Fortunately for us the Chocolate Jungle's an idealized, sanitized vision of a rain forest: While there's so much foliage that the place seems more landscaped than decorated, the animals dotting the vista are limited to a cute stuffed panther and a fluffy stuffed tiger. The floor is artificial turf, and the chairs and tables are made of bamboo and glass. Hurricane lanterns provide light. Sound effects -- caiman roars, elephant trumpets -- are cued, but the restaurant also plays tribal rhythms and New-Age music. And the obligatory water doesn't shower diners like jocks in a locker room but is limited to a picturesque fountain near the entrance.
Given the name of the place, you might expect rivers of chocolate à la Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Your assumptions wouldn't be far off, since the Chocolate Jungle dishes out a wonderful chocolate fondue for dessert. Bananas, grapes, melon, cubes of angel food cake, and homemade marshmallows accompany the melted bittersweet chocolate, making the fondue a sweet, filling finish. You might want to supplement with a few items from the dessert tray or from the display case, which features a variety of homemade truffles composed by Idelle Kronowitt, but for the chocoholic there's really no better way than fondue to complete an afternoon or early evening meal.
Afternoon or early evening, because the café's essentially a greenhouse of a lunchroom. Not much on the sandwich-and-salad menu seems to require cooking; the dishes, rather, appear to be assembled. During lunch this tactic makes service pretty quick. As a result, the Chocolate Jungle, located in a small antique district on North Federal Highway, has already won loyalty from both owners and patrons of nearby shops.
The eatery offers a few sandwiches, including grilled chicken breast topped with Port Salut cheese, crumbled bacon, and mustard sauce on nine-grain bread, and a tasty hot dog made from all Black Angus beef and served with a side of creamy, fresh cole slaw. But the current highlight of the menu is the lengthy selection of familiar salads renamed to suggest the jungles of the world, such as "Bwana Bob's salad," a Cobb salad. Then there's the "Katmandu salad platter, a fabulous secret recipe found in the depths of the Congo rain forest," a.k.a. chicken salad.
Despite the arch appellations (check out the "soup d'jungle"), the effort here is honest. The owners themselves may be wearing Congo khakis and safari hats, but the chicken salad they're serving you will be a pleasant mixture of shredded chicken, mayonnaise, and spices. Likewise the tuna salad, made from albacore, was neither too wet nor too dry. Perhaps the best of the lot was the shrimp salad, rife with chopped jumbo shrimp and just a touch of celery. You can get the shrimp salad, as well as the others, as a sandwich, but the most satisfying way is stuffed into a half-pound rock lobster which, despite its small size, can be rich and filling.
For all its success with salad, soup, and fondue, the restaurant is seeking to entice diners -- at dinnertime, that is. Closing time has been extended from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. A beer-and-wine license is on the way; keep your fingers crossed for some good South American or South African vintages (the closest wineries to rain forests, I'd imagine). And a few dinner entrées have already been added, with more to come.
It is here, however, that the café needs to bone up. All main courses come with a house salad, a tempting array of mixed greens, but most of the salad dressings offered are from a bottle. Go with the only house-made one, a raspberry vinaigrette that is perfectly balanced rather than cloyingly sweet. Service was well-intentioned and determinedly cheerful, but it too could use some schooling. Warm rolls and butter, which the menu told us to expect along with all salads, never appeared. Our house salads and entrées arrived simultaneously, and not long after our appetizers. Plus, not that the patio-type tables are flimsy, but they're certainly not sturdy enough for an overflow of dishes, especially when the empty ones linger between courses.
As for the main courses themselves, the preparations were very pretty. A fillet of salmon had been crusted with pistachio nuts and presented on a bed of spinach, which in turn was dressed with a lime vinaigrette and garnished with sliced strawberries. But the salmon itself tasted old and fishy. Chicken Marsala was a generous double-breasted serving, topped with a fragrant wine/mushroom/ tomato sauce. But the poultry itself was rubbery, with grill marks on only one side. The Lean Cuisine texture of the chicken suggested that it had been made earlier and reheated rather than cooked on the spot. Fortunately some delicious home-fried potatoes and freshly steamed broccoli, verdant as, say, a rain forest, completed the dish.
While management works on main courses, console yourself with cheese fondue. After all, if you're going to end a meal with chocolate fondue, you might as well go for the frame. The cheese version, hot and bubbly with just a touch too much alcohol, was served with savory dipping ingredients: raw cauliflower and broccoli, bread cubes, and hunks of smoked turkey. For more dipping pleasure, the spinach-dip appetizer, spiked with grated cheese, arrived with croutons.
Any fault you find with your meal is pretty quickly forgiven when the check comes -- not so much because prices are reasonable, though they are, but because management weighs the bill down with a truffle for each member of your party. The chocolates, incredibly rich, are truly a highlight and could tempt you into buying a few to take home -- even at $24 a pound. I'm not sure I even need that enticement. I've been to the jungle, the Peruvian rain forest, to be exact, and I wouldn't call it romantic. (Guess I'm no Kathleen Turner). For me the experience of being 110 miles from civilization was so piercingly authentic that I may never be keen on places like the Rainforest Café. After supping on grilled piranha in steady downpours, by the light of kerosene lanterns, bombarded by termites and flying cockroaches, I no doubt appreciate the Chocolate Jungle version all the more.