Co Co. Sala

I’m a disciple of the cult of chocolate from way back. Family lore has it that my mother ate pounds of bonbons while pregnant. Like the child of any other addict, I didn’t have a chance.

Flinging my bottle from the stroller was a favorite pastime—until it was topped off with cocoa. But it wasn’t until I was eight that I discovered the mystical power of chocolate. The thick Van Houten bar that was my reward for getting a flu shot magically erased all the pain.

It would be decades before researchers made the connection between chocolate and mood—chocolate ignites the same chemicals in the brain as being in love—but I knew. Even now, I marvel at the ability of a tiny piece of chocolate to nudge me out of a foul humor into near euphoria.

What happened to wine in the ’80s is happening to chocolate today. Intellectualized, analyzed, and glamorized, it’s the subject of TV shows, cookbooks, and blogs. Even a new chocolate lingo has appeared: single origin, fair trade, artisanal. And now shrines, lots of them, are being erected.

The rarefied chocolate boutique—such as Dupont Circle’s Biagio, with its exquisite chocolate-dipped brandied figs from Spain—has morphed into a destination where chocolate is not just sold but savored.

The first of the area’s chocolate-lounge cafes was ACKC Cocoa Bar, on DC’s 14th Street, a gallerylike space with a roster of hot chocolates poured at a handcrafted bar and chocolates served on elegant trays as if they were Cartier jewels.

ACKC’s runaway popularity has resulted in a second address, in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood, and spawned a couple of brash followers intent on proving that chocolate is worthy not just of devotion but also of devoting a restaurant to it.

The charming new Locolat, a Belgian-centric cafe in DC’s Adams Morgan, cops a familiar model—a bakery/confection shop with a few tables for lingering over Belgian coffee.

There are Euro-style sandwiches filled with prosciutto as well as Belgian cheeses such as the pungent Chimay and the mild and creamy Passendale. These cheeses also find their way into personal-size quiches with tender crusts and creamy insides studded with leeks, ham, and vegetables.

Most inventive, though, are the waffles, where herbs and a rich jus made from vegetables stand in for butter and cream. These crisp rectangles are rafts for beautifully grilled zucchini and eggplant, smoked salmon with arugula, thin slices of prosciutto with shavings of Parmesan, and sometimes even steak tartare.

There are sweet waffles, too—the classic caramelized Liège with powdered sugar and a smaller version with gooey chunks of dark Belgian chocolate.

Chef/owner Niel Piferoen, who runs the place with wife Li-Ting Ada Wang, offers informal tutorials to customers on Belgian foodstuffs—and chocolate. The confections case is full of morsels for tasting: house-made truffles, filled chocolates, macaroons, and cakes. Among the best: the chocolate mojito torte—a pileup of lime-infused cake and cocoa mousse wrapped in dark-chocolate ganache—and a classic chocolate torte with its surprise crust, a bottom layer of crushed wafers known as feuilletines.

Feuilletines also show up in Locolat’s triangular wedge of white chocolate filled with banana ganache. The play of flavors and textures makes for a fabulous candy bar. For those who eschew white chocolate (and most purists do), the almond truffle, a ball of soft buttercream crusted with nuts, delivers an unexpected intensity and is the best of the truffles; some are surprisingly flavorless.

Chocolate can also be had in liquid form—white, milk, and dark. The dark is a mind opener. Barely sweet, almost bitter, it’s a cup you might drink along with, say, one of Locolat’s pistachio macaroons, as you would coffee.

Locolat is far from a full-service restaurant, but as a place to nibble and sip away angst—existential or otherwise—it keeps company with many of the area’s ritzier spots.

More daring is Co Co. Sala, in DC’s Penn Quarter, a sleek, amber-lit dining room where you can indulge in a chocolate-spiked dinner and dessert, then while away the rest of the evening, when the scene turns clubby, with a malted-milk martini.

Owner Nisha Sidhu, a former pastry chef at 2941; her business partner, Bharet Malhotra; and the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Santosh Tiptur, seem to grasp the notion that an all-chocolate meal may be too much of a good thing, so they use chocolate on the globetrotting menu as a seasoning and an accent.

One of the best examples is an improbable mac ’n’ cheese with orecchiette, ear-shaped pasta, and a slice of dark-chocolate-dipped bacon that plays sweet against salty. It could be a disaster, but it’s delicious.

The suggested cocktail, Alisar, a shakeup of Grey Goose Le Citron with cucumber and lime, is a perfect mate—and one of the best drinks I’ve had all year.

Chocolate plays a more subtle role in a lobster salad, mellowing the tartness of a passion-fruit vinaigrette. Likewise, chipotle-chocolate-tomato cream works as a dip for a plate of tiny cheese fritters.

And though boutique burgers are everywhere these days, my current favorite is the version here, with bleu cheese, wild mushrooms, spinach, and a creamy mole. A caveat: Co Co. Sala’s portions are tiny.

The surprise here is that some of the most satisfying plates are cocoa-free. Wedges of truffle-oil-perfumed grilled cheese on brioche with a cup of tangy tomato soup make a luxurious light meal. And a spicy Moroccan swordfish slider with fennel salad might be the most memorable nibble on the menu. The dish gets its zing from a hazelnut drizzle spiked with coffee. Crab cakes, on the other hand, are too heavily breaded.

Co Co. Sala calls itself a lounge, which means it’s a hybrid of a restaurant and a club. As the night goes on and the crowd switches over from middle-age couples and families to young, spike-heeled fashionistas and their beaus, service gets a bit sloppy.

If you can stick it out, dessert will be your reward. A Minibar-like tasting of chocolates in various states—solid, semisolid, or liquid? A horizontal lineup of gelato—deep dark chocolate with scoops of pistachio and hazelnut as foils? Or a chocolate tasting menu?

These “flights” revolve around themes—Indian, Italian, Latin, childhood. Though all have their appeal, the Aztec is the most thoughtfully conceived. There are slim churros to dip in silky dulce de leche, a savory pepper-and-cheese enchilada with guava sauce, and a hot chocolate soufflé spiked with chipotle, with a Kahlúa milkshake as chaser. A perfect end to a chocolate evening. Unless, of course, the next stop is a chocolate hotel.

This review appeared in the October, 2008 issue of The Washingtonian.