Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Stepping into Co Co. Sala is a bit like falling into a box of chocolates. The new Penn Quarter restaurant is dedicated to chocolate. Obsessed, you might say. It is the place to go to die by chocolate: chocolate cocktails, five-course chocolate desserts and splendid chocolate candies.

Co Co. Sala is the chocolate dream-come-true of Nisha Sidhu, formerly the pastry chef at 2941 in Falls Church. With co-owner Bharet Malhotra, she recently opened the restaurant-lounge to instant success. It’s a new concept in dining: Savory dishes are small, some only bites, while the chocolate menu, called “monde du chocolat,” is rich, filling and varied. The talents of executive chef Santosh Tiptur, Indian by birth, are not limited to the cuisine of the subcontinent. He, too, is an experienced pastry chef.

Although open in evenings only, Co Co. Sala is destined to be an all-day restaurant, beginning with breakfast specialties in the morning, light lunches and small plates in the evening, with an emphasis on desserts. A diner can enjoy a light, savory and delicious dinner without drowning in a sea of chocolate, as pleasing as such a prospect might be.

The savory menu is simple, although the dishes, despite their small size, tend to be complex. There are three salads and three “co co. bites,” each with three subdivisions.

The salads are delicious. Baby arugula and slivers of Manchego cheese are mixed with caramelized walnuts and bits of dates, apples and oranges in a coffee vinaigrette. The Maine lobster salad combines lobster, cucumber, crushed avocado, a few greens and a mild lemon aioli. The goat cheese and beet salad is a minitower of sliced yellow and red beets with creamy cheese and greens in a fine raspberry vinaigrette.

The three categories of bites are crab cakes, “mac & cheese” and sliders. The choice of crab cakes is Chesapeake, with coffee creme fraiche; Louisiana, with mango salsa and chocolate-tomato glaze; or coconut, with basil and chocolate. It’s hard to beat the Chesapeake version.

Less is more with mac & cheese, and the versions at Co Co. Sala are no exception. They are served in small ramekins: the classic mac & cheese; bacon mac & cheese; and Monterey Jack and cheddar with garlic shrimp and jalapeno peppers.

There are beef sliders, a spicy Moroccan swordfish slider with fennel salad and pecorino cheese and tandoori chicken patties with cardamom carrots and greens.

It’s the four dessert menus that intrigue: ciocco, chocolate Maya, xocolatyl and “co co. grown up.” Each begins with an amuse bouche and continues with a main course, a sorbet intermezzo, a cheese course, and a finale of petit fours. The menus are offered as five, three and main courses. With the exception of the cheese and some intermezzos, each course incorporates chocolate in some form.

My favorite menu is xocolatyl, the Aztec experience, which begins with crisp, crunchy minichurros with cinnamon cream and a dulce de leche dip. The star is a hot, dark chocolate souffle with a molten center that includes jalapeno essence, giving each bite a touch of secondary heat. It’s a terrific combination, and the souffle itself is perfect. Xocolatyl also has my favorite cheese course: the pepper cheese enchilada with a guava sauce.

It’s hard to resist the co co. grown-up amuse of a mini Boston cream doughnut with a cappuccino panna cotta, or the delectable petits fours. The Italian ciocco main course consists of three flavors (strawberry, chocolate and vanilla) of smooth, creamy tiramisu, served in tall, thin glasses. Mr. Tiptur pays homage to his roots in the chocolate Maya menu (“a passage to India”) with a lovely frozen mango lhassi on a mango salad and panir (Indian cottage cheese) prepared three ways.

The course that didn’t work was the mini grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup from the co co. grown-up menu. The sandwich was bread with little cheese, and the tomato soup had an unpleasant metallic aftertaste. But what’s a minor negative in this plethora of chocolate positives?

RESTAURANT: Co Co. Sala, 929 F St. NW, 202/347-4265

HOURS: 5 to 10:15 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and until midnight Thursday through Saturday

PRICES: Salads and bites $7; monde du chocolat menus $30 for five courses, $20 for three, $12 for individual main course

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Some street parking; valet parking Friday and Saturday $10

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

METRO: Gallery Place or Metro Center

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