Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice at Co Co. Sala
When Nisha Sidhu approached her future business partner Bharet Malhotra about starting a restaurant, she planned to open something that the area had never seen before: a lounge offering diners a complete chocolate and coffee dining experience.
Sidhu, a graduate of pastry arts at the L’Academie de Cuisine in Maryland and a former biomedical engineer, served as the chocolatier and special events pasty chef at 2941 in Falls Church, Va., before opening the Sugar Gallery, a custom-order confection company.
Malhotra, a vice president for sales at Cvent Inc., set out to find the perfect location for their venture, which ended up in the rapidly developing Penn Quarter neighborhood, already a hub of downtown nightlife. Thus was born Co Co. Sala, a 130-seat restaurant that bills itself as the premier coffee, chocolate and cocktail destination for the D.C. area.
Together, Sidhu and Malhotra worked closely with interior architects to create a retro chic space by way of the Silk Road. The velvet seating features chili red, sesame and ginger hues, while the licorice-colored marble tables are framed by glass-tile walls in shades of caramel and cumin. Two chocolate waves enfold the lounge and dining room, which are separate from one another.
Each design detail was carefully crafted. In fact, the restaurant’s opening was delayed because the perfect bar hadn’t yet arrived from Italy. Made of wood, marble and glass, all of the countertop showcase areas display elegant chocolate creations, while enclosed wall cases around the perimeter house Sidhu’s delicate glass-like sugar sculptures.
Sidhu and Malhotra then brought on Santosh Tiptur as executive chef to complete their culinary vision. A newcomer to Washington, Tiptur is an established pastry chef with training in confectionary arts and baking — something he learned early on when his mother taught him to bake traditional Indian sweets when he was just 8 years old. Although he was selected for his pastry expertise, Sidhu and Malhotra soon discovered that Tiptur’s abilities extended to a mastery of cooking in general, which is reflected in a deep understanding of the many ethnic cuisines that play an important role in Co Co. Sala’s menu.
That menu has been built around the “monde du chocolate,” or world of chocolate, and is available in tastings of three or five courses that span the globe from India to Mexico to Italy to the United States.
Each begins with an amuse bouche, followed by a main dessert dish, an intermezzo, a cheese course and petit fours. Sampling several of the flights simultaneously is a fascinating culinary excursion. Working within distinctly different traditions, Sidhu and Tiptur demonstrate how the same spices can be used to create totally opposite effects. For instance, chocolate’s mellow character is highlighted in the chocolate tiramisu on the “Italian Voyage” flight, while the sharper dimensions are brought out in a spicy hot chocolate soufflé on the “Aztec Experience.”
In an interesting inversion, a savory cheese course appears in the middle of each dessert tasting menu and deserves special attention. From the “Passage to India” tasting menu, the pannir three ways served with mini papdums and raita is an excellent choice, while the pepper cheese enchilada with guava sauce from the “Aztec Experience” is another delicious interlude.
Although Co Co. Sala is primarily marketing itself as a dessert lounge, diners looking for a savory meal will not be disappointed. In addition to the cheese dishes, they can choose from among a number of creative “co co bites” consisting of mac and cheese, crab cakes, sliders and salads, all of which prove that chef Tiptur is just as capable in this arena as he is in the dessert department.
In keeping with the restaurant’s theme, most of the co co bites incorporate coffee and chocolate in unexpected places. For instance, crispy Louisiana-style crab cakes are cooked with a chipotle chocolate tomato glaze, mango salsa and an avocado cilantro emulsion. More traditional Chesapeake jumbo lump crab cakes are kicked up a notch with tracings of a vibrant coffee crème fraiche, while the coconut crab cakes accented with basil and chocolate mayonnaise are another excellent variation on the theme. And a tiny spicy Moroccan swordfish sandwich — served with fennel salad, aged pecorino and hazelnut coffee dressing — packs all the punch of a dish twice its side, yet still leaves room for the main event.
The traditional mac and cheese also takes on a whole new dimension under Tiptur’s ministrations. Three different versions come in bacon, shrimp and classic, incorporating a variety of ingredients from fresh sage to jalapeños and demonstrating the versatility of this basic dish.
Co Co. Sala is billed as a cocktail lounge so it’s not surprising that Sidhu and Malhotra spent time developing a drink menu that reflects the coffee-chocolate mantra. In fact, each dessert tasting and coco bite is paired with a suggested specialty drink to complete the meal. For the Italian Voyage, the chef suggests a “c3fix,” a strong, sweet concoction of Atoli Vanilla, Patron Café XO and Bailey’s topped with chocolate milk foam. The mac and cheese choices are paired with “alisar,” a cucumber-based cocktail that is so light and fresh that it works well with practically everything. The Strawberry Basil Martini — made with Grey Goose vodka, fresh basil and strawberry puree drizzled with balsamic vinegar — is perhaps the best option on the menu. It’s sweet, aromatic and a perfect antidote for Washington summer heat.
The menu also features a hot and frozen chocolate collection in which Sidhu plays with consistency and flavors. A trio of hot coco pieces in dark, milk and white chocolate is pure and simple, while the hot candy bar flight — coconut, peanut butter and mint flavors — is thicker and more complex. The collection also offers artisanal chocolates made in the glass-enclosed chocolate lab at the back of the restaurant, featuring white chocolate in lavender and berry flavors, java milk chocolate, chipotle and earl gray dark chocolates.
The timing of a visit to Co Co. Sala is important because the scene changes throughout the day and week. During the morning or afternoon, many come in to sample the excellent coffee from specialty producer Caffe Pronto in Annapolis, Md., prepared individually in a French press. Early evening at the beginning of the week, the atmosphere is subdued and soothing, the noise level low, the service excellent, and the food meticulously prepared. As the week progresses though, the evening scene gets louder and more frenetic, with the service and food less consistent.
Already Co Co. Sala is a hotspot for young Washingtonians, and the crowds make the closeness of the seating much more evident. Given the early success of Co Co. Sala’s lounge concept, the owners have taken the space next door, which will almost double the available seating when it opens.
Although there are some inevitable glitches, Sidhu, Malhotra and Tiptur have created a sweet spot that is well worth a visit, or several. After all, it’s not often that a restaurant comes along that feels truly innovative in concept or execution — but Co Co. Sala fits the bill.
Co Co. Sala 929 F St., NW (202) 347-4265 www.cocosala.com
Hours: Mon. – Wed. from 7 a.m. – 12 a.m. Thu. from 7 a.m. – 2 a.m. Fri. from 7 a.m. – 3 a.m. Sat. from 4 p.m. – 3 a.m. Sun. from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Prices: Small plates: – Three-course sampling menu: Five-course sampling menu:
About the Author
Rachel Hunt is the restaurant reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.