In Threes and on a Stick

It's playtime at dessert queen Sue McCown's new solo showcase.

The whimsy flows freer than the wine at Coco la ti da: From the teal dots on a brown background wrapping the to-go dessert counter to lit-glass bauble centerpieces to, well, the entire menu. Seafood mixes with caramelized fennel, beans, and pancetta to become "Happy as Clams," and a fancied- up Bloody Mary is a "Snappy Dresser." The total experience is a grown-up version of playing with your food. Just about everything comes on a stick, or in threes, or both. Gold leaf garnishes the dishes here like syrup at IHOP—which should be your Capitol Hill destination if you're actually hungry. Coco la ti da is for savoring, nibbling. Sue McCown, who spent 17 years sharpening her sweet tooth in Seattle's best kitchens, most recently as executive pastry chef at the W Hotel's Earth & Ocean, went solo in November with this intimate dessert and "savory bites" restaurant in the space previously occupied by Fork on Capitol Hill. On a rainy night, the windows steam invitingly. The small space is bright, with blond tables—some for couples, some for groups or communal eating—and a curtained lounge area. McCown has preserved the Pushkin fairy-tale murals—parchmentlike monks filleting a goose—that have adorned the walls for decades, through multiple restaurant changes. Nouveau mod meets Russian feudalism here; savory snacks vie for prominence with sweet morsels; hipsters with blunt-cut bangs sit next to geeks with laptops; an infant slurps milk while a couple sips wine to celebrate 60 years together. "This is a place for all sorts of folks," McCown said. "We're not pigeonholing our menu. We want everyone to feel welcome and find something they like." The food is nothing if not meticulous. Take the trio of savory lollipops. Each is a perfect bite with layers of flavors held together with a white paper stick: The tangy, chèvre-stuffed fig sprouts an elegant micro-green hairdo; the maple-lacquered slice of apple hits my tongue like candy; and the dark date hides a core of smoky blue cheese from an invading strip of pancetta—it's the best of the bunch. Not as pretty but just as tasty, the candy pork sliders and lamb skewers made me pause. I had to untangle my taste buds to decipher each taste, like picking individual melodies out of a symphony. The doorknob-sized sandwiches, which come (of course) in sets of three, bristle with braised tender shreds of meat in a sauce with tequila, orange, and star anise for an Asian kick. A touch of mustard lingers. The Moroccan-esque skewers are rubbed in saffron and red pepper flakes with buttery lemon-curd dipping sauce. The mellow pumpkin mascarpone pansotti dish features, yes, three potbellied pasta tubes, striped and pinched at the edges to look like wrapped hard candies. Clever, but for just a few dollars more, an entire bottle of Cuvée des Oliviers grenache blend is much more satisfying, especially when drunk with actual sweets—the true star of the show. McCown's dessert team is a blend of culinary school graduates and W Hotel veterans. They "already dance together like an old married couple," she says. Each month they develop several themed dessert items. For January, McCown is featuring a few "resolution"-inspired desserts such as an almond-hazelnut cupcake with millet seeds and soy cream-cheese frosting. The restaurant is named for McCown's signature bell-shaped tort, a mound of dense devil's food cake topped with coconut and a crackling chocolate shell. Initially, I was attracted to the showier permanent menu items such as the bittersweet chocolate fondue with sinewy sticks of cookie, homemade marshmallows, and fried chocolate spring rolls with marzipan for dipping. But faced with so many drool-inducing choices, from mini parfaits to tiny cakes, I learned to ask for advice. I hung out by the retail case. McCown is frequently on the floor, and she eagerly talks shop with all. She points out the quiet gems, like a simple white-chocolate cookie, that would otherwise remain unnoticed. That's how I discovered a crunchy fig cheesecake morsel, which was easily the best and most sophisticated sliver of cheesecake to ever pass my lips. Yet I'm powerless to stop myself from annihilating a cupcake at Coco la ti da, even after finishing off one of these wonderful desserts. The December cupcake—a sticky ginger spice cake wearing a twisted green hat of stiff eggnog butter cream—whispered to me from the retail case. It looked like a Whoville character and made my heart grow five times bigger (or was that my ass?). Such instant gratification! A great dessert always makes the world rosier.

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