Hot Chocolate

Bailey's Chocolate Bar is naughty -- in a nice way

When you go out to a place like Bailey's Chocolate Bar -- a place that blares its cocoa-a-go-go flamboyance right there in its name, a place that nakedly proclaims itself successor to local wunderchef Blake Brokaw's Chocolate Bar, which drew droves from far and wide to the very same address not even a year ago -- you pretty much expect the desserts to give you an orgasm. Then you walk inside on a weekend night and find yourself smack-dab in the midst of some kind of fabulous sugar-rush orgy: coiffed-to-the-nines clientele practically heaped upon one another at the long bar up front, snuggled cocoon-tight around the two- and four-tops in the back, and the walls a relentless vermillion, like everybody's getting their bliss on inside the pistil of a Georgia O'Keeffe painting. This place isn't just happening, this place isn't just hip, this place is yowza.

Nearby Eleven Eleven Mississippi and SqWires are great and chic, but they're still restaurants at heart. What Lafayette Square has always lacked -- and now has -- is a swank, stay-up-late nightspot with an apropos array of nibbles and a massive choice of boozy concoctions.

Brokaw's Chocolate Bar -- like his two other erstwhile see-and-be scenes, the vegetarian nosh spot Tangerine and the sake club Lo -- asserted a certain in-the-know sexiness. New proprietor David Bailey's take on the dessert café (he bought the space, not the business) throws the seductiveness into overdrive. Compared to the new Chocolate Bar, the old Chocolate Bar would rank about as come-hither as a nine-year-old who snuck into her mother's makeup drawer.

Gone are the bakery-style display cases and the shelves of retail chocolate treats up front, making room instead for that handsome bar and a smattering of high tables and chairs across from it. Gone are the purple tones and the cutesy, curlicued scripts on the signage. Bailey's Chocolate Bar is red, red, red -- not just red walls, but red upholstered chairs, red bathroom doors and floors, fresh red roses on the tables -- and so sleek that sleek should be spelled with only one "e." Parisian café-style posters and a cluster of candles behind an ornate fireplace grill in the back room give off a whiff of worldly romance. With candles flickering in the bathrooms, Bailey's Chocolate Bar is officially cozier and more idyllic than my apartment (yours too). It's the money shot in an issue of Dwell magazine.

The two menus -- one drink, one food -- carry through that visual slickness, designed with fonts that can only be described as cutting edge. But while the form may be streamlined, the content is sprawling. The edibles start with a page of plated desserts (cakes, tarts and such), move on to ice cream desserts, truffles and cheeses, then hairpin turn to a "Savory" page of five pizzettas and "Other," which means baked Brie, a nut bowl, and a surprising, delectable "salad chocolat": mixed greens, dried cherries, toasted nuts, Amish blue cheese and white chocolate medallions, with a Champagne vinaigrette. Potables run rampant, from chocolate martinis to "liquid dessert" martinis to wine -- white, red and rosé by the glass, then a combined by-the-bottle section. "Sparklers" (effervescents by the glass and bottle), "Stickies" (sweet varietals) and ports come separately, and then there are beers on tap, bottled beers, flavored beers (Ace Honey Cider, Blue Moon Pumpkin Ale), more liquid desserts (shakes, floats and hot chocolates, all but one of them non-alcoholic), coffee drinks, then Scotch, tequila and rum.

I think I counted 218 items, solid and liquid, all told.

The good news: The martinis are strong and well calibrated, with flavorful aftertastes like raspberry or hazelnut. Bailey's gives the libations at Absolutli Goosed a run for their money. Pizzettas play sweet-salty combinations well: pears, arugula and Stilton on the Park pizzetta; poached fig, Brie, walnuts and honey on the Lafayette; sweet potatoes, black pepper and fontina on the Eighteenth. (A small setback on the Mississippi: Red onion would match better than white with the smoked salmon, capers and crème fraîche.)

But back to that menu: Taking it all in and figuring out a course of action can trigger a premature sugar crash. For a full meal, should it go pizzettas, cheese, dessert? And if so, shouldn't Savory come before Cheeses on the menu? How many people can reasonably share one serving of cheese? Does "Bailey's ice cream" mean that it's flavored with Baileys liqueur, or is it a signature house concoction? What exactly constitutes the difference between a chocolate martini and a liquid dessert martini? Does the latter come with a bobbing scoop of ice cream, as the cinnamon and stout beer float does -- an item hidden at the back of the drinks menu, the lone potent entry under the other liquid desserts listings?

In spite of its breadth, Bailey's menu is one of few words. This does not help. The list of fifteen chocolate martinis provides no hint of ingredients, only cryptic, one-adjective descriptions: a "clear" chocolate martini is "refreshing," an orange one is "sophisticated," the fuzzy is "perfect." Same goes for some of the ten liquid dessert martinis ("orange ginger" equals "a little kick"), while the rest of them -- plus the subsequent four pages of wine and beer -- carry no explanatory text whatsoever.

The cheese page fares a bit better (Parmigiano Reggiano equals "dry and a little salty"; Délice de France Camembert equals "creamy like Brie and more complex"), but truth be told, the cheese counter at Whole Foods offers more helpful and enticing descriptions. It also offers more enticing cheeses. The Chocolate Bar's cheese selection leans toward the safest of pedestrian bets: straight-up Brie, Jarlsberg, two kinds of cheddar. At least, unlike the wine page, the cheese page mentions each item's country of origin. While we're on the subject of wine and cheese, it'd be nice if the two pages combined forces; as it is, only one cheese, the Petite Basque, comes with a wine-pairing suggestion, and that suggestion is: "white."

When a menu's short on details, it's up to the help to sidle up and, well, help. The staff does seem to know those martini recipes by rote, but servers don't offer much in the way of sophisticated knowledge when it comes to pairing wine and cheese. What's more, when the house is packed service is slow and waits are long. On one visit we finished our pizzettas just as the glasses of wine we'd ordered to go with them arrived. Twice we didn't receive knives (omitted from the table settings) along with cheese platters. When we requested them, we were supplied with regular ol' dinner knives, not cheese knives.

Of the thirteen plated desserts, the two best are the two straightforward, unfussed-with classics: the crème brûlée (a gimme at any restaurant) and the Bailey's Chocolate Brownie, which is simply brownie à la mode with a little bit of drizzled caramel. The brownie is heaven. It's just a little underdone on the inside but still boasts that great crust that brownies get on top when they're baked just right. Where other desserts falter -- the banana cake layered with strawberry cream is too dense to be decadent, and the "simple pound cake" with lemon sauce and fresh berries is really more like a Bundt cake, which is not so much simple as pedestrian -- these two are bound to instill sugarplum dreams.

That may belie the Chocolate Bar's racier expectations, but hey, sometimes simple and sweet really is sexier.