiful artisan truffles are difficult for even the biggest sweet tooth to master. There are simply so many varieties to choose from that customers are often lost if they cannot persuade the cheerful staff to allow for liberal sampling.
If you like berries and chocolate, there is a cassis Kir Royale chocolate, a blackberry-red-wine type, another with raspberry and a fourth with blueberry. Fancy a spicy chocolate? Choosing between the chipotle-cinnamon truffle and the chipotle cream was impossible. Only after trying the thrilling former and the almost inedible latter was the right choice clear.
One area where ACKC gets everything right may not be apparent again until autumn, when its line of hot chocolates should recapture the dreams of every capital resident. In a cunning touch of marketing, proprietors Eric Nelson and Robert Kingsbury named their flavored drinks after Hollywood starlets. The Lucy is a fiery cinnamon, the Marilyn a white chocolate with orange peel, and the Audrey a divine demitasse cup filled with four delirious ounces of concentrated bittersweet cocoa.
Until the weather gets blustery enough for Audrey to warm you up, however, ducking into ACKC for a cup of Dolcezza gelato is the smartest move. Or try the Belgian waffles with chocolate at Locolat, where onetime Citronelle pastry chef Niel Piferoen is poised to knock you flat with European flavor.
Just watch out for melting chocolate.
CoCo Sala, 929 F St. NW, (202) 347-4265. Open Mon.-Fri. 5 p.m.-12 a.m., Sat.-Sun. 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Breakfast, lunch and brunch coming soon.
ACKC Cocoa Gallery, 1529C 14th St. NW, (202) 387-COCO. Open Mon.-Thu. 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Locolat, 1731 Florida Ave. at U Street, (202) 518-2570. Please call to obtain hours of operation.