Like those fraternal enablers of good cooking, salt and pepper, the cocoa bean has been among the most revered ingredients in history. The Aztecs accepted no church and state boundary with the dried and fermented seeds: They used cocoa beans in religious ceremonies and traded them as currency, the sacred and the profane together in one little pod.
Things haven’t changed much in the centuries since the Aztecs offered their future executioners — Old World explorers — a taste of their bitter, cocoa-based drink. Europeans introduced sugar and the miracles of science to the beans, and we’ve been stumbling over ourselves ever since to find new ways to exalt these cocoa-based morsels. Chocolate is our sex. Chocolate is our alcohol. Chocolate is our miracle diet.
What chocolate is not is part of our savory dishes. At least not outside the Mexican mole tradition. Some enterprising chefs, like Santosh Tiptur at Co Co. Sala, have developed creative ways to weave cocoa into savory cooking. But for the most part, chocolate remains relegated to dessert, a bit player not ready for prime time.
Which is why I’ve become fascinated with Chocolate Crust, a tiny takeout bakery, pizzeria and sandwich shop in Brightwood. Installed in a former Washington Deli & Pizza location (whose sign still peeks out under a poorly tied-down banner announcing the new business), Chocolate Crust is the creation of 49-year-old iron man Robert Cabeca, who also owns the jewelry store-esque chocolate shop, Cocova, on 18th Street NW.
Cabeca apparently runs on cocoa. Until this summer, Cabeca was not only operating Cocova and Chocolate Crust, he also was producing wholesale cakes and chocolates while holding down a full-time IT consulting gig for the federal government. He says he doesn’t sleep much.
It must be the chocolate. Virtually every item on the Chocolate Crust menu is infused with high-grade cocoa. His ground-beef burger is dosed with a dark, fairly fatty chocolate from Cacao Barry. His grilled shrimp po’ boy gets a dusting of even darker (and spicier) chocolate from the same producer. His pizza dough incorporates the fruity flavor of Valrhona’s Grand Cru Manjari chocolate. The list goes on and on.
“I like eating chocolate a lot,” Cabeca says, stating the obvious. “I don’t know how to be less shameless about that.”
So is this a gimmick? Stunt food? I’m inclined to give Cabeca the benefit of the doubt. He’s a true believer fighting against some deeply ingrained palate bias among American eaters, including me. I tend to put chocolate in its corner and prefer it stay there, but as I chewed on Cabeca’s chocolate-crusted pizza, I willed myself to remain open minded. By the second slice of my sausage, onion and garlic pie on chocolate crust, I was sold. The Valrhona chocolate lends a dusky sweetness to the dense-but-crispy crust, not unlike honey in pizza dough, but with an added undercurrent of bitterness.
Cabeca’s subtlety at introducing cocoa into his cooking cannot be overstated. He approaches dishes with the mathematical precision of a baker, looking for cocoa products that lock into place with the other ingredients, like the fatty Cacao Barry in his lean ground beef. But Cabeca’s subtlety can border on invisibility. I think I taste something chocolately in the otherwise delicious shrimp po’ boy, which is slathered with enough chipotle mayo to bludgeon shier flavors into submission. Likewise, it’s perhaps the power of suggestion that makes me detect cocoa in the steak and cheese sandwich, a decent bell-pepper heavy bite that seems to draw its sweetness more from caramelized onions.
Sometimes the chocolate doesn’t stand a chance: It has to struggle against problems not of its own creation. The Crust burger, for instance, has been griddled into such a tight, arid and chewy piece of meat that no amount of cocoa can improve it (or sink it). The Valrhona cocoa nibs in the skillet-crusted macaroni and cheese (served without the promised skillet crust) play off the squares of crispy bacon to good effect, but the chocolate is forced to shoulder too much of the load with this loose pile of elbow mac, which could use more extra-sharp cheddar to hold it together.
Aside from the pizza and the CBLT (that’s a cocoa BLT on Cabeca’s superb house-made bread spiked with orange zest, ginger and a bitter dark chocolate), I found myself gravitating toward the bakery side of Chocolate Crust. Perhaps that’s a reflection of my own cocoa bias. Perhaps that’s a reflection of Cabeca’s strengths as a chef. Most likely, it’s a combination.
Whatever the reason, I developed a hankering for Cabeca’s rather unconventional bagels, these flat, boiled-and-baked rounds that sometimes crackle under tooth and sometimes come sprinkled with uncommon ingredients (like the rosemary on the everything bagel). Cabeca’s sweets are the sure bets, whether the banana-Nutella filling in his chocolatey Pop-Tart or his signature take on the cronut, a deep-fried chocolate croissant dough piped with, at present, a pumpkin pastry cream. He calls it a doissant, and you can speak its name without shame.
But my favorite use of chocolate came in a far more predictable place: in Cabeca’s French toast, which relies on the same loaf used for the CBLT. The bread, I’d suggest, is perfect for the job. Its dense-but-airy crumb doesn’t collapse into a soggy, eggy lump, and its cocoa bitterness stands up to the fine maple syrup, preventing the sweet nectar from turning the dish into a confection. This dish could be my new alcohol.
5830 Georgia Ave. NW. 202-291-2595. www.chocolatecrust.com.
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Nearest Metro station: Takoma, with a 1.2-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Entrees, $5.25-$18.50.