For more photos of the interview, visit http://staceyviera.zenfolio.com/chefinterviewcocosala
Passion. At a restaurant concept based on chocolate, it seemed an appropriate discussion topic. The passion with which restaurant owner Nisha Sidhu and executive chef Santosh Tiptur approach their business is just as intense as the powerful flavors infused in their sweet and savory dishes. And later, I’ll tell you about how their dishes stole my heart.
If you haven’t yet experienced Coco Sala, it’s safe to say you’ve never experienced anything like it in Washington. Inspired by venues such as European patisseries and New York City and West Coast lounges, Sidhu explained, “This is an integration of many concepts.”
Sidhu and her business partner, Bharet Malhotra, based their concept on coffee and chocolate flavors for a cocktail lounge. “At 5 p.m. we go into lounge mode,” Sidhu said. “We wanted to incorporate savory and sweet, not have a huge variety, but instead be unique and offer items like espresso beer and chocolate wine.”
During the two-year development process for the concept, Sidhu and Malhotra renovated the historical structure at 929 F Street, NW to create a main dining space, a pastry bar and lounge and even a private dining room that provides additional seating and can also be reserved for events.
“Everything is made in-house,” Sidhu said. “It’s fine dining food presented in a lounge atmosphere.”
A chef with the vision and expertise to execute such a concept was found in Tiptur. “I have a passion for chocolate,” Sidhu said. “D.C. didn’t have a good dessert place, and I knew I’d have to bring in a chef from outside.” Sidhu met Tiptur in 2005 at the World Pastry Forum and later convinced him to move to Washington from The Ritz-Carlton San Juan, where he was Executive Pastry Chef for five years.
Tiptur’s experience and creativity are a perfect fit for Coco Sala’s fine food concept. “I believe in offering smaller quantities of food of good quality and flavor.” Tiptur, who earned a degree in pastry and confectionary arts in India, said that the tapas-sized entrees allow people to try more dishes at a more affordable price point and still satisfy the customer. It’s a great exercise in portion control.
Once you experience the intense flavors and richness of Tiptur’s dishes, it becomes clear that he provides quality, not quantity, epitomizing the saying “Good things come in small packages.”
It wasn’t long before Coco Sala began incorporating chocolate and coffee in savory dishes, such as macaroni and cheese accented with chocolate-dipped bacon. Desserts are also offered in courses, including some with cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery, located a couple of doors down on F Street.
I pointed out that it’s unusual for a pastry chef to cook savory dishes, and they agreed. Sidhu, who also has culinary training, noted, “Typically a pastry chef doesn’t get involved in the culinary side. Baking is chemistry.” And Tiptur explained how he successfully produces sweet and savory items in a small kitchen originally designed only to produce desserts: “It’s about cooking from your heart, cooking and baking with passion.”
About that small kitchen, I wondered how Tiptur can serve 500 people each night on Friday and Saturday, their busiest days. “I run an even-tempered, mild-mannered, organized kitchen,” Tiptur noted smiling. “There’s no yelling and screaming in my kitchen. I’ve seen a lot in my career.”
He described his experience working around the world on 26 cruise ships over 12 years, which is akin to working in 26 different establishments. His career with cruise lines began with Royal Caribbean, then The Yachts of Seabourn and finally Cunard, which operates the Queen Mary 2 and other luxury ships.
Though the kitchen space is challenging, Tiptur noted that he’s worked with big-name chefs such as Charlie Palmer and Daniel Boulud, and “I’m so seasoned at this stage in my career, I can take on any situation.”
Read Part II of this interview tomorrow and find out what the future holds for D.C. restaurant concept Coco Sala! For more photos of the interview, visit http://staceyviera.zenfolio.com/chefinterviewcocosala