Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Delicious decadence

Chocolate isn’t the only indulgence at luxe Coco

Posted on Wed, Dec 24, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2008-12-24

Philippe Placé is perfectly willing to admit that his Coco Chocolate Lounge & Bistro was conceived to appeal to women, with chocolate as the initial hook. Then there is the décor, with dozens of dangling chandeliers and slightly over-the-top red velvet booths in a shameless shell shape. Add to this the fact that there are no flat-screen TVs in the bar (Placé may add them to the covered, outdoor seating area come spring), and you have an environment not entirely suitable for the sports-bar set — except for the fact that the women have indeed come.  

Along with a wide variety of other diners and drinkers. We observed tattooed Tarzans with spike-haired sirens in tow; a reasonably conservative dentist actually dining with his own wife; and groups of all sorts from texting teens to sharply attired couples from surrounding suburbs. On one Friday evening we exited before the late-night DJ had appeared, but a younger set was already beginning to infiltrate the bar. The music is less industrial on Saturdays, says Placé, when an older crowd seems to have taken over. As part of the older crowd, I can only say a silent thank you for places that can play to every age bracket with, we hope, equal success.  

Except, we suspect, for the texting teens, every age bracket should find something that appeals in a menu that’s at once tongue-in-cheek and totally serious. Yes, you can avoid chocolate, but why should you? Especially when there’s a chocolate risotto to be tried. The chocolate component is not at all overbearing, lending a rich color and a meaty, umami-like component accented with black pepper. We agreed that we didn’t have to have it again any time soon, but weren’t at all sorry to have tried it — in fact, it grew on us from first to last bite. 

A traditional prix-fixe French bistro menu is currently supplementing the standard carte, and, having previously had the successful Smirnoff tuna tartare, we were seduced by the knife-cut steak version. Be warned that knife-cut does mean this may be a coarser version than you are used to (I’m giving you all the benefit of vast tartare experience), but the texture will also grow on you.

The raw beef has also been minimally manipulated, coming only with a few mixed-in capers, a demure drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a few sideline olives. A single Parmesan crisp adorned the tartare, and we found the contrast between lusty beef and cheesy crisp good enough to have wished for more.

All of this was consumed, by the way, in the company of somewhat silly flutes of absolutely lovely Heidsieck Brut Rosé Sauvage Champagne, a libation Placé seems to spread around liberally at every excuse. (Though we admit to not passing unnoticed in the dining room, a delay in service occasioned the sparkler.) 

Lead us now into temptation, for even the salads have a certain salubrious aspect. We did pass on the Coco Salade au Chocolate, with white chocolate shavings atop greens. But we couldn’t resist the tuna salade Niçoise — a deconstructed version of the classic that puts many traditional renditions to shame. First, the tuna is not canned, but fresh and very lightly seared. It’s artfully arrayed on a plate with a quenelle of black-olive tapenade, some perfectly cooked haricots verts, some exquisitely, lightly dressed watercress, a sprinkling of tomato concassé, and a single, fried quail egg. This is likely the most successful play on a classic theme I have ever encountered and deserves to become a classic in its own right.  

Have more Champagne. Then plunge into the entrées. Coco will serve prix-fixe menu items a la carte, and the cassoulet beckoned more powerfully than any Lorelei’s call ever could. A staple in southwestern France, this baked dish of seriously supplemented white beans has numerous regional variations and is a perfect wintertime dish. Placé serves his rendition in rustic pottery bowls from Castelnaudary in the heart of cassoulet country, has managed to find a source for sausages from Toulouse, and adds duck fat, house-made duck confit, and applewood-smoked bacon. The result is nothing short of sensational, especially with a glass of lusty malbec from Doña Paula in Argentina’s Mendoza region.  

It must be fear of offending the keepers of the French culinary flame that has kept Coco from adding chocolate to cassoulet — where it might actually work in moderation. (The stone-baked pizzas are also absent chocolate.) There is a classic Santa Rosa Convent chicken mole on the menu for lovers of dark chocolate in sauces. But we fell instead for the rack of lamb with a chutney composed of spiced oranges and white chocolate, and it was love at first bite. The Lolita-like lamb, appealingly pink and utterly tender, could have stood simply on its own atop a pool of creamy polenta, but the chutney was not a frivolous throw-away. Orange did dominate, but the brief flashes of buttery chocolate were welcome. I’m sated even thinking about it. 

We weren’t able to contemplate any of Coco’s truly seductive-sounding (and mostly chocolate) desserts at this point. But we did manage a cheese plate with glasses of Warre’s Warrior Port to couple with the Roquefort, Taleggio, Humbolt Fog, and more. We have to assume that other famous Coco — Chanel, in case you’re wondering — would approve.

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