5410 Wayzata Blvd., Golden Valley
Is a tapas bar still a tapas bar if it feels like an upscale Italian restaurant? What if it's a little bit South American? What if it's got an expensive wine list, offers martinis like the Dirty Frenchman (unforgettably "rimmed with blue cheese"), and for a salad serves an entire head of romaine lettuce, chopped in half yet left unseparated, like a scientific illustration?
Workshopping the answers to questions no one ever thought to ask, ladies and gentlemen: Coco Cha Cha. Why the odd name? Well, once upon a time around here there was a terribly influential Italian restaurant called CocoLezzone, and then it closed for a long time, and now it's open again, hence the Coco. But now it's less formal and has a number of dishes with south-of-the-border influences; voilà: Cha Cha.
How is it? Pretty good. They do a great job of stocking the kitchen with quality ingredients, which is the key to tapas, which is mostly what the place serves, though there are a handful of traditional entrées. One of the highlights was a pizza topped with slices of spicy chorizo and that salty, herbal Spanish cheese Garrotxa ($9.50). I particularly liked the Cocktail Sanchez, a martini glass filled with chopped seafood in a spicy salsa; when I tried it, it was brimming with tender chunks of Atlantic lobster ($10.50). I say think about starting with the cheese plate ($7.50), even though it's tucked away under "desserts." When I had it, the Cabrales it featured was in beautiful shape, the purple veins of the electrifying blue cheese standing out like text on a page.
Another charmer was a plate of olive-oil-grilled croutons, deep-red slices of duck prosciutto, a little mound of mushroom and truffle pâté, and a sweet fig compote ($8). By my lights there isn't nearly enough duck ham in this town, and I find that the rich, sweet meat with its haunting, tangy edge is an exceptionally pleasurable mouthful.
Coco Cha Cha doesn't call its romaine, Parmesan, and crouton salad a caesar; instead it is the Romanina ($5.50), and I really liked the taste: Good-quality, paper-thin sheets of Parmesan decorated it like a checkerboard; the oversize croutons were fresh and crisp. And while the presentation was fairly odd--a full head of mature romaine divided lengthwise and drizzled with dressing--I enjoyed the showiness and the good ingredients.
The best things I found on the menu besides the above are the pastas. Linguini Nizzarda is a feisty combination of strong flavors: imported Italian tuna, Catalan olives, and plenty of capers in a tomato-based sauce, like a puttanesca, simply done and delightfully powerful. The Orecchiette Pugliesi is another dish that seemed like kitchen-sink, homemade Italian in the best way: little pasta hats sautéed with broccoli, garlic, toasted pine nuts, raisins, bacon, and Italian pecorino cheese. For $9.50 and $9, respectively, these two dishes make Coco Cha Cha another neighborhood's quick-dinner of first resort, much like Broders' or Sidney's.
Dessert-wise, I was impressed with the tiramisu ($6.50)--and when was the last time I liked a tiramisu? Seems like an age. What's nice about this one is that it's simple, as it should be: just cookies, rum, espresso, and mascarpone in a martini glass. Hooray for neither over-thinking nor dumbing-down this oft-mangled dish: Here at Coco Cha Cha it's light, rich, sweet, potent, and--zip!--gone. Just as it should be.
The best dishes are these simple, ingredient-first ones. I found that more complicated items that depend on sauces or extensive preparation tend to yield disappointment. I thought the lamb chops ($16 for a full order, or $8.50 for a half) were strangely tasteless, reminding me of everything I don't like about "wet-aged" plastic-packaged lamb from Down Under. I think that process yields a cottony and indistinct piece of meat. Beef tartare ($9.50) was nothing special; it didn't taste as fresh or fierce as you'd hope. And mussels in a cream sauce ($9.50) were both overcooked and cloaked in an insipidly sweet sauce.
As with many tapas places, it's hard to get a good sense of how much it costs to eat here. There was a time I thought everything was pretty cheap, as most dishes are priced from $6 to $10 (although there are a few more costly things, like a $16 steak). Servers recommend two or three dishes per person, so you'll end up spending $25 each on food. Factor in the bargain-free wine list--tsk, tsk! BV Coastal cabernet sauvignon, which I've seen priced at $8 a bottle retail, for $27!--and that weird diffusion of responsibility that comes from ordering tapas in a large group, and costs can mount alarmingly.
On the other hand, there is so much parking that the place could practically hold the Sturgis motorcycle rally. The restaurant is in that complex right off Interstate 394 that holds August Moon and the Metropolitan Center. I found the service to be attentive and enthusiastic, and the décor cheerfully sexy: soaring Corinthian columns, bright, contemporary stained glass, Italian-looking chandeliers extravagant with colorful swags of bright glass and curling metal.
Yet even with all those pluses, I can't honestly see myself going back, and the reason is pretty much entirely generational. I read once that Gen Xers won't patronize Starbucks because we don't see it as a coffee shop, but as the place we have to go and work behind the counter when our dreams fail. Coco Cha Cha doesn't strike me as a place I would go; it strikes me as a place I have to go to with my parents, who live in the western suburbs (Coco Cha Cha is a nice halfway point between my home in the city and theirs out near Ridgedale).
Except I don't have parents who live in the western suburbs. If you do, look, it's your life. But don't worry, it's a good time. And--rats! How'd that happen? Sorry, I guess it's contagious: Suddenly I'm doing it, too, workshopping the answers to questions no one ever wanted answered.