Gaucho with a Sweet Tooth
Chocolate Fine Argentinian Cuisine is a cheery and colorful spot, its mellow yellow walls and alcoves covered with vivid paintings, the tables topped with crisp white linens, the wait staff dressed in bright orange T-shirts. A dark wooden wine rack toward the far end of the room is amply stocked with a wide array of selections, including some distinctive South American labels. The ceiling and carpeting are chocolate-hued.
The contemporary Argentine menu was composed by owner Luis Vidal, who earned kudos while managing Giacosa (once a popular Italian restaurant in Coral Gables). Many of Chocolate's offerings find their roots in recipes passed down from Vidal's mother and grandmother, but somehow I don't think ensalada chocolate is one of them. I'm not saying the combination of radicchio, endive, arugula, almonds, strawberries, thinly sliced chocolate, and citrus dressing doesn't offer stark contrasts and potentially refreshing flavors, only that it's too sweetly complicated for my tastes -- and, I'm guessing, for those of Vidal's matriarchs.
I suppose this might also have been true of a main course of risotto with prosciutto and chocolate had the latter ingredient been permitted a dominant role. Thankfully it wasn't, the specks of melted cocoa just sweet snowflakes on the tongue. Baked wisps of prosciutto, whose delicate texture turns baconlike when heated, provided a pleasingly brittle jolt to the creamy grains of arborio, which were impeccably cooked to the bite and invitingly aromatic with parmigiano-reggiano cheese.
This menu, in fact, is more chock full of cheese than chocolate. A wide, flat disc of grilled provolone comes seasoned with gusto (and oregano), thin slices of grilled eggplant, and red pepper on the side. A cheese plate for two displays assorted fruit, honey-yogurt sauce, and ample samples of manchego, Roquefort, Gruyre, basil-marinated mozzarella, and the popular Argentine mar del plata -- pity they don't offer more South American choices.
The cheesiest of cheese options was a soggy parmesan basket filled halfway with a thin fondue dominated by Roquefort and fontina, with "sautéed vegetables and herbs" for dipping. Perhaps I'm stating the obvious when I say it's not a great idea to use limp, greasy, half-moon slices of cooked zucchini and yellow squash as fodder for the fondue -- very difficult to dip. Worse, even after a successful dunk in the watery cheese melt, you're still left with cheap, boring (herb-free) squash. Although meant to be shared by two, this starter is still overpriced at $14.95.
Stick with the homemade empanadas, your choice of five fresh fillings wrapped in the airiest of pastry casings. Or a delicately delicious carpaccio of portobello, transparently thin circles of the mushroom overlapped on a hot plate that lightly cooks them while traveling from kitchen to table. Crumbles of goat cheese and crisp sprigs of watercress contribute contrasting textures and complementing tastes, a light splash of brandy and olive oil igniting an invigorating finish.
The traditional parilla of assorted grilled meats is the heart of Chocolate's menu. The parillada for two serves up a sensible sampling: exceptionally tender nuggets of sweetbread; juicy, crisp-skinned chorizo and blood sausages; a wonderfully moist and lemony grilled chicken breast; two pieces of flank steak (one of which was dry and overcooked); a pair of meaty short ribs; and of course a bowl of chimichurri -- a bargain at $29.95.
All parts of the parillada are available à la carte, as are other cuts such as rib eye, skirt steak, and New York strip. More complex carnivorous concoctions include bacon-wrapped filet mignon with artichokes and squash in creamy pink peppercorn sauce, and veal chop filled with prosciutto, portobello, and mozzarella cheese in a red wine demi-glaze. I briefly flirted with the notion of ostrich filet stuffed with spinach, mozzarella, ham, sun-dried plums, and peaches (with port wine sauce), but after a lukewarm endorsement by our waiter I wavered, and went instead with rack of lamb "baked in traditional Argentine style." I'm not certain how this differs from American style, but the five plump, tasty chops were bathed in decent demi-glaze and accompanied by more squash (and carrots) and dull mashed potatoes that lacked milk, butter, and body.
Chocolate is more Ghirardelli than Godiva in price, most entrées between $20 and $30, the intricately garnished meats in the mid-$30 range. Beware of verbally recited specials; unless you ask, the waiter won't mention that lobster and shellfish over champagne risotto costs $47.95, or buffalo steak with fig relish $39.95.
Seafood selections are fresh and fussy. Salmon gets wrapped in potatoes and zucchini, then covered in quince sauce. Delicate Dover sole is encased in puff pastry and all but nullified by Roquefort sauce. Baby corvina, a lean, mild, white-fleshed fish, barely keeps its identity intact under dates, raisins, and what amounted to a Chinese-style sweet-and-sour cognac sauce -- but without the sour. Fish dishes were served with the same squash, carrots, and mashed potatoes as the meats, but on the plus side, the corvina and sole were cooked to succulence.
Traditional tarentela is a little like bread pudding, but layered with soft apples and capped with a bitterly caramelized flan that here gets offset with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Another favorite Argentine dessert is a dense square (charlotte) of homemade almond ice cream with deep, dark, semisweet chocolate sauce poured on top. If chocolate could talk, I imagine at this point it would be saying, "Home at last!"
We lingered awhile after finishing dessert, mostly because the room had become a little busy and the wait staff, so solid during both our visits, got bogged down and sidetracked from bringing us the check. No problem: In the background Jacques Brel was singing the romantic ballad "Ne Me Quittes Pas" ("Don't Leave Me"), and indeed Mr. Vidal and staff acted as though they'd be glad to have everyone stay all night. Chocolate is sweet that way, and though the self-billed "fine Argentinian cuisine" doesn't quite cross the line into fine-ness, this is still an altogether pleasant place to dine.
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