Sietsema Review Chocoholic Heaven A new dessert boutique offers diners some surprising treats By Tom Sietsema Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, Aug. 17, 2008 Co Co. Sala gives diners some answers. If you're in the market for a dressy place to go for dessert, with an emphasis on chocolate, this place is it. If you're looking for a colorful swirl of swells, Co Co. Sala, which also functions as a lounge, pulsates with the young and the pretty. Ladies, does your date practice good hygiene? To find out, all you need to do is walk to the rear of the hot spot, opposite the kitchen, where an unexpected window offers a view of the guys' restroom sink. The new Penn Quarter watering hole and dessert boutique also poses as many questions as it addresses. Such as, Co Co. Sala? The quirky name combines the restaurant's dual inspirations, coffee and chocolate, and tacks on the Italian word for lounge. If you don't care for chocolate (believe it or not, such people exist), can you still enjoy yourself? Nearly everything on the menu has at least a hint of the flavoring, somewhere. Then there's this: Given the background of co-owner Nisha Sidhu, a trained chocolatier, and executive chef Santosh Tiptur, the former pastry chef of the Ritz-Carlton in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is it possible to get a balanced meal from the kitchen? The owners, who include Bharet Malhotra, the vice president of an online event planning company in McLean, sank a couple of million into the interior, and it shows. Iridescent gold mosaic tiles shimmer from the walls of the front bar. Nubby faux emu leather pads the banquette that runs the length of the room. Behind the onyx-decorated host stand awaits another bar and more seats, including low red velvet ottomans at low wood tables (a problem if you're tall or like to linger, since there's no back support). Off the glass-enclosed chocolate-making room, fronted with five bar stools, is yet a third space, for private events. Looking around, it's impossible to not get hungry; what looks like a giant curl of chocolate (actually painted drywall) swoops from the ceiling, and niches in the walls hold Sidhu's delicate blown-sugar sculptures. No matter the time of day, Co Co. Sala, moody and romantic, feels like late at night. The menu, which is explained by young servers in lengthy detail for first-timers, opens with a small collection of savory items ("coco bites"), but the focus is clearly on what follows, a larger selection of $30 chocolate-based "experiences." These include "A Passage to India," "Italian Voyage," "Aztec Experience" and "Childhood Favorites," each theme broken down into an amuse bouche, a main dessert, intermezzo, a cheese course and petit fours. Too much "experience" for you? Diners have the option of ordering just a main dessert for $12 or three courses for $20. I wasn't in the mood for an all-dessert onslaught on my initial visit, early on a weeknight. A friend and I simply wanted dinner and the chance to check out the scene. So we assembled a meal from among those coco bites, which comprise three takes on four dishes: macaroni and cheese, crab cakes, sliders and salads, each priced at $7. Spot another theme? The chefs have a Martha Stewart-like devotion to organizing and arranging; each "experience" on the menu also includes the option of a cocktail, wine or beer to pair with it. Psst: On a hot day, Grey Goose citron vodka with a dash of sour mix and muddled cucumbers proves as refreshing as a dip in a pool. An appetite any bigger than Barbie's necessitates getting at least three of these small plates, which are easily consumed in about four bites. Given the club vibe at Co Co. Sala, they come as a surprise: Most of the minis are delicious, and if you're anything like me, you'll keep ordering these shrunken treasures. Macaroni and cheese might look out of place in such chic environs, but the kitchen serves its variations in pretty little dishes with fun accents: for example, miniature penne pasta swirled with cheddar cheese, shrimp and jalapenos soothed with the dish's texture even as it snarled with heat. Salads are not the kitchen's strong suit, however; they tend to be overdressed. The most impressive savories are the sliders, each of which is presented with a different flavored bun. The ground beef sandwich with sauteed spinach is tiny, but its sesame seed bun holds in a lot of pleasure. The swordfish slider, served with a fennel salad swabbed with a hazelnut-coffee dressing, is an intriguing trip to the Mediterranean. I'm saving the best for last: chef Tiptur's spicy tandoori chicken patties, zippy with herbs and ginger and cooled with a dab of raita. That slider, sprinkled with cilantro and sweet with a bit of carrot slaw, brings to mind Rasika, the city's most innovative Indian restaurant. Which reminds me to remind you to investigate the novel cheese course with "A Passage to India," paneer three ways: pan-seared, minted, and shredded and breaded in spices. Maybe you just want dessert. Co Co. Sala delivers, big time, in terms of finesse. Each themed experience has its charms, but some treats are sweeter than others. The "Aztec Experience," for instance, begins with a terrific amuse bouche of warm, pencil-thin churros, dusted with sugar and served with a pot of thick dulce de leche, and continues with a small hot chocolate souffle that pops off like a firecracker when you taste it. (Its ganache is spiked with chipotle.) "Childhood Favorites" takes its recipients on a stroll down memory lane with, among other confections, a malted milk shooter, a tiny cupcake and a chocolate-draped square of dreamy peanut butter-milk chocolate gelato with an underlay of almond cake. Bringing up the rear of the menu are flights of hot chocolate in three shades, flights of house-made candy bars and "Additional Temptations," including petit fours, gelati and chocolate tastings. Just reading the possibilities makes the teeth itch -- and whets the appetite for future visits. If you want to relax, show up early, when there's plenty of seating and you can actually hear the words to (can it be?) "Close to You" by the Carpenters. As the evening wears on, Co Co. Sala, which adds a DJ to the mix on Friday and Saturday, gets so full and so loud, it's difficult to hear what the person across from you is saying. The roar of a Friday night crowd didn't prevent me from listening to a little lecture from the manager, however, when I sought to return a bottle of red wine that was 1) warm as bath water and 2) off-tasting to boot. "Everyone really likes this wine," he told me. "It's very popular." Have you tried my particular bottle, I asked? He hadn't, but when he did, his reaction was similar to mine. "Worst wine I ever tried," he admitted -- then opened another bottle for us. In contrast, I'm happy to report, his underlings couldn't have been sweeter or more proficient. Outside the entrance on weekends, there's a velvet rope and a doorman checking IDs. Experience suggests that such details translate into evenings where fun is emphasized over food. My "experiences" at Co Co. Sala suggest you don't have to choose between the two.